Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
GREENBURGH, N.Y. — The Boston Celtics finished the 1996-97 NBA season with a 15-67 record — the worst in team history.
The Celtics instantly became the frontrunners in “The Tim Duncan Sweepstakes,” and Rick Pitino, the team’s new head coach and team president, figured the 6-foot-11 Duncan could be the franchise’s cornerstone for the next decade and beyond.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the NBA Draft.
The Celtics ended up with the No. 3 overall pick, while the San Antonio Spurs, who finished the previous season with only 20 victories, secured the top pick and the right to draft Duncan.
Pitino, terribly disappointed, drafted point guard Chauncey Billups instead.
“Third pick in the draft, you feel like you’re gonna be there for nine, 10, 11 years, maybe your whole career, kind of like Paul [Pierce] has,” Billups said Friday at the Knicks’ Westchester campus as the team prepared for Sunday’s Game 1 against the Celtics in Boston.
But Pitino, who also landed his former Kentucky star Ron Mercer with the No. 6 pick, needed an experienced floor general to run the Celtics. So he dealt Billups midway through the season to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for New York legend Kenny Anderson.
“Rick and I and Ron Mercer were all rookies together in the NBA,” Billups explained.
“Rick signed for a lot of money. Everybody kind of thought that I hated Rick and Rick hated me. That wasn’t the case. At the end of the day when I got traded he just basically told me that there was a lot of pressure on him to win and he needed to get a veteran point guard to try to help him do that. He just basically didn’t have time for me to kind of learn through my mistakes.”
Billups moved around to the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves before finally settling in Detroit, where he helped the Pistons win the NBA title in 2004 against the Lakers and was named MVP of the Finals.
A year later, Detroit again reached the NBA Finals, only to lose to Duncan and the Spurs in seven games.
Now, he is the veteran floor general of a Knicks team that has reached the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
New York opens the series in Boston, but Billups insists he has no hard feelings towards the franchise that drafted him, only to deal him within his first season.
“My first couple years, I did [feel an extra incentive against Boston],” Billups said. “But none of the guys that I played with, or the management, nobody’s really there, other than the people that work there and the staff. But none of the coaches, the management, nobody’s there anymore, so there’s not extra incentive for me, other than my desire to win, period.”
Billups, 34, is part of the Knicks “Big Three,” along with Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire.
Billups is wearing a sleeve over his left knee after a collision in Tuesday’s loss to the Chicago Bulls, “but I’m fine.”
He will play opposite 25-year-old Rajon Rondo, one of the quickest and most effective point guards in the NBA.
“He’s a tough matchup because he’s just so fast,” said Billups, who compared him to Dallas point guard Jason Kidd. “He’s a smart player, he’s crafty. He’s really the engine for that team. Although they got a lot of Hall of Famers on that team, he is kind of the guy that makes them go. It should be good matchup the whole way through.”
Rondo doesn’t have a strong jump shot, and defenses often sag off him, yet he still manages to be effective as a penetrator and passer.
“He’s one of the smartest players out there,” Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni said of Rondo. “He can pick his angles. He’s very athletic. When he turns the blasters on, he goes. So if you make a mental mistake, he’ll take advantage of it and that’s what he does the best.”
“He’s one of the players –there have not been very many in my time — that can kind of dominate a game without scoring, at our position,” Billups added.
Last summer, Rondo and Billups were teammates on Team USA before Rondo ended up getting cut.
“He was playing good, he and I were both starting in the backcourt pretty much and they just made a decision that they wanted to move forward without him,” Billups said. “But he had a great summer, he played well.”
Both Billups and Rondo have won NBA titles and each will be critical to their respective teams’ success.
While Rondo has the advantage of youth, Billups brings an experience level (139 playoff games) and competitive edge that is respected by teammates and foes alike, factors he lacked when Pitino and the Celtics drafted him back in 1997.
“Him being able to win, championships, win conference championships,” Anthony said. “Him playing in the Eastern Conference, winning in the Eastern Conference, I think that comes into play.”
**Amar’e: Knicks’ goal is NBA Finals
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.