Former Pistons great Chauncey Billups faces former team as 'enemy' Blazers coach

By Steve Kornacki
Special to The Detroit News

Chauncey Billups led the Detroit Pistons to their last NBA title in 2004, had his No. 1 retired by them five years ago, and Tuesday night will go up against his old team as a head coach for the first time with the Trail Blazers in Portland.

There are sure to be plenty of emotions for Billups that he will do his best to repress and downplay in order to focus on the task at hand. But one thing is certain:

“Ahhh, he’s the enemy now.”

Portland Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups will face his former team Wednesday night.

Pistons radio analyst Rick Mahorn uttered those words about Billups’ upcoming confrontation during Friday night’s Detroit game with the Los Angeles Clippers. He, like virtually every professional athlete, knows the realities of uniforms and cities changing.

Mahorn, perhaps the baddest of the “Bad Boys,” learned he was going to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the NBA expansion draft immediately following the Pistons’ championship parade after winning the 1989 championship.

Billups was the point guard who steered Detroit’s title team 17 years ago, and now directs a Portland franchise that lost the 1990 NBA Finals to the Pistons, who repeated after Mahorn departed.

Mr. Big Shot, as he was known, left Detroit for his hometown Denver Nuggets in the infamous 2008 trade for Allen Iverson that ended six-plus memorable seasons with the Pistons as a four-time All-Star. He would also play for the New York Knicks and Clippers before returning to play his final 19 games for Detroit in 2013-14.

Billups scored 15,802 points, averaged 15.2 points and 5.4 assists per game, and shot .389 on 3-pointers and .894 at the free throw line. The backspin on his shots left a sweet sound of leather tickling net, and he was “Smooth” in every facet of the game. That, incidentally, was his other nickname.

He’s also smart and articulate, and it was no surprise that Billups became a studio and game analyst for ESPN and did Clippers broadcasts. His first real coaching experience came last season as an assistant to Clippers coach Tyronn Lue on a 47-25 team that reached the Western Conference Finals.

Billups, 45, had previously turned down an opportunity to work in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ front office and was considered for a coaching position with the Indiana Pacers.

Portland parted ways with Coach Terry Stotts — who took them to the playoffs in eight of his nine seasons and to the Western Conference Finals in 2019 — and chose Billups to lead them. Star point guard Damian Lillard, who aggravated a core injury in Monday night’s loss at Utah, supported Billups, and that helped with management.

The Blazers are 10-11, but 9-1 at the Moda Center, where they play Tuesday at 10 p.m. Pistons coach Dwane Casey said there’s always a transition time required when a franchise replaces a long-time coach, but is very confident in Billups’ ability to succeed.

“I’m surprised he hasn’t been a coach,” Casey said. “He’s been a great ambassador for the game all those years when he was in Detroit. When he first came into the league, he had that impact of leadership. He came around a lot in Toronto when I was with Toronto because of his relationship with (then Raptors All-Star guard) Kyle Lowry. But he’s done a heck of a job in Portland. Putting a team together, putting a coach together, there’s growing pains…Chauncey’s going to be an excellent coach for a long time in our league.”

The Pistons retired his No. 1 on Feb. 10, 2016 at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

Billups was flanked by his wife, Piper, three daughters and some of his “Goin’ to Work” teammates — Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Lindsey Hunter and Mehmet Okur. Together, they upset the Los Angeles Lakers, and did so dominantly in taking the 2004 Finals under Coach Larry Brown. Wallace’s No. 3 had been retired the month prior, and now both their numbers hang at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.

“This is just a humbling day for me,” Billups said before that ceremony. “It’s crazy; it’s like I really don’t believe that my name and my jersey is going to go up there with those guys’. As I went through my career, I never shot for that; that was never a goal of mine. I just wanted to be the best I could be; I didn’t know that was my best.”

Pistons owner Tom Gores gave a speech, along with franchise legends Isiah Thomas and Dave Bing (whose numbers are retired) and Hamilton, but the highlight came just before his jersey was raised to the rafters and Mr. Big Shot proclaimed: “I, Chauncey Billups, will always and forever be a Detroit Piston.”

Well, as a player, that will always be true. But now he’s coaching the “enemy,” and Billups is Blazing a new Trail.

Steve Kornacki is a freelance writer.