Myth: Trading Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson didn’t make any sense

I’m glad everyone enjoyed Myth Week, so we’ve extended it a bonus two days.

I don’t know exactly why the Pistons traded Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson.

Maybe they thought Iverson was a better player.

Maybe they wanted to create cap space.

Maybe they believed it was necessary to break up their core and took the first viable deal they found.

I think there’s a good chance all three of those pieces of logic played a role. But in hindsight, the trade was a disaster. Billups has been astoundingly better in Denver than Iverson was in Detroit. The Pistons’ cap space hasn’t paid dividends (although I haven’t given up that it might). And the Pistons core probably could have contended for another season or two.

The Pistons traded a star for dead weight. But when they made the trade, if I had to assign labels to each of those players, Iverson would be the star and Billups would be dead weight.

Billups got better when he arrived in Denver, and Iverson got worse in Detroit. There weren’t strong signs either of those transformations would occur, and that’s why I don’t completely blame Joe Dumars for the trade.

Allen Iverson: Star

Allen Iverson is only one year and three months older than Chauncey Billups. When traded to Detroit, Iverson had only played 26 more career games (including playoffs) than Billups.

Iverson’s playing time also indicated he was far from washed up. He led the league in minutes, minutes per game and games the season before the trade.

And that was arguably the best season of his storied career.

With a team-best 11.6 win shares, he led the Nuggets to a 50-win season. His adjusted plus-minus was 28th in the league. (And that’s an even more valuable contribution than it appears, because the stat is based on possessions, and Iverson played more than his adjusted-plus-minus peers.)

Known as a volume shooter, Iverson took his fewest shots per game since his second season in the league. But by posting career highs in true-shooting percentage and effective field-goal percentage, he still averaged 26.4 points per game.

That reduction in offensive output also made it more likely Iverson would reach his potential on both ends of the court. From a Jan. 25, 2008, USA Today article by Jon Saraceno:

Karl describes Iverson as a "very good" defender "at times" but adds he "doesn’t make the defensive commitment with an every-possession mentality." That is "not only psychological, it’s subconscious."

"Here’s a guy who has made his career scoring, and with big numbers," Karl says. "All great players figure out how to pace themselves and save their energy for what they do best. My feeling is, at times, (Iverson) ‘cheats’ the defensive end.

"I had Detlef Schrempf (in Seattle) and Sam Cassell (in Milwaukee), who took possessions off. But they had this great instinct when to take them off. AI, sometimes, doesn’t have that instinct. Sometimes he takes off a possession that I wish he wouldn’t. But when you’re asked to play as many minutes and score as many points (as he is), I don’t know if Superman could play hard every possession."

His off-the-court reputation was gaining steam, too. From that same USA Today article:

Karl says he "never has had one headache" with Iverson — unlike fellow North Carolina alumnus Larry Brown, who had everything but migraines trying to rein him in.

Playing at altitude, it is Iverson’s attitude that seems to have undergone a humbling transformation. Unlike when he chafed during frantic-filled days under Brown’s coaching in Philadelphia, Iverson appears more pliable, more coach-friendly. Talk of suspensions and fines have vanished into thin air.

Iverson’s increased maturity led him to observe in The Denver Post last month, "I’m just happy I got it before it was too late, before I was out of this league or dead or in jail."

The biggest misconception he says people have is, "I don’t care about nothing but myself."

"I think that’s my biggest problem — I care about other people too much," Iverson says. "At times, more than I do myself."

His controversial lifestyle as a young player, his scrapes with the law and some of his questionable relationships and bad decisions have prompted Iverson to rethink his life as the married father of four.

Perhaps most encouraging, he was reaching these heights without showing signs of aging. Saraceno wrote “the guard still vigorously attacks the rim with vengeance, creating havoc in the paint and getting to the free throw line.” Entering the season he was traded to Detroit, Iverson said he planned to play six more seasons. Chris Tomasson, then of Rocky Mountain News:

Why six seasons? Because that would take Iverson to his 39th birthday, the age he has said he wants to retire.

But now Iverson seems more open about playing until 40 and beyond. After all, Jordan did that.

"I don’t want to say (Iverson will be retired at) 40," said Iverson, who could move up to No. 2 on the all-time steals list before he’s done. "If I’m healthy, I’m going to play. I know it will be hard to hang the sneakers up because I just love the game so much. . . . But I’m not going to play if, when you look at the roster and (the opponent) is calling everybody’s name out, and they get to the seventh or eighth name before they mention me."

It figures to be a long time before that happens.

Chauncey Billups: Deadweight

The Pistons went from winning a title, to losing in the Finals, to losing a six-game series to the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, to dropping four straight to the Cavaliers in the conference finals, to falling to Celtics in the Conference Finals.

At best Detroit was treading water. At worst, it was in decline.

Either way, Chauncey Billups was a big reason the Pistons weren’t moving forward.

In his last year with Detroit, his playoff performance dipped across the board from the regular season:

  • PER: 23.6 to 20.8
  • Offensive rating: 127 to 122
  • Defensive rating: 105 to 109
  • Win shares per 48 minutes: .257 to .202
  • Points per game: 17.0 to 16.1
  • True-shooting percentage: .619 to .564
  • Effective field-goal percentage: .526 to .471
  • Assists per game: 6.8 to 5.5
  • Assist percentage: 34.7 to 30.8

That trend was only a continuation of the previous season:

  • PER: 21.3 to 18.7
  • Offensive rating: 123 to 117
  • Win shares per 48 minutes: .216 to .183
  • Assists per game: 7.2 to 5.7
  • Assist percentage: 32.9 to 25.8
  • Turnovers per game: 2.0 to 2.9
  • Turnover percentage: 13 to 15.9

Playing tougher opponents, along with their being a slower pace, in the playoffs certainly contributed. But I don’t think those factors completely explain Billups’ playoff problems.

Injuries were a factor both years, too. But I think that speaks to the point. Billups played like someone whose body was breaking down. There are good regular-season players, and there are good playoff players. Billups appeared to be the former, not the latter.

When the Pistons made the trade, they still had a quality playoff core in Rasheed Wallace, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Antonio McDyess (who was a lock to return after the trade). Adding Iverson – at least the Iverson who showed an unprecedented-for-him combination of talent and maturity the previous year  – gave Detroit once last chance to salvage a shot at title, even if it was unlikely either way.

Harsh reality

Allen Iverson wasn’t a star, and Billups wasn’t dead weight – as much as those appeared to be the cases when the trade was made.

Iverson was a malcontent with the Pistons. There were rumblings of problems at Detroit’s casinos. He wouldn’t come off the bench. His legs had given out, leaving him unable to finish on drives to the rim – essentially destroying his game.

Billups had the opposite experience. He was rejuvenated in his hometown. I don’t think Detroit could have had the Billups Denver got.

The best laid schemes of mice and men, go often askew. Let’s not beat up Joe Dumars because of it.

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