"I miss the guys dearly," former Pistons star Chauncey Billups said after practicing with his new team, the Denver Nuggets, at Oakland University before tonight's game at The Palace. (Daniel Mears/The Detroit News)
AUBURN HILLS -- Finally, after several minutes of pleasant conversation, Chauncey Billups said it. As soon as he said it, I knew it was right, the appropriate way to sum up where Billups is now, and where the Pistons are without him.
"People probably took it all for granted," he said, and for a moment, the smile was gone. "There was so much that I did for the team that went unnoticed. With all the success, I think a lot of things were taken for granted. We had a great run."
And you can bet, when Billups returns to The Palace tonight with the Denver Nuggets, the crowd will acknowledge it. I'd be stunned if there was anything less than a standing ovation, and Billups expects it to be very emotional.
Taken for granted? We're probably all guilty. Since Joe Dumars traded Billups to Denver for Allen Iverson on Nov. 3, the evidence is there. The Nuggets are 39-21; the Pistons are 29-29 and scrapping for the sixth seed in the East.
The evidence also is reflected in Iverson's absence. He headed to Washington on Monday for further tests on his ailing back, which conveniently allowed him to delay his new role coming off the bench, and allowed him to miss Billups' homecoming. Richard Hamilton has been very good since returning to the starting lineup, which doesn't mean Iverson's impact is gone. It does mean if Iverson truly wants to win, as he insists, he has to prove it and adjust.
There's no doubt the trade has worked tremendously for the Nuggets and hasn't worked at all for the Pistons -- yet. But this also was a long-term move by the Pistons, who will free up salary-cap space with Iverson's expiring contract.
New star needed
The only way Dumars ultimately can feel good about it is by using the cap space to acquire a star. There's no guarantee of that, which is the gamble Dumars was willing to take (and to be fair, many of us endorsed). But if there's a lesson in the Billups saga, it's this: Don't ever take success for granted.
"I miss the guys dearly, and I know they miss me too," Billups said. "When you spend pretty much every single day of your life the last six or seven years with the same group of guys, then all of a sudden it's just taken away, it's tough."
To a certain degree, Billups took it for granted, figuring he was a Piston for life. And the Pistons (and their fans) took monotonous success for granted, the six straight Eastern Conference finals and the 2004 NBA Championship, when Billups was the Finals MVP.
Break 'em up! That's what many shouted after the Pistons lost to the Celtics last season and Flip Saunders became the latest coaching casualty. Eventually, that's what Dumars did, and we'll judge the wisdom of it in the next offseason or two. Right now, the Pistons are a shell -- although two straight road victories are encouraging -- and Billups looks reborn in Denver, his hometown.
"Sometimes when things happen, they kind of rejuvenate you," said Billups, averaging 18.5 points and 6.1 assists. "People think I was just a great player in the Detroit system. I wanted people to know I'm a great player no matter where I'm at."
Here, he was Mr. Big Shot, the calming leader, but as the Pistons failed to reprise their championship, Billups' postseason performance came under scrutiny. To be frank, the Pistons didn't appear capable of winning it all as assembled, and some people even think Dumars waited too long to break them up, which is ridiculous.
At 32, with six terrific seasons here, Billups thinks they were broken up too soon, which is debatable.
"Yep, I do," he said. "People said I'd gotten old, but I truly believe, if I hadn't gotten hurt (hamstring), we'd have beaten Boston and won another championship."
Broken is the word
It's too early to call the Billups trade a flat-out mistake, but it's right to call it a miscalculation. Having a rookie head coach, Michael Curry, in charge of a complex transition is difficult. At the same time the Pistons were developing point guard Rodney Stuckey, they tried to work in Iverson's ball-dominating style.
At times, it's been horrible. The Pistons broke their eight-game losing streak with Hamilton back in the starting lineup, which now is the plan.
From afar, Billups doesn't seem shocked.
"Rip will be fine," he said. "I think both of those guys (Hamilton and Iverson) are starters. But with Rip, I would never think he'd be somebody that comes off the bench."
Billups stood in an emptying gym at Oakland University, where the Nuggets practiced Monday. His head was still clean-shaven, his smile was still broad. But when he left there, he was headed to the team hotel, not to his house, which is for sale.
Once again, he emphasized he wasn't bitter. It was business, he understood. But something Billups believed wasn't broken didn't get fixed, and now it's really broken.
"Even though I'm not on (the Pistons), I always root for them," he said. "It's tough to see them struggle, but they've been playing better lately, and they'll be back on top again. I'll always cherish this city and this team and these fans. I miss all of it, I really do."
Billups had it good and did plenty of good here, and he knew it. The Pistons had it good with him here, and they know it even better now.