A big deal: Before he became Pistons’ Mr. Big Shot, Chauncey Billups was just trying to find his NBA footing

Chauncey Billups
Chauncey Billups signed with the Pistons when they made an aggressive early move to recruit him in an underwhelming year for free agents in July 2002
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

(EDITOR’S NOTE: While the NBA season is in limbo amid the coronavirus pandemic, Pistons.com will periodically look back at some of the most significant personnel moves – trades, free-agent signings, draft picks – in Pistons history. Next up: Signing Chauncey Billups in 2002 to a mid-level exception contract.)

The Pistons wrote one of the NBA’s most remarkable stories in the 2001-02 season, improving from 32 wins and the lottery to 50 wins and the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference with essentially the same roster.

Rick Carlisle replaced George Irvine as coach, but the guts of the team was unchanged: Jerry Stackhouse as go-to scorer, a young Ben Wallace to anchor the defense, veterans like Corliss Williamson and Michael Curry to eat up minutes and steady the locker room. The point guard each season was Chucky Atkins, an overachiever who made it to the NBA at 25 and gave everything his 160-pound frame had to offer.

But Joe Dumars, three years removed from his playing days and two years into the job as front-office boss, knew he needed a more dynamic point guard than Atkins if the Pistons were to take the next step and emerge as a legitimate playoff threat. Despite their 50-win season and top seed, the Pistons were bounced in the second round by Boston in five games, losing the last four straight and averaging just 75 points a game.

Yet how was the upgrade at point guard going to happen? The Pistons were drafting 23rd in a year the pickings were historically slim. The free-agent crop was just as weak. ESPN.com’s list of the top 10 free agents included the likes of Lee Nailor, Wang Zhi-Zhi, Popeye Jones and Scott Williams. At point guard, ESPN rated Jeff McInnis No. 1 and Travis Best No. 2.

The Pistons were hardly the only team in the market for a point guard, either. Miami, Orlando, Denver and the Los Angeles Clippers all were clamoring for help at that spot.

Best, 30, had played in a lot of big games and was coming off of a season where he’d averaged 9.3 points and 5.0 assists in 26 minutes a game for the Bulls after a mid-season trade from Indiana, where he’d spent 6½ seasons as a part-time starter on very good teams. Speculation centered on McInnis for the Pistons. At 27, he was in his prime and coming off a career year with the lowly Clippers, averaging 14.6 points and 6.2 rebounds while playing 37 minutes a game. There was also his history with Stackhouse, with whom he’d been classmates at North Carolina, and his size at 6-foot-4.

But Dumars went hard after another player, instead – Chauncey Billups – the minute he could, suspecting that Miami was about to do the same. He offered Billups the full mid-level exception – the biggest tool in his toolbox – which at the time meant he could give him five years and $35 million.

“I have the philosophy that you have to strike early, even if it’s a big field,” Dumars told the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel during a Summer League game as news of the Pistons agreement with Billups broke. “It was a limited field this year. We felt, ‘You know what? We better jump on this guy immediately, not wait.’ ”

Billups, the No. 3 pick in the 1997 draft, had been traded three times already before signing as a free agent with Minnesota in 2000, where he played behind Terrell Brandon on teams led by Kevin Garnett. When Brandon was injured during the 2001-02 season, Billups, 25 as he hit free agency in 2002, got his chance to prove himself an NBA starting point guard. He averaged 15.1 points and 6.6 assists in 54 games as the Timberwolves starter in 34 minutes a game.

The Timberwolves weren’t a serious bidder to retain Billups, choosing instead to put their money toward another holdover: center Rasho Nesterovic.

Billups immediately justified Dumars’ assessment of him as the premier point guard in free agency. He averaged 16.2 points and 3.9 assists while shooting 39 percent from the 3-point arc in his first season in Detroit, the Pistons again winning 50 games and advancing through two rounds of the playoffs before losing in the conference finals to New Jersey.

McInnis wound up signing a three-year, $10 million deal with Portland, averaging 5.8 points in 17 minutes a game before being traded to Cleveland midway through the following season. Miami responded to losing Billups by signing Best to a one-year deal. He averaged 8.4 points, starting 52 games.

The disparity only grew from there. In his second season with the Pistons, Billups became Mr. Big Shot – and also was voted NBA Finals MVP as the Pistons beat the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in the “five-game sweep” to win the third championship in franchise history. The deal Billups signed with the Pistons, 18 years later, is still regarded as the best mid-level exception signing in NBA history.

Billups played in three All-Star games for the Pistons before being traded to Denver for Allen Iverson early in the 2008-09 season, playing in two more for the Nuggets before returning to the Pistons in free agency a second time to finish his career in the 2013-14 season.

“I know I played on a lot of teams for a lot of organizations,” Billups said in February 2016 when the Pistons honored him by retiring his jersey in a ceremony at The Palace of Auburn Hills. “I’ve been all over. But I, Chauncey Billups – make no doubt about it – will always and forever be a Detroit Piston.”

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