Chauncey Billups was happy in New York. It was a brief period that had nothing to do with basketball, but when the hotel room he is using as his residence here had the sound of his daughters' voices and the smell of his wife's perfume. The visit was short, much like the period in which Billups' play had the Knicks thinking a wise investment would be to bank on him as their point guard of the immediate future and perhaps use their 2012 salary cap space that had been earmarked for Chris Paul or Deron Williams to improve other areas of the roster.
But any talk about Billups remaining in a Knicks uniform beyond this season assumes the 34-year-old happily married father of three girls wants to stay here and move his family yet again. When talking recently with a friend about finding a place to live in New York, Billups quickly said he wanted to just focus on this year and see where he is after the season.
Billups has been a pro and has said all the right things, but even after his agent, Andy Miller, held what he termed as "preliminary discussions" with the Knicks about Billups' future in New York, one has to wonder how committed Billups really is to another new beginning. He had his mind set on retiring in his hometown in Denver and moving into a front office position with the Nuggets. Carmelo Anthony may have wanted New York, but Chauncey didn't.
The Knicks have the option of saving $11.5 million of the $14.2 million owed to Billups next season if they waive him within five days of the final game of the NBA season. That would leave them with $3.7 million against their cap for 2011-12, but it does, at least, open up some money to find another point guard, perhaps yet another temporary solution before Paul/Williams, and maybe even a big man.
The Knicks could also keep Billups as a very valuable expiring contract that they could use in case, say, the Hornets follow Denver's lead and trade Paul before the 2012 trade deadline. [In fact, one reason why Knicks fans should be happy about Denver's success after the trade is that it could motivate the Hornets into feeling it is a far better plan in comparison to what the Cavaliers endured in letting LeBron walk for nothing].
But how much would the Knicks get out of Billups, who turns 35 in September, when he knows he's a space-holder facing an inevitable move -- his second in as many seasons? No chance he moves the family across the country for one season when he doesn't know where he'll end up at the end of it. And if the Knicks want to get the most out of Billups, the best course of action is to give him every reason to feel secure enough to make a permanent move that keeps his family close to him.
That right now seems to be a precarious decision, especially if you consider his struggles in running the offense since he returned from the six-game injury absence. Billups seemed so much more confident and in control before the injury -- he was dominating that game in Orlando until the injury happened on the knee-to-knee collision with Dwight Howard -- but lately often looks confused on offense and a step slow on defense.
That injury could be what everyone points to as the reason why the Knicks potential was derailed this season. At the time, there were loud voices proclaiming Billups was no throw-in piece in the Carmelo trade. Now those same voices are calling him old. There's nothing like the level-headed perspective of Knee Jerk City.
When the offense fails to execute down the stretch as we've seen lately -- just four points in the final seven minutes of Monday's collapse against Boston -- the blame initially goes on the point guard, who serves as the coach out on the floor, and also on the actual coach, who has to have the team prepared. It was Billups' four-point play with 7:26 left that gave the Knicks a nine-point lead, which should have been enough to carry through to a win. Billups also hit a jumper with 4:01 left that finally stopped a 13-0 run that gave the Celtics an 86-82 advantage.
But shortly after came a brutal turnover that was one example of how the Knicks offense unraveled down the stretch. It started out well, with Billups getting free on a drive to the basket. But he seemed to stumble as he reached the paint and rather than throw up a bad attempt against the arriving defense of Kevin Garnett, Billups tried to throw the ball to the corner. The ball went right to Ray Allen for a brutal turnover that eventually turned into a layup from Big Baby (after Carmelo was on the court with a bloody eye following a loose-ball collision with Rajon Rondo).
"I slipped, I was falling down and I was trying to get off [a pass] and I should hve lobbed it up a little," Billups said of his brutal turnover, one of two he had in the quarter and five he had in the game. "If I wasn't falling, I had a play at the basket, a layup."
Asked if his deep thigh bruise, which clearly has affected his explosion, had anything to do with the stumble, Billups said, "No, I just lost my footing."
On this night it was his footing. In Detroit it was a low pass to Amar'e Stoudemire into the post that went for a turnover as the Knicks scored just nine points in the final nine minutes to blow another game down the stretch. Billups had eight turnovers in that game. Against Indiana, Billups dribbled the ball off his leg on a drive in the fourth quarter with the Knicks ahead 110-106 with 2:31 to go.
