Atmosphere

Smooth Operator

Chauncey Billups shows Carmelo, the Nuggets—and all of Denver—how to win.

July 2009

Toward the end of the Nuggets' series clincher against the New Orleans Hornets in late April, Carmelo Anthony hit a three-pointer, turned to a television camera, and screamed the well-worn jock boast, "This is my house!" After the game—which the Nuggets won easily, advancing to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 15 years—Carmelo was asked about the outburst. "It is my house," Melo said of the Pepsi Center, flashing his joyful, boyish grin. "But Chauncey moved in with me."

It's not often that an alpha dog athlete willingly shares his spotlight, but that's the kind of respect Chauncey Billups has earned as one of the NBA's most unlikely superstars. During his meandering trek from phenom to bust to journeyman to winner—this year he joined the handful of players who have reached seven consecutive conference finals—the Park Hill native has (very) gradually developed a reputation for clutch play, game smarts, and coach-on-the-floor leadership.

It's a rep that was cemented this season—the Nuggets' best ever—as they fell only two wins short of the NBA finals. George Karl, long known for regular-season success and playoff flops, finally belongs among the league's elite coaches. Melo, long known as a scoring machine whose production did little to help his team actually win games (particularly big games), now struts around with a steely assassin's gaze and puts up huge numbers when it matters most (he averaged 27.2 points in the playoffs), earning him a place in the upper echelon of the NBA, with Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Dwayne Wade.

Indeed, this past season was Melo's best ever. But when the MVP votes were counted, it was Billups who finished higher on the list, because those in the know recognized what an irreplaceable impact he had on his team in less than a year. In talent-for-talent terms, the Nuggets seemed to draw the short straw last November when they got Billups for Allen Iverson, one of the greatest guards in league history. AI's got the gaudy numbers, the multiple all-star appearances, and the high-profile shoe deal. But Chauncey's got "it"—the kind of tenacity, brains, and work ethic that wins championship rings—and "it" is exactly what Melo, Karl, and the rest of the Nuggets always have needed.