Mr. Big Shot’s Back
Chauncey Billups return to Pistons is more than symbolic, Joe D makes clear
Championship contenders with top-heavy payrolls dominated by superstars are always on the hunt for veterans who’ve already banked their big paydays, know the end is in sight and want one or two last grabs for the gold. That’s the economic reality of today’s salary-cap NBA. Good players willing to work for cheap are coveted in the same way draft picks and young players on rookie contracts are closely held.
So it says something that Chauncey Billups is coming home to the Pistons. He’s at that point in his career, turning 37 before training camp starts, where he was undeniably and obviously attractive to the Miamis, San Antonios and Oklahoma Cities, teams at the top of the Las Vegas odds to win the 2014 NBA title.
The Pistons aren’t yet in that tier, but neither are they at the other end in the inevitable NBA life cycle of contention-dissolution-rebuilding-emergence. Mr. Big Shot wasn’t coming back to the Pistons to languish through the 25-win seasons. And those days are behind them now.
“I’m really not good with losing and mediocrity,” said Billups, about 15 minutes late to his own press conference because Joe Dumars was on the line with the NBA working to get clearance for Andre Drummond to change his number – which he gave up voluntarily – so the point guard who led the Pistons to the 2004 NBA title could get his familiar No. 1 back.
“I’m not just coming to mentor and coaching – I’m coming to play and I’m comning to try to win. I’m looking forward to it.”
Billups was courtside at Staples Center that night in March when his Clippers ran and dunked all over the Pistons in a 32-point rout. He’s seen the way a franchise that enthralled one of America’s most sports-mad cities has struggled to generate that type of enthusiasm since his departure. He came back to change that, retire as a Piston and further burnish a legacy whose validity was underscored by the reception that greeted him in The Palace atrium Tuesday afternoon.
“This city and this organization is rich in basketball tradition and even with me being away, I hate to see The Palace look the way it looks with nobody watching the games,” he said. “But I also know this city loves a winner. We’ve got die-hard Pistons fans here and if you put out the effort and pride I want to instill back in this team, the Piston pride we played with, I feel people will come out and watch. I want to be part of something really special and this is going to give me the opportunity to do that.”
Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond up front, Josh Smith added in free agency, another handful of very promising young players to plug in where needed and a young point guard, Brandon Knight, who 15 years ago might have been Chauncey Billups coping with mastering the subtleties of a very complex position … the identity of what the Pistons are becoming is more clearly coming into focus by the day.
Billups isn’t returning to the Pistons as the player who departed five years ago. His All-Star days are likely behind him. A little more than a year removed from an Achilles tendon tear, his days as a full-time starter might be, as well, yet he’ll go into training camp intending to convince Mo Cheeks he should be introduced last by Mason – “Chauncey Buh-Buh-Buh-Billups!” – on opening night.
But what he can offer in any role seems a perfect fit for the moment, even if that’s 15 to 20 minutes as needed, putting the ball in his hands in the final minutes of white-knuckle games, playing him off the ball in lineups where his still-deadly shooting spreads the court and gives Monroe and Drummond room to work.
The storyline is irresistible for what he meant to the 2004 title team – he was NBA Finals MVP, after all – and the run of six straight conference finals appearances, especially coming on the heels of Rasheed Wallace’s addition to the coaching staff.
Yet this isn’t some doe-eyed reunion tour Joe Dumars is putting together. Impetus for the Wallace hiring sprung from Maurice Cheeks, who came to know Rasheed’s rare basketball intellect and equally unique communicative skills during their time together in Portland. Billups’ return has noting to do with sentiment and everything to do with what he can offer.
“Although this is a great feel-good moment to bring Chauncey back, he and I discussed the fact that this is not just about ‘feel good,’ ” said Dumars, who bluntly admitted trading Billups is his biggest regret as Pistons president. “This is about his ability to impact the game for us on the court – his ability to lead on and off the court – and help propel us to the next level.”
He’s back for what he can offer for those 15 to 20 (or more) minutes a night, sure, but also what he can offer in the locker room, in the long hours spent flying on Roundball One, in the team dinners he’ll organize, the daily tone he’ll establish and the measured counsel he’ll offer not only to Knight but to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Drummond and Monroe and … well, everyone, really. If you counted all the players in the NBA who’ll command the type of respect in his locker room that Chauncey Billups has and will, you wouldn’t run out of fingers.
“We need that positive influence in the locker room to help build us as far as chemistry,” Will Bynum told me a day earlier, expressing his excitement for Billups’ return. “As far as becoming one unit, that’s going to be important. It’s going to be people not worrying about individual things but about us worrying collectively about what’s best for our team.”
Rasheed’s going to be great for Monroe and Drummond. Joe D talked about it after last week’s introductory press conference for Josh Smith. He’ll teach them a thousand tricks of the trade, he said, but above and beyond that, he’ll be a constant motivational force. There are no subdued days in Rasheed World. He’ll take it personally, Dumars said, if Monroe and Drummond aren’t winning their battles.
The fact he’s fresh off his playing career – the fact Monroe and Drummond can well remember Rasheed Wallace as one of the NBA’s best and most visible big men – works in his favor, and Wallace spoke to that earlier this week in Orlando.
And Chauncey’s going to be just as instrumental a force in forming the chemistry of the 2013-14 Pistons and steering the culture closer to the environment essential for chasing championships. If that’s already in place before the roster catches up, you’re that much farther ahead of the game.
Joe D says the summer roster tinkering might not be finished yet, but he’s checked off a lot of boxes on his off-season to-do list. He wanted more athleticism, size on the perimeter and shooting. Smith, Caldwell-Pope and fellow rookie Tony Mitchell bring athleticism in spades. Caldwell-Pope makes them bigger at shooting guard when he’s ready to command minutes there. He, Italian free agent Luigi Datome and Billups bring a major dose of shooting.
Just as the Pistons aren’t bringing Chauncey Billups home to honor his place in their history, Mr. Big Shot didn’t come back to Detroit for an NBA victory lap.
“ ‘Respectability’ is the word for me,” he said. “I don’t know in two years if it can get back to what it was, but just making the playoffs is a goal we’ve got to have from day one. That’s a goal I think is feasible for this year.”
The fact the Pistons wanted Billups back says they believe he can hasten their return to prominence. The fact Chauncey Billups wanted the Pistons says he’s confident their ascendancy is well on its way.