If Billups is struggling, the Knicks are doomed. Carmelo and Amar'e can only do what they do when they get the ball in the right spot. Toney Douglas has had some terrific shooting performances, but they are neutralized by some awful shooting efforts, as well.
But when analyzing Billups, one can't forget how much Raymond Felton struggled to get the system earlier this season. Felton used to routinely miss Stoudemire on the pick-and-roll and there were many issues with execution down the stretch, too. Once Felton got command of the offense, the Knicks started to click.
Billups seems to be going through the same process and you could argue that if or when he does catch on, he should be much more effective than Felton mainly because he's a more reliable shooter. One reason for optimism is that the Knicks moved the ball more fluidly andran much more pick-and-roll plays against the Celtics and while the passes weren't there just yet, the potential is.
"I look at the positives of the first three quarters and say, 'That's who we can be'," Billups said.
What happens in the fourth quarter, as Mike D'Antoni said, is the Knicks tend to rush, panic and not trust each other or the system. They tend to watch rather than react and that is typical of a team still learning each other. I actually think thy don't as much rush as they do stop. Over three quarters the Knicks made quick decisions with the ball. Carmelo would get it in triple threat and he'd be into a move, be it a drive or a pullup, within one beat. Stoudemire the same. But in the fourth, both guys resort to turn-and-face and look around. It allows the Celtics defense to get into position.
This offense is at it's best when they play fast. Make a decision and go. It's up to the point guard to conduct it with authority.
Billups is certainly smart enough to figure this out, but at this point of his career, is the want truly in him to learn this system and command it? That's something only he can answer. That's something only he can consider as he leaves the Garden, a place that doesn't feel like home, and returns to an empty hotel room.
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* - Doc Rivers was scolding his team during the third quarter as Stoudemire was getting it going offensively with five straight points on cuts and drives. "There's no way Amar'e Stoudemire should drive with Jared Jeffries on the floor," he growled as he turned toward his bench. The message was simple: Jeffries is a non-factor on offense and basically doesn't need to be covered when he's outside the painted area. So whoever is guarding Jeffries should always look to help off and get in Stoudemire's way.
That is the issue in playing Jeffries, who has been effective as a defender and rebounder but as we've seen, just struggles on offense. Before he was traded last season, D'Antoni had Jeffries playing more effective on the offensive end because he had him in the corner, where he could crash the offensive glass and cut backdoor Anderson Varejeo style. But this year Jeffries is on the perimeter and handling the ball far more than he should and is even in pick-and-roll situations.
It's clear Jeffries can be effective as a defender, especially in a zone, but there's no way he should be used as a starting center. And one could argue that at times his minutes could be split with some young, energetic legs such as Derrick Brown, who could provide a spark off the bench in needed stints. If D'Antoni is going to experiment with Shelden Williams as a starting center, why not see what Brown can do for you -- sorry, couldn't resist -- as some energy off the bench?
* - Ronny Turiaf, who was returned to the starting center position, had a terrific game with 11 points, four blocked shots, two rebounds, two assists and a steal in 26:49. When he plays with energy, Turiaf shows how the Knicks can be effective with a quality power forward/center next to Stoudemire. Turiaf challenges shots, plays physical and promotes ball movement. The issue with him all season has been durability, because of his balky knee. He's wearing new orthotics that are designed to alleviate some of the stress on his knee and they appear to be working.
As for talk of Earl Barron, I'm told to let it go. The Knicks problems aren't going to be solved by a journeyman D-Leaguer. Barron had a nice stint at the end of last season and would be a good depth addition, but there's a reason why he's only getting spot minutes in Milwaukee.
* - I chatted with Troy Murphy before the game and he said the Knicks were definitely in the mix among his choices as a free agent. Obviously the potential to win a championship was a major factor for a player like Murphy, who has yet to appear in a playoff game in nine NBA seasons. He has played somewhat sparingly in 11 games with the Celtics so far and will be a free agent this offseason. He told me the Knicks will remain high on his list and feels that D'Antoni's system fits his skill set as a stretch 4 (long range shooting, rebounding).
* - The Shawne Williams injury (torn tendon in ring finger of right hand) is being underplayed and we're guilty of it too. Williams' three-point shooting, especially from the corner, is so critical for this team and if the finger, which was heavily taped against Boston, causes him to lose his touch, it's a major loss. Williams was 0-for-3 in the game, with two misses from three-point range. The injury happened during Sunday's loss to the Bucks and Williams said he'll play through it.