Chauncey Billups has thought about making a Joe Dumars-like transition once his playing days are over and running his own NBA team someday. He understands fully the logic behind the move Joe D made back in November, swapping him to Denver for Allen Iverson. He knew NBA economics made it impractical for the Pistons to hang on to two impact point guards. He got it that as the veteran making bigger money, and 10 years older than Rodney Stuckey, he was the one likelier to be moved.
He grasps every circumstance that led to the Nov. 2 deal that shook the NBA and changed the course of the Pistons’ season and their future.
He just wonders what might have been had it not happened.
Well, check that. He thinks about it, but he doesn’t wonder. He’s fairly sure he knows.
“It wouldn’t be like this,” he answered when somebody asked him what the Pistons’ season would be like with him still at point guard. “We’d be the top one or two in the East and probably in basketball, like we always are.”
Another title run, perhaps?
“Oh, yeah. Yeah, no doubt.”
And that’s where he and Joe D part company. Dumars, after watching the Pistons lose in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals for a third straight year – each to a different team, came to the conclusion last June that the familiar cast’s title runs were over. The trade was irresistible from Joe D’s perspective because it came with the equivalent of a money-back guarantee: If Iverson doesn’t give the Pistons’ a jazzed-up playoff offense over the one that’s sputtered against elite defensive teams, then the summer’s free agency crop gives Dumars a chance for a radical overhaul – with Stuckey at the center.
“A lot of this whole situation was made because they believe in Stuck,” Billups said Monday after Denver’s practice at Oakland University. “I believe in Stuck, as well. I think he’s going to be a great player. He’s going through some growing pains right now from time to time. It’s just something that point guards go through. But he’s going to be an elite point guard in this league. I still talk to him. I still try to help him through situations when I can, but I’m proud of him and I’m proud and happy for Stuck.”
Billups comes back to The Palace as a savior in Denver, his birthplace and the city where he remains considered the greatest high school star the place ever produced. That he has the Nuggets sitting at 39-21, in the hunt for the No. 2 seed in the West, further burnishes his reputation in the Mile High City.
He’s averaging 18.7 points and 6.1 assists while shooting .395 from the 3-point line and playing at a level approaching his 2005-06 season when he led the Pistons to 64 wins and entered the MVP discussion.
“What I do and what I bring to a team is something this team desperately needed,” he said. “With my leadership and the way I play and my unselfishness and my experience, this team needed that, especially at the position I play. On the flip side, all of those things you take out of Detroit’s situation, people probably took for granted. So much that I did for the team went unnoticed, they probably took that for granted a little bit. But it is what it is. Detroit is playing a lot better – they’re going to be fine.”
Billups talks often to his old teammates, especially Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Antonio McDyess and Rasheed Wallace. He’s counseled Hamilton, who lived through a groin injury and a move to the bench, “to just hold his head, just keep on pushing.”
“I’m not going through what they are,” he said. “But you know it’s frustrating when you’ve won and won at a high level and you go to playing almost .500 basketball, you can imagine the frustrations the guys are dealing with.”
Many of those frustrations were eased or disappeared altogether with the Pistons’ weekend double, wins at Orlando and Boston, to snap an eight-game losing streak. Those wins coincided with Iverson’s back injury that forced him out of the lineup, furthering the notion that Iverson’s game doesn’t mesh with the Pistons’ strengths. Billups took a thoughtful pause before answering when I asked him what challenges it would present him as a point guard to play alongside Iverson.
“That’s kind of a tough question,” he said. “Allen is an attacker. He’s a scorer by nature and one of the best we’ve seen in our era. If I was playing, I would just try to get him to understand that sometimes you’ve got to run plays that would get him off if he had the ball at some point during the play. You’ve got to have some kind of organization out there.”
He’s looking forward to playing against the friends he knew so long as teammates, wonders what type of reaction he’ll get and admits that taking a bus ride from the airport to a hotel in the city he called home for six years was “weird.”
“I’m going to be, I’m sure, pretty emotional,” he said. “I’m really not that emotional a person, but this city means a lot to me. These fans mean a lot to me. This is still my home away from home – it always will be.”
Somebody asked what it would mean to him if he got a rousing ovation, as is virtually guaranteed, unlike the reception Ben Wallace got after leaving to sign as a free agent with Chicago.
“It would mean a lot,” he said. “I think all the fans know I gave every single thing I had, every ounce I always had, to the city and to the team, to Detroit, to the organization. I think people appreciate that and I certainly appreciate the fans and how they treated me. They made me a star. When I came here, not a lot of people probably knew what I could do and who I could be and they helped me in that process. So I appreciate them and I think they probably appreciated what I’ve done and been to them.”
And as much as he appreciates the support of Pistons fans, he also had a message for them about the franchise’s future: “This organization is a winner and I know Joe is going to do whatever he can to make it a winner. They’ll be back on top.”