Billups Learned With Wolves, Became One Of NBA's Top PGs In Detroit
If you walk through the Target Center skyway and look at the collage of pictures on the walls--which currently represent the Timberwolves' franchise celebrating 25 seasons this winter—you might notice a photo (pictured above) from about 12 years ago with a young Flip Saunders walking the sideline with a young Chauncey Billups. Billups spent his fifth and sixth years in the NBA with Minnesota, but in more of a backup capacity. He wasn't known as "Mr. Big Shot" back then, hadn't carved his name in NBA playoff history into stone and wasn't yet a leader in the same capacity he would later become.
Much of his notoriety would happen in Detroit, where he'd lead the Pistons to the 2004 NBA title, one other NBA Finals appearance and a collection of Eastern Conference Finals. But if you look at that photo, you'll see what could be interpreted as Billups making strides toward all of those future accolades. He's walking in stride with Saunders, both looking in the same direction and pointing toward the same scene on the court.
It looks like Billups is absorbing his coach's words and preparing to share with his teammates. That could very well be the case. If you ask Billups today, a lot of those leadership traits that became synonymous with his name with the Pistons actually grew and developed with the Wolves.
"A lot of people think that the big change in my career and me taking off happened in Detroit. That's not actually true," Billups said. "It happened in Minneapolis. In my time [here], Flip was great. I think the presence of Sam Mitchell and Terrell Brandon in my career and my life at the time changed the trajectory of my career. It really did. And so it was here where my career really turned for the better."
Billups would go on to seven All-Star Selections, the 2004 title and an NBA Finals MVP award. Today, he's in his 17th season. He's been with seven different franchises, and he's currently in his second stint with the Pistons. He's injured—a knee injury has him out indefinitely—and he's aware that he's in the tail-end of his career.
It was during his first tenure in Detroit that he became a household name. Billups became one of the top leaders at the point guard position during his years with the Pistons, and in 2005-06 he finished fifth in the league MVP voting as the Pistons won 64 games—with Saunders as head coach.
That's an interesting part of Billups' career track. He spent two years under Saunders in Minnesota and three more in Detroit. All five of those teams went to the postseason, and the three teams in Detroit made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. He attributes a lot of who he became as an NBA player to what he learned from Saunders and the type of system Saunders played.
It was tailored for a scoring point guard, Billups said, and that's exactly the type of game he brought during the prime of his career.
"I couldn't have been in a better situation," Billups said. "I did a good job here, but when he came to Detroit, that [first] year we won 64 games and I was [fifth] in the MVP voting that year. You know what I'm saying? That's solely really because of Flip and his system."
The two have kept in touch since, talking from time to time. Billups said he congratulated Saunders when he became the Timberwolves' President of Basketball Operations in May 2013. It's a deserving spot for Saunders, Billups said, because he knows the game so well.
"I'm one of his biggest believers," Billups said.
But Saunders isn't the only connection to Minnesota still in Billups' life. He met with old friends last night when the team got into town. He's a "Piston for life," he said, and he made his name league-wide in Detroit. But it began in Minnesota, where he learned the lessons necessary to become an elite player in the NBA.
"I tell you what, I really enjoyed my time here," Billups said. "Really, really did. It was great. I didn't want to leave. I loved it here. My family loved it here—my wife and kids. We loved it here."