Chauncey Billups, left, and Joe Dumars are all smiles as they answer questions from reporters during the press conference Tuesdat at The Palace of Auburn Hills. (Clarence Tabb, Jr./The Detroit News)
Auburn Hills — This isn’t all about nostalgia, even if it looks that way. Sure, it was a happy day for the Pistons as they welcomed back Chauncey Billups, handed him his old jersey No. 1 and declared bygones long gone.
But beneath the feel-good emotions and the make-good sentimentality was a play-good promise, which is all that matters now. Billups made it, saying he wasn’t coming back at 36 just to be a mentor. Joe Dumars made it, saying he was very comfortable with the offseason improvements and was hunting for more.
The Pistons took a look back by reclaiming their savvy point guard Tuesday, but it’s not a step back. It’s a low-risk move and an acknowledgement of why the franchise lost its way, and how desperate it is to find its way back.
Billups might help some fans reconnect to the Pistons, but truly, that’s incidental. He can help young Brandon Knight develop, and might even help Rodney Stuckey figure a few things out. And frankly, Billups might even have to be the Pistons’ starting point guard.
Dumars is in the final year of his contract and making the playoffs now seems essential, with a new owner in Tom Gores, a half-empty arena and five straight losing seasons. The Pistons have fine young pieces in Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, but trying to win with an unproven point guard is tough. It’s partly why Dumars bypassed Trey Burke in the draft, and why the Pistons are mentioned in every trade rumor involving the Celtics’ Rajon Rondo, even though Dumars denies them.
It’s why the Pistons drafted someone who appears more NBA-ready, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and why they doled out $54 million for mercurial but talented forward Josh Smith.
“I know we can compete for (the playoffs) now,” Dumars said. “We’ve upgraded the talent, the shooting, the leadership, the athleticism. I’m really comfortable if we had to go into the season with this roster. But you can’t shut the door and say, ‘OK, we’re done.’ ”
Dumars hired a veteran coach, Maurice Cheeks, and brought back Billups and Rasheed Wallace, who will serve as an assistant in charge of the big men. There’s some nostalgia to it, but also some necessity. Passivity isn’t acceptable anymore. Leadership is mandatory. And making the playoffs is a completely reasonable goal.
Respectability the plan
As he sat on the dais at The Palace Tuesday, Billups exhibited all the charisma and strong-willed smarts that made him so popular. He talked about the hurt he felt when traded by Dumars, how he wanted to be a “Piston for life” and plans to retire here when his contract expires in two years.
Billups is not nearly the player who led the Pistons to the 2004 championship and to the Finals the following season. He played 63 games the past three seasons with the Clippers and Knicks and suffered a torn Achilles tendon in 2012, but he says he feels great now. After Dumars dealt his captain for Allen Iverson in 2008, Billups posted a scoring average (17.5) and assist total with the Nuggets not far from his Pistons numbers.
When Billups watched from afar, still miffed he’d been traded, he sometimes couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
“Being away on other teams, I hated to see The Palace look the way it looks, with nobody watching,” Billups said. “Respectability is the word for me. I don’t know in two years if it can get back to what it was when I left, but making the playoffs is a goal we gotta have from Day 1.”
It’s funny sometimes how the circle closes. When Dumars dealt Billups, he was signaling the launch of a rebuilding process, whether he admitted it or not. As he brings Billups back, he’s subtly saying the sluggish rebuilding process has to be accelerated.
Dumars denied rumors he’d offered Knight and others to the Celtics for Rondo, the star recovering from a knee injury. But make no mistake, when Rondo is healthy and the Celtics’ Danny Ainge is ready to listen to a deal not involving Drummond, the Pistons will talk.
Feels right to Dumars
Dumars has tried bold moves before, including the ill-fated Billups trade. That didn’t work because Iverson had nothing left, and because Dumars wasted the cap space on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. Dumars said again Tuesday it’s the one deal he fully regrets, but signing Billups wasn’t necessarily a payback.
Amends or amens, it’s a solid move that at least adds a respected voice to a young dressing room.
“I don’t want anyone to think, aw, they did that because it’s a feel-good moment,” Dumars said. “If he couldn’t play, there’s no way we’d be doing this. But does it feel right and feel good to have him back? Absolutely.”
There’s nothing wrong with the occasional feel-good moment to soothe the pain of clawing back to respectability. It’s hard to tell how much Billups has left but the Pistons will take it, and finally might stop regretting they didn’t keep it.