ORLANDO | Slowly but surely, Chauncey Billups made his way through pregame warm-ups.
It’s a routine he’s probably done night after night for over a decade. Walk out, get some free throws up, transition into a set of turnaround jumpers from the mid-post and, of course, wrap things up with a round of shots from downtown.
He didn’t even play against the Magic that night, and he only played in three preseason games.
But even at 37, Billups doesn’t just walk off the court in anonymity. He stops to take a photo with a couple in the stands, two clad in No. 1’s jersey. He makes his way to the other side of the court, stopping for more photos with more fans before signing autographs for every fan draped over the edge of the tunnel.
This is a guy who’s on his last legs; a shell of the Mr. Big Shot that most Pistons fans remember. There’s just an aura about him, and those fans have always gravitated toward it.
Returning to Detroit doesn’t seem like a token victory lap for him. He doesn’t have a ton left in the tank, but you can tell that seeing the franchise return to relevancy is kind of an end-of-career pet project.
Chances are he’ll be a cog in starting a Pistons’ revival — how big of one is another question — but maybe, with success, the fan buzz he’s garnered will gravitate back to the team, too.
“It’s fun,” Billups said after the Pistons’ 87-86 loss in Orlando. “We have generated a little bit of excitement — Piston basketball again — and I’m just happy to be a part of it. I’m a lifetime Piston, I feel, so I’m just happy to be a part of us kind of getting back to respectability.”
Maybe seeing familiar faces like Billups or assistant coach Rasheed Wallace helps to block out a forgettable stretch of failure.
For a franchise that hasn’t been respectable since Billups and Wallace were running pick-and-pops against the Celtics in the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals, it’s not a shock that a couple of diminished or retired fan favorites have rekindled some of the fire.
Those two aren’t what will make this team go, though. That starts with figuring out how to put together this team of odd-fitting pieces. The team’s top point guard, Brandon Jennings, is out with a broken jaw and the top backcourt reserve, Rodney Stuckey, out with a broken hand.
Neither played much, if at all, in the preseason. So, that whole, “Let’s figure out what guards are going to make this unbalanced roster roll” experiment is going have to happen early in the regular season now.
“There’s nothing really you can do in the preseason about it. You’ve got a lot of key guys out; people haven’t really seen what our team is really going to look like yet,” Billups said. “They will when Brandon (Jennings) gets back, and (Rodney) Stuckey gets back and I’m playing all the time. It changes a little bit. You’ve got playmakers out there to go with these big guys, so I’m looking forward to seeing what it is, as well.”
At times in Orlando, the team looked good. Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond and Josh Smith all had moments where things clicked. But, there were also times where — without those starting-caliber guards — the product looked like an absolute mess of tall, confused men with no room to operate on the floor.
It’s impossible to say what will fix the ills of this team because, like Billups said, no one has seen the full product.
Maybe it’s the guy that most of the Pistons’ fans have given up on, Stuckey. Billups was traded with the idea of Stuckey being the next in line, ready to step up. Well, that didn’t quite happen, but even after a disappointing stretch from Stuckey, the vet is excited to work with his former protégé.
“I’ve had some conversations with him, and that’s another one of the reasons why I’m happy to be back is I get to get him back under my wing again,” Billups said. “He’s back focused. Man, I really hate that he got hurt because he’s back focused, and he was playing great. Just him being able to attack and get people in foul trouble and just be able to go out there and score is going to be big for this team.”