Initially an afterthought of the Carmelo Anthony trade, point guard Chauncey Billups (right) has been a force for the Knicks early on.
Initially an afterthought of the Carmelo Anthony trade, point guard Chauncey Billups (right) has been a force for the Knicks early on.

With the passing of the NBA trade deadline last Thursday, the league saw a bevy of moves made with potential postseason implications. Some teams upgraded (Nets, Thunder, Trail Blazers); others cut salary (Clippers, Timberwolves); and a few just left us shaking our heads (Cavaliers, Celtics). No one move hogged more headlines, though, than the Knicks-Nuggets blockbuster that landed Carmelo Anthony — one of the league’s biggest stars — in his hometown of New York City.

When the exhausting, seven-month ‘Melo-drama finally ended, analysts and fans alike could finally switch their focus to debating whether the Knicks gave up too much of their young nucleus for this one superstar. Were a few draft picks, Ray Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Timofey Mozgov too high a price for one guy?

What everyone forgot about was the incalculable impact of another oft-forgotten player headed to New York in the deal.

An NBA champion and Finals MVP (2004). A five-time All-Star. A three-time all-NBA team member. A two-time NBA all-defensive team selection. An 89-percent career free throw shooter. An uncannily clutch shooter and late-game performer with unparalleled leadership ability.

Oh, that’s right — the Knicks got Chauncey Billups in the Carmelo deal, too. Essentially viewed as a throw-in player in this trade, Billups was disrespected every step of the way.

With it clear that Anthony’s desired destination was Gotham City, the Nuggets were forced to formulate a trade package to match the collective salaries of the group the Knicks threw their way. To make the dollars match up, Denver tossed Billups into the equation and viewed the much-improved — but frankly unproven — Ray Felton as worthy compensation in return. With that, the trade was accepted and Anthony got his wish.

But it came at the expense of the 34-year-old Billups, who, as a Coloradan born-and-bred, was hoping to play out the final years of his career in the Mile-High City. Instead, he was collateral damage, overlooked and underappreciated; dealt again, this time to New York.

Despite his aforementioned resume, Billups has been underappreciated before. Drafted third overall in 1997 by the Celtics, Billups played for four different teams over his first five NBA seasons, during which he averaged a modest 11.1 points per game. Billups’ career low point came in 1999-2000, when he was traded to the Magic solely so they could dump his expiring contract at season’s end. With an injured shoulder, Billups did not appear in a single game for the Magic, who then let him become a free agent without a thought of resigning him. After being drafted so high just two years earlier, Billups was widely considered an NBA bust at this point.

Following two more years of bouncing around the league, Billups found new life with the Pistons after signing as a free agent in 2002. It was in Detroit that he earned the majority of his accolades, none bigger than the championship and Finals MVP in 2004 that came with the Pistons’ defeat of the heavily favored Lakers, four games to one.

Billups’ 2004 playoff heroics garnered him considerable attention as a big-game performer, recognition that only elevated his level of play in subsequent seasons. Today, he is known throughout the NBA by his nickname, “Mr. Big Shot.”

While Billups was certainly not the focus of the trade package that recently brought him to the Knicks, the 13-year NBA veteran’s exemplary leadership and clutch late-game shooting have already manifested themselves in his brief time in New York. Through four games in a Knicks uniform, Billups has averaged 23.3 points per game and has been automatic from the free throw line, making 45 of 50 attempts.

Billups’ best moment thus far, though, came in the final minutes of his biggest game with the Knicks. In the final three minutes of a road game against the Heat, Billups single-handedly erased a six-point Knicks deficit with a gutsy runner, a dagger of a three-pointer four feet behind the arc, a steal and an assist to a trailing Shawne Williams, who was fouled and hit two free throws. The Knicks went on to beat the Heat, 91-86 — a major statement against one of the league’s premier teams.

While the Knicks are arguably another puzzle piece or two away from serious title contention, their fans have taken notice of Billups’ strong play as they anxiously await the summer of 2012 when top point guards Chris Paul and Deron Williams are scheduled to become free agents. With Billups past his prime and his contract expiring after next season, he is hardly a long-term solution for the Knicks at point guard, but his short-term value cannot be overlooked. On a revamped team led by two superstars trying to coexist, a strong veteran leader at point guard is an essential ingredient for success. Billups is playoff-tested and plays his best when it matters most.

If the currently sixth-seeded Knicks have any hope of contending with Boston, Chicago, Miami and Orlando come playoff time, such experience will be vital. Sure, Carmelo and Amar’e are the future of the Knicks, but if there is one thing we know about New York sports fans, it’s that they want to win, and they want to win now. With a proven winner like Billups running the show, the Knicks have a chance to do just that.

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