Why Detroit Pistons great Chauncey Billups is a believer in former team’s rebuild

Detroit Free Press

PORTLAND, Ore. — Chauncey Billups’ pregame availability on Tuesday doubled as a family reunion. He sat down at the podium, glanced to his right and immediately cracked a joke with Cletus Lewis, the Detroit Pistons‘ vice president of public relations. Billups scanned the media members sitting in front of him and greeted George Blaha, the team’s longtime play-by-play voice, and Mark Champion, its longtime radio voice.

“Special K! What’s up, baby?,” Billups said after the conference, as he dapped Greg Kelser, the Pistons’ color commentator.

Billups, hired as the head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers in June, needs little introduction for Pistons fans. He’s one of the greatest point guards in franchise history, earning NBA Finals MVP in 2004 after leading the Pistons to an upset win over the Los Angeles Lakers. He made five All-Star teams during his 17-year career, including three as a Pistons from 2006-08, when “Mr. Big Shot” was celebrated for his leadership and his clutchness. His jersey was retired at The Palace of Auburn Hills in 2016 and hangs in the rafters at Little Caesars Arena.

Tuesday was his first time coaching against his former team, though, as the Pistons faced the Blazers at Moda Center. It was a sweet moment for Billups, who has warm feelings toward the team that helped him become a star.

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“Every time I get an opportunity to play or coach or whatever it is, be in contact with the Pistons, it’s always special for me,” Billups said. “Everybody knows not only my history, but my feelings on the organization and the city, the fans there. So I’m happy. You get to see so many people that you built relationships with over those years, that you don’t get to see every day any more. That’s always fun. That’s always special. Those are obviously the thoughts that I have every single time.

Billups had long held interest in leading an NBA team, either as a head coach or general manager. He had talks with the Pistons even before the organization hired Stan Van Gundy as head coach and president of basketball operations in 2014, and was reportedly considered to join a revamped front office under Arn Tellem in 2018 — a report that both Billups and the Pistons denied.

After several seasons as a studio analyst with ESPN, Billups joined the Los Angeles Clippers in November 2020 as their lead assistant before fulfilling his goal of becoming a head coach this summer.

“It’s great to see,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. “Chauncey has been a great leader in his playing career. Got to know him really well because of his relationship with one of my former players in Toronto, Kyle Lowry. He just has ‘it,’ that natural leadership ability. It’s good to see him get the opportunity.”

The Pistons haven’t won a playoff game since they traded Billups to the Denver Nuggets for Allen Iverson less than a week into the 2008-09 season. After six straight Eastern Conference Finals appearances from 2003-08, the franchise has made just three postseason trips in 13 years. This season will likely be their 14th without a playoff victory.

But Billups is fan of their current rebuild, led by general manager Troy Weaver and is headlined by guard Cade Cunningham. The 2021 No. 1 overall pick has struggled with his shooting early, but has also shown why he was the near-consensus top prospect in a talented draft.

“I think Cade, he’s had some ups and downs already this season but he’s trying to figure it out,” Billups said. “He’s trying to figure it out. I watched him a couple of games ago. I’ve seen him sometimes thinking, ‘When should I shoot, when should I try to play-make?’ thinking he has an advantage, and he probably does, but maybe it’s time to pass. I don’t think he had to think about those things before, when he was in college. Just be aggressive at all times. He’s now playing with guys that are really good players. He’s probably never played with anybody that was better than him before. Those are adjustments that have to happen when you make it to the NBA, and he’s just going through those things. I love everything about him. I think he’s a winner. He’s multi-talented, he can kinda do it all. You can put the ball in his hands and he can play-make for you, get a basket for you. I think he’s going to be an excellent player.”

Likewise, Billups noted that the Pistons are still working on their offensive consistency.

“They just play so hard, man,” Billups said. “They just play so hard. They play a lot of random basketball offensively, which, you’ve got to stick to your principles when you guard them, because they’ll have you all over the place. It’s actually worked for them. They’ve been in most games. Their inexperience shows up at some point, but this is a team that can beat you because they compete so hard. If you let your guard down, it’ll be their night.”

Billups’ brief reunion with Pistons staff on Tuesday was the first of two times this season he’ll get the opportunity to reunite with those he spent so much time with in Detroit. The Blazers make their lone trip to Detroit on March 21.

But there will likely be more opportunities. Portland’s front office expressed confidence in Billups’ leadership ability and knowledge of the game. The Blazers, a game below .500 entering Tuesday, have played one of the NBA’s hardest schedules and now have one of the easiest remaining schedules.

It has been a long time coming for Billups, and he’s appreciative of the organization that helped him get to where he is today.

“You circle those games on the schedule because of those reasons, and when the schedule came out I was disappointed because we’re playing both sides on the back-to-back,” Billups said. “Utah last and then when we go there, we’ll be coming from Indiana. Doesn’t give you a lot of time to spend with those special people.

“It’s always just good, though.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Pistons content. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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