Is signing Chauncey Billups some kind of sentimental publicity stunt? You want the long answer? Hell no.
Is sentiment involved? Perhaps. The prodigal son returns! That may sell a few tickets. But first and foremost this is a shrewd signing by a front office that doesn’t always do shrewd, a low risk and supremely high reward scenario. You’ll recall that things started to go very bad in Pistons Land when Chauncey was shipped out, the sacrificial lamb of a Pistons squad that had somewhat of a too comfortable attitude emanating from them. Pundits and fans wailed that the six straight trips to the Eastern Conference Finals weren’t good enough. Detroit had won it all in 2004, and come so, so close in 2005. Expectations were high. Some fanbases would kill for such high expectations, but that’s beside the point. Fan suffering is all relative, heavy doses of objectivity are needed to keep you grounded. Detroit had a very good team, but Joe Dumars thought he had a plan and it involved a gamble and some cap space. He had a capable bench, diamonds in the rough, players such as Jason Maxiell, Amir Johnson, Aaron Afflalo, and the much lauded (within the organization at least!) Rodney Stuckey. They were solid. More than solid, the Pistons were really good. They were coming off a 59 win season and an Eastern Conference Finals loss to the eventual NBA champs, a mercenary outfit known as the Boston Celtics. It was too much of the same though, so Billups was sent to Denver for mega-star Allen Iverson.
Unfortunately, this was the Iverson of 2008, and this was pretty much the moment the brainiacs in the backrooms started printing out spreadsheets and consulting new fangled advanced statistics and coming to the realization that efficiency and team play might trump prolific scoring. It’s a debate that the casual fan is still struggling over, though the eggheads have won as evidenced by the mild disdain by any basketball dweeb when the name Monta Ellis comes up. Iverson came to Detroit talking about championships and he left in muffled disgrace and his NBA career was effectively over, as stints in Memphis and Philadelphia ended anti-climactically. Several coaches in over their heads, terrible Free Agent signings in Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, a ton of losing, and a particularly ugly mutiny led by Rip Hamilton followed, as two different Pistons teams emerged, the Hamilton-Prince faction that still believed they called the shots, and the youngsters, just happy to be there, playing their hearts out.
As Michael Rosenberg argues here, if you don’t trade Billups, none of this would ever have happened. That may be a slight exaggeration, a slight dip into fantasy, but miraculously, it may be mostly true. Billups was more than a dude who could hit timely three point shots. He was a leader of men, and he kept some pretty volatile attitudes in line. When he was exiled (along with Antonio McDyess, another character guy who actually came back to the team that traded him) things just fell apart. Teams lose. That happens. Sometimes prospects like Rodney Stuckey don’t pan out. But the sheer unrelenting ugliness of those few years in Detroit are hard to forget. When half the team skipped shoot-around in a weird power play to effectively put John Kuester out of a job, well, that was about as gruesome a display as you’re likely to see in professional sports. The Pistons went from title contender to laughingstock in one step.
Chauncey Billups isn’t the same player the Pistons traded away. That player led the Denver Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals. He’s may not even be the same player that filled in admirably as a 2 guard on a Chris Paul led Clippers. Injuries and age are inexorable, and Billups long ago crested his peak. But he’s still Chauncey. He can still hold a team together. Whether he starts or comes off the bench, he will positively impact the game, mentor the youngsters, and support Mo Cheeks as a de facto right hand man on the court. He is the counterpoint to the much needed fire that Josh Smith will bring, cool as a cucumber, a soft spoken winner. The Pistons freakish frontcourt will be beautiful chaos, but behind that will be as solid a hand that the league has seen in decades. Chauncey Billups is back, and though it is a great story-a story that runs the full gamut of victory, defeat, loss, disgrace and redemption- the story is the sideshow. This is about turning around a toxic culture and winning some damn basketball games.
Mr. Big Shot is back and not a moment too soon. Let the tears of joy commence.