Exclamation Points

Cheeks open to making full use of his point guards, Billups included

Chauncey Billups
Chauncey Billups
Elsa (NBAE/Getty Images Sport)
Maurice Cheeks has ended his morning two-a-day practices by singling out a player to shoot a free throw to decide whether or not the Pistons can hit the showers or run sprints. On Tuesday, rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope stepped to the line and knocked it down. On Wednesday, Italian sharpshooter Gigi Datome – a 93 percent foul shooter during his MVP campaign last season – saw his shot go in and out.

Cheeks offered a reprieve and called on Chauncey Billups, who closed out too many wins to remember for the Pistons by draining clutch free throws in the final minute to protect narrow leads.

Billups declined the opportunity, instead nominating Andre Drummond to carry his team’s hopes of avoiding extra duty. A 37 percent foul shooter as a rookie who can expect to be intentionally fouled until he makes teams rue such strategy, Drummond stood before the entire team, coaching staff and front office and swished his do-or-die try.

“That’s right, baby, that’s right,” Mr. Big Shot said when I asked him if he liked the mettle Drummond showed. “He’s got to get used to pressure. Playing the fourth quarter, they’re going to be hacking him. Everybody knows I’m going to make it. You’ve got to get him ready.”

Which is a long way of illustrating the point that the Pistons usually benefit when they leave decisions to Chauncey Billups. When he was asked at Monday’s media day how he felt about playing shooting guard – the odds of which increased after he signed in July and the Pistons traded for Brandon Jennings – he said he was fine with it as long as he wasn’t asked to stand in the corner and watch plays unfold.

“I don’t mind playing the two only if I’m able to play like a point guard,” he said. “I’m able to control or have the ball in my hands a little bit, make plays, have an effect on the game.”

The Pistons got into some full-court, five-on-five basketball near the end of Wednesday’s morning practice, their third of camp, and based on fleeting evidence, it appears Cheeks has no intention of asking Chauncey Billups to go stand in a corner. Although …

“Even if he was standing in the corner, he would help somebody else because they have to guard him,” Cheeks said. “They wouldn’t leave him. But he will have the ball in his hands. It wouldn’t benefit us to just spot him in the corner every time because he has the ability to put the ball on the floor. He’s a smart guy. He’s been around for a while.”

Cheeks is going to mix and match liberally in the early going. The segment of practice the media glimpsed Wednesday saw Billups and Jennings paired on one side against Will Bynum and Rodney Stuckey on the other, and on successive plays, first Billups and then Jennings ran the point while the other played off the ball. Cheeks said he has no qualms about playing two players simultaneously who, on a depth chart, would be listed at point guard.

“I hesitate to say two ‘point guards’ because these guys, while it says point guard, these guys can score the ball,” he said. “You look at these banners up there, they had Isiah and Joe Dumars. Both of them could handle the ball, both of them could score the ball, and I think that’s the way these guys are today. They can score the ball, they can handle the ball. Not one particular one is, per se, a point guard.”

Billups, too, isn’t getting caught up in labels, more concerned about the substance of Cheeks’ offense.

“The way I see it is a lot of times we’re going to play two point guards out there,” he said. “You’ve got to name one, the other, whatever. If I’m able to play like a point guard and have the ball in my hands where I’m comfortable, then you can call it power forward if you want to, as long as you let me touch it. It’s good. We’ve kind of been taking turns. We bring a different look, a different dimension.

“At any point if him and I are on the court, or Will and I, or Stuckey and I, we all can make plays for ourselves and everybody else. It’s just an added bonus to have two playmakers on the court at all times.”

How Cheeks jiggers his backcourt combinations might well be influenced by how they mesh with a frontcourt built around the size and athleticism of projected starters Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith and how Cheeks fills the rest of the frontcourt rotation. The offensive identity will be a work in progress.

“I think first we’re going to try to push it and get something easy,” Billups said. “Other than that, it’s just going to be a feel thing. You’ve got very good pick-and-roll players, you’ve got Greg and Josh and Dre coming along as far as post players, you’ve got a lot of shooters out there, as well. Game to game, team by team, matchup by matchup, you kind of go back and forth.”

When it comes to feel things, Pistons history suggests their interests are in pretty good hands when the ball rests in Chauncey Billups’ hands.