The stories to start their careers couldn't have been more different. In the 1997 NBA Draft the Boston Celtics selected Chauncey Billups with the 3rd overall pick. The sophomore star out of the University of Colorado was known for taking his team to the NCAA tournament and defeating Bobby Knight's Indiana Hoosiers. Expectations were high for Billups from the start.
Chris Andersen's journey to the NBA wasn't announced by David Stern on draft night. Andersen's story began this way,
Linda Holubec was there that November night in 2001, when the Denver Nuggets called her son with the news that they were signing him to a deal that would end his vagabond lifestyle. They were sitting in a hotel lobby in Fayetteville, N.C., about to board a van bound for some minor-league outpost. She would never have to lend him money for groceries or co-sign for another car again. They had made it. -Full Link here.
Holubec is, of course, Andersen's mother and was his number one supporter. The Birdman, as he came to be known, played three seasons for the Nuggets. He never appeared in more than 71 games in any of those seasons, never averaged more than 5.2 points per game during those three seasons, or more than 4.6 rebounds, or more than 1.6 blocks. Yet, Andersen endeared himself to the fans for his thunderous put-back dunks and high-energy blocks. The goofy looking white dude had a few tattoos that made you wonder about who he was; and he played the game above the rim, without any fear. While Andersen was gaining a cult-following in Denver, he also wasn't setting the basketball world on fire.
In Boston, Rick Pitino made the decision, after just 51 games, that Billups wasn't living up to his high expectations. The rookie combo guard was shipped off the Toronto Raptors for veteran point guard, and well traveled, Kenny Anderson. Anderson would play five seasons for the Celtics and never average better than 14 points per game (1999-00) and 6.3 assists (1997-98).
After appearing in just 29 games with the Raptors to finish up his rookie campaign, Billups was traded again the following season. On January 21, 1999 the Denver Nuggets acquired Billups from the Raptors in a three-team deal where the Nuggets sent Bobby Jackson and Dean Garrett to Minnesota and a first round pick in 1999 to the Toronto Raptors (that pick became Jonathan Bender). The Nuggets had acquired the 3rd overall pick in the 1997 NBA draft for the 23rd overall pick in Jackson - not a bad deal.
But the Nuggets wouldn't hold on to Billups or Andersen for very long. After just 58 games in two seasons, the Nuggets traded Billups on February 1, 2000, unceremoniously, to the Orlando Magic for Chris Gatling, Tariq Abdul-Wahad, and a first round pick (Omar Cook). The funny part, Billups was again traded with teammate Ron Mercer (he was also in that Celtics trade).
Andersen left the Nuggets for greener pastures with the New Orleans Hornets in 2004, signing a four-year deal for $14 million. That was Andersen's best-and-worst career move. His partying days were now in full swing and fully financed. Just two years later, on January 25, 2006, Andersen would be banned from NBA play.
The Nuggets replaced Billups and Andersen and life for the team, moved on. But in order to make their comebacks, Mr. Big Shot and Birdman had to go away.
Denver had mixed results with their big men after Andersen left town. The planned front-line of Kenyon Martin, Nene, and Marcus Camby never really came to fruition as the trio rarely remained healthy. With a bloated payroll and a need to shed salary, the Nuggets shipped Camby off to the Los Angeles Clippers in July of 2008 for the right to swap second-round picks in 2010. The Camby deal made the Andersen signing possible and the veteran Birdman re-signed with the team that brought him into the league on July 24, 2008 for the league minimum.
Another piece of the Nuggets bloated payroll was Allen Iverson. After just one full season with the Nuggets (135 total games), Denver was ready to move on from the A.I. experiment. After just two games for the Pistons and three games for the Nuggets, the two franchises shook up the NBA world with a blockbuster deal. Denver sent Iverson to the Pistons and Denver received Billups, Antonio McDyess, and Cheikh Samb. Billups was back home and the Nuggets were ready to go.
Everybody in Nuggets Nation knows how the 2008-09 season went. Denver ultimately lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals after the big time pundits doubted their ability to even make the post-season. Marty Burns had this to say of his analysis of the A.I. and Billups deal:
The Nuggets are not serious title contenders in the loaded West anyway, so this gives them a chance to retool a bit and perhaps be a more balanced team. -Real the full article here.
But we all found out how good the Nuggets were and Billups and Andersen were big reasons why. The Birdman averaged 6.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks during the regular season and 6.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks during the post-season. Andersen saw his athletic prowess return and his thunderous dunks, timely rebounds, and crowd pleasing blocks propelled the Nuggets during various times throughout the season. Not bad for a guy who had only played in five games the season before and missed the entire 2006-07 season.
Billups averaged 17.9 points and 6.4 assists during the 2008-09 regular season in 77 games. He also shot a scorching 41% from three-point land and took 5.1 treys a game. In the post-season he averaged 20.6 points and 6.8 assists. He was even better from three-point land in the post-season shooting an astounding 46.8% and taking 5.9 threes per game. Not bad for a guy who many considered to be past his prime and not the best player involved in the trade earlier in the season.
The question is - who had the better comeback? Can you decide?