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Basketball Notes

Chances better with Chauncey

By Marc J. Spears
April 19, 2009
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Chauncey Billups was a basketball legend at Denver's George Washington High School back in 1994. That year, his beloved Nuggets made it to the second round of the NBA playoffs by shocking top-seeded Seattle in the first round.

Now, 15 years later, the hometown kid is trying to get his second-seeded Nuggets to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since then. It won't be easy, as Denver takes on the underachieving New Orleans Hornets and All-Star guard Chris Paul.

"That would be awesome, to be able to get out of this first round and advance," said Billups. "Being able to continue to advance would be one of the special things that happened in my career."

The Nuggets have been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs five straight seasons. But that was without Billups, a great leader and clutch shooter who went to the Eastern Conference finals the past six seasons with Detroit and won a championship in 2004.

The leadership of the 2004 NBA Finals Most Valuable Player is key to the Nuggets' hopes. Carmelo Anthony has said he is leaning on Billups for playoff guidance and confidence.

"I guess experience is the best teacher," said Billups. "Having someone that has been through it, that can talk you through it and will be out there in the grind with you should make a difference."

The Hornets were projected by some to contend with the Lakers for the Western Conference's best record. But plagued by injuries and poor performance, New Orleans landed only the West's seventh seed, despite having All-Stars in Paul and David West and adding ex-Celtics forward James Posey during the offseason.

Another thing that is different for the Nuggets from the previous five seasons is having home court. Denver was 33-8 at home this season, and the Pepsi Center is one of the loudest venues in the NBA, especially this time of the year.

"I'm looking forward to it," said Billups. "We worked really hard to get home court. We felt like that was the key for having a really good chance to advance. Of course, we are playing against a team that is difficult. But we are playing on our home floor and we want to take advantage of that.

"There are some expectations from us. We raised the bar with the season that we've had. We expect to be successful. I think our fans expect us to be successful. So there is a lot of responsibility that comes with that."

While the Nuggets are hot, Billups's old Pistons are the lowest playoff seed in the Eastern Conference and have the tough task of playing against LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the first round. Detroit traded Billups to Denver early this season for fellow All-Star Allen Iverson, who is now out for the season with a back injury. Billups takes no satisfaction in Detroit's struggles.

"They've obviously had a tough year," said Billups. "I'm still close with a lot of those guys. I talk to them all the time. But what can you do, man? It is what it is."

Etc.

Stay or go for Marion?
Expect the Raptors and free agent forward Shawn Marion to help each other get the best situation possible this offseason. Marion, soon to be 31, understandably is hoping for a long-term contract, and he is still interested in Toronto, though he is keeping his options open. The Raptors are keeping their options open, too; they are very interested in re-signing Marion, but if he decides to go elsewhere, they hope to facilitate that via sign-and-trade to get a top player back. "With his contract, it gives us flexibility," said Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo, who had a season-ending meeting with Marion last week. "We are a good option with the right framework of a deal. But if he wants to move on, we will talk about alternatives like sign-and-trade. We have flexibility. It's a good place to play." Said Marion, "I've got to weigh every variation that I have. It's a big opportunity I have this summer." Marion was a great complement to Chris Bosh and Andrea Bargnani after arriving Feb. 13 in exchange for Jermaine O'Neal and Marcus Banks. He averaged 14.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 1.1 steals in 27 games for Toronto. While it was an adjustment going from the warm weather of Miami to a snowy Canadian city, Marion liked Toronto. "Toronto is a wonderful city," he said. "I've been here a few times for Caribana and stuff throughout my career. I never really got a chance to see the city and enjoy the city, but this is a nice city. The fans here are unbelievable, the organization is amazing." Considering that Marion would want much more than the mid-level exception, the only teams under the luxury tax that could likely be options are Miami, the Clippers, Oklahoma City, and Atlanta. The pros for Toronto are Marion's long relationship with Colangelo (dating back to their Suns days), the impending arrival of a top 10 draft pick, and Bosh, Bargnani, and guard Jose Calderon. The con is the unknown about Bosh's future as a Raptor. "When you drafted a guy 10 years ago and have been through a lot, together you have a better understanding of who Shawn Marion is and most of his contributions," Colangelo said. "That goes a long way for things to work. I can't see why it can't work. But we have flexibility."

Capital ideas
Celtics coach Doc Rivers has said he expects two injury-riddled teams, Toronto and Washington, to be the most improved next season. The Wizards have three players with All-Star experience on their roster in Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison, and Caron Butler. And if the draft lottery works in their favor, heralded Oklahoma forward Blake Griffin could be coming to the nation's capital, too. (Washington has the second-best odds behind Sacramento in the lottery.) "That's just speculation until something happens," Jamison said. "We'll see. I don't have beliefs or think it will work until we get the No. 1 pick. The one with the worst record doesn't always get it. It's a lot of ifs, and believe me, there have been a lot of ifs in my life. But hey, it would be nice. If that would happen, it would be nice." Griffin was the consensus College Basketball Player of the Year after averaging 22.7 points and a nation-best 14.4 rebounds while posting 30 double-doubles, also best in the nation. "He's the most NBA-ready guy in a long time," Jamison said. "He understands the game. From what I heard, he likes to work. He's a strong power rebounder and hustler. He's a lot of things that you want in a guy in that position." Outside of Griffin, Jamison isn't sure any other prospect can make a major impact on a roster that already has six players born after May 1985. "I'm tired of projects," Jamison said.

Putting a value on it
The Cavaliers have never had an MVP since joining the NBA in 1970, but LeBron James could be the first this year. What would the award mean to him? "The ultimate challenge is trying to win an NBA championship," James said. "The individual awards that go out in this league are great, I think, for individuals. A lot of guys put in a lot of hard work in the offseason to come into the season as better players individually to help their teams win. To know what it means to be MVP and who rates and how I should be rated, I don't know."

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