On Monday, ESPN analyst, former Nuggets’ guard, Denver native and surefire Hall-of-Famer Chauncey Billups reportedly interviewed with the Atlanta Hawks for their general manager opening. And it’s apparent that Billups, who’s time and time again expressed his interest in running an NBA organization, will soon get his wish.
Billups, who last played for the Detroit Pistons in 2014, is a highly-respected basketball mind and drawing positive reviews at ESPN, who recently re-upped Billups’ on a new, multi-year deal to stay at the network for the foreseeable future. But Billups’ goal isn’t to work at the four-letter for the rest of his post-playing career. The now 40-year-old wants back in the league, and soon enough, Billups will get his wish.
Prior to the Billups’ name surfacing as a potential candidate for the Hawks’ top basketball operations post, which became vacant when GM Wes Wilcox reportedly stepped down and coach Mike Budenholzer, who’s been running Atlanta’s basketball operations since 2014, relinquished his decision-making power, the “King of Park Hill” declined an assistant coaching offer from the Orlando Magic presumably to keep his options open if a GM job ever became vacant.
But Billups wants to be a general manager, not a coach — that’s fairly well known inside NBA circles, and he appears to be a serious candidate for the Hawks’ vacancy. He likely wowed Atlanta principal owner Tony Ressler in their sit down Monday and even if he doesn’t get offered the Hawks’ gig, his name is now out there for future openings.
The script would even be too cliche for Hollywood, if Billups, who played with the Nuggets for parts of five seasons and presided over the teams’ Western Conference Finals appearance in 2009, came back to Denver and ran the Nuggets. Billups was born down the street from Pepsi Center in the Park Hill neighborhood, played his college ball 30 minutes up the road in Boulder at the University of Colorado and has always called Colorado home.
It’s almost too perfect.
But the reality is, Billups likely won’t run the Nuggets in the near future.
Tim Connelly, who’s headed up the Nuggets’ basketball operations since 2013 when he replaced outgoing Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri, received a multi-year contract extension at the beginning of 2016 and has made significantly more right decisions than wrong over his five-year tenure at Denver’s helm.
After inheriting a toxic roster and locker room, Connelly moved out the necessary pieces to cultivate a positive and organic culture throughout the Nuggets’ organization, logged arguably the best draft record out of any league executive over the past 4-5 years, and has retained most of the valued assets he inherited when he took the job — all required tasks of any GM running a small or mid-market franchise.
Connelly’s built a core in Denver in Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris, that should be able to contend in a few years and ownership seems to have bought into his long-game vision — something that might not have happened under Denver’s last regime. The future of the Nuggets should be a positive one, as long as the process isn’t rushed and corners aren’t cut.
But Billups’ strengths and what he’d bring to an organization are obvious. He’d be a huge name that brings notoriety to any front office across the league. The 2004 NBA Champion and five-time All-Star would be a figurehead that could turn any franchise with attractive parts into a viable destination for a marquee free agent. Billups has never held a front office position, so there will be a steep learning curve around the day-to-day operations of a GM, but he knows what it takes to build both a winner and a loser, and is more than capable of handling the job’s responsibilities including putting bright minds around him that can make for a more fluid transition.
Where the buck stops with Billups and the Nuggets is likely with Connelly and the current power structure in Denver. The general consensus among those around the league with some knowledge of Billups’ career goals agree that “Mr. Big Shot” doesn’t want to come on as an advisor or consultant. And why should he? The precedent of players turned executives has already been set with Steve Kerr, Vlade Divac, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and others. Billups wants to be a GM and he’ll likely get that opportunity with one franchise who’s looking to take a shot with a big name with no front office experience.
Billups coming on as a President of Basketball Operations of sorts that would still give Connelly control over the day-to-day operations is a questionable fit as well, especially with President Josh Kroenke’s involvement. The fit and makes some sense on paper, but would throw the Nuggets off course. Imagine the calls for Billups to assume full control at every questionable personnel decision made by the current regime.
Here’s Billups on Mile High Sports radio last summer:
“I’ve always had a passion to run a team, to put together a team. That’s always been a passion of mine. I think I could do a phenomenal job at that…If the right role was available, and I’ve always made known, I haven’t been quiet or private about it at all.”
Connelly’s seat, warranted or unwarranted, could get warmer if the Nuggets take a step back next season and if their young core doesn’t move along as expected. Those two benchmarks aren’t mutually exclusive but four or five consecutive seasons without a playoff birth is scary for any staff, especially one that’s headed by a GM without a playoff resume in his current role.
So while Billups seems destined to be a GM, it doesn’t seem that a reunion in Denver is likely, for now. The Nuggets will continue on their current path, try and upgrade their roster this summer and qualify for the playoffs next season. As for Billups, he’ll go through the process with Atlanta, likely impress, and either get that job or one of the next few that become available.
Billups will likely be careful about what opening he’ll pursue. He has a comfortable job at ESPN and will surely take a measured approach and wait for the right opportunity.
It will be exciting to watch the Nuggets, and hopefully, Connelly grow into a playoff contender, but it will also be fascinating to watch Billups eventually begin his front office employment and grow as a league executive, even if not in Denver.