The One That Got Away: Will the Nuggets regret letting Chauncey Billups slip away to Portland?

Feb 15, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Former player Chauncey Billups speaks during a ceremony honoring former Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Flip Saunders prior to a game against Los Angeles Lakers at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Mark this down.

One day, in the not so distant future, the Denver Nuggets will look back on the summer of 2021 and say this: “Damn, we should have hired Chauncey Billups.”

That’s right, the King of Park Hill will, someday, be the one that got away.

I know, I know. We’ve already got Michael Malone, a good coach who’s already taken the Nuggets places (namely the Western Conference Finals last season). Malone has been solid, bringing along a core group of players who can justifiably place themselves among the game’s elite; the Nuggets have a team that is capable of bringing home the franchise’s first-ever NBA championship.

And Malone is their coach.

Here’s the question though: Is Malone the guy who can get the Nugget over the hump.

Without answering the question directly, here’s one way to consider your answer. Was Mark Jackson, a coach who brought along the Golden State Warriors from 2011 to 2014, the right guy to get the Warriors over the hump?

Jackson inherited a Warriors team that had won 36 games the season before his arrival. In his first season – a shortened season – Jackson’s team won at a clip of just .348. From there though, the Warriors climbed rapidly, winning 47 and 51 games in the next two seasons, advancing to the second round of the playoffs and then losing in the first round in 2014. The Warriors disappointed, given their record during the 2013-14 season, but still, Jackson guided the team from an also ran to a bon a fide contender.

Yet, he was shown the door.

Enter Steve Kerr, a first-time head coach, and the Warriors proceeded to earn a trip to the NBA Finals for the next five years, winning three times.

When Jackson was let go, he was an accomplished NBA head coach. When Kerr was hired, he was a gamble with no proven track record as a coach. Ultimately, the Warriors organization made a bold decision, concluding that Kerr – not Jackson – would be the man to get a team on the precipice of a title over the hump. It was a gut call that paid off in spades.

Now, there’s no proof that Jackson couldn’t have done the same thing – he might have. But we’ll never know. Rest assured, the powers that be in Golden State don’t spend much time pondering that.

Today, we have no idea of knowing whether or not Chauncey Billups was a great hire by the Portland Trailblazers, or, perhaps just a gamble.

Today, we have no idea if Michael Malone will guide the Nuggets to the ultimate prize.

And this space won’t be devoted to a deep-dive examination of each coach. This is not a forum to debate Malone’s patient development of core players, his poor third quarters in the playoffs or getting swept in the second round without Jamal Murray but with the league MVP. We can all agree that Billups was a masterful floor general as a player, but not everyone will guarantee he’ll be that way from the bench; that’s yet to be seen.

It’s fair (and fun) to ask questions that might be relevant going forward: Would a potential free agent rather play for a former NBA Finals MVP or a coach who’s yet to reach the final round? Can Billups get more out of a point guard like Damian Lillard, or could he build an offense around an MVP center? Is “Steve Kerr” a model – a winning player with years of experience running a team from the point guard position – that the NBA will utilize more often going forward (see Nate McMillan, Steve Nash, Ty Lue and now Billups)? Has Malone reached the peak of his effectiveness with this particular roster?

Those questions and their answers are all up for debate.

This argument – my argument – is about a gut feel.

And I believe it won’t be long before the basketball world will view Chauncey Billups as the next, young, rising star head coach.

And the Blazers will be the beneficiary.

And the Nuggets will wonder what could have been if they would have made the bold decision to say goodbye to a really good coach, and hello to a potentially great one.

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