Marketing whizzes love to throw big, rhetorical “choices” at us. Is it a phone or is it a computer? Is it soup or is it a meal? Is it a salad dressing or is it a floor wax?
Well, here’s another one … NBA-style: Is Chauncey Billups a combo guard for the Detroit Pistons or is he a mentor and coach’s apprentice?
For now, and both the player and the team are sticking to this story, Billups is both. That’s usually the “wink-wink” point of those commercials anyway.
Billups, 37, is in his 17th NBA season, a five-time All-Star who has played for seven different teams, twice finished in the top six in MVP balloting and won the Finals MVP award for being the floor leader of Detroit’s ensemble title in 2004. The No. 3 pick in the 1997 (Tim Duncan) Draft, Billups enjoyed the best six-plus seasons of his career with the Pistons and he re-signed in July with the idea, again, of boosting their point guard play. After all, through two years, young Brandon Knight had handled the position more like a miscast shooting guard.
Two weeks later, though, Detroit president Joe Dumars swapped Knight in a sign-and-trade for Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings, no purist’s dream as a playmaker but at least more proven and committed as a point guard. That cast Billups’ return in a different light — he had played shooting guard next to Chris Paul for the stretches they both were healthy in 2011-12 and last season, but then the Pistons also had Rodney Stuckey, Kyle Singler and lottery pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as options there.
So, Billups told Detroit reporters that he didn’t need to start and understood the team’s vision, adding “Here’s my thing: I don’t mind playing the 2 only if I’m able to play like a point guard. Control it, play with the ball in my hands, make plays, have an effect on the game.”
Everyone, most notably Billups, still is waiting to see how that works out. Through the Pistons’ first four preseason games, Billups logged just 19 minutes in one game, missing four field goals, hitting a pair of free throws and dishing a couple assists. With Detroit getting a lovely preseason back-to-back, there was a chance he would play again Thursday in Cleveland. The veteran guard said he’s healthy after two horribly scarred seasons of injuries (left Achilles, foot tendinitis, groin strain and back pain).
Coach Maurice Cheeks still sees a guy in a uniform, working on a $2.5 million salary with a team option next summer for the same amount.
“No. 1, I think he can still play,” Cheeks said Wednesday night in Chicago. “His knowledge and the things he can still do on the court — he can still shoot the ball, he can still run pick-and-roll, he can still do certain things that he did before. Maybe not at the pace he did before, but he can still do ’em.”
In the six consecutive seasons in which he helped Detroit reach the East, from 2002-03 through 2007-08, Billups on a 36-minute basis averaged 17.7 points, 6.6 assists and 1.1 steals, with a PER rating of 21.0 and shooting percentages of 42.4/40.0/89.2.
Since the start of 2008-09, same 36-minute prorating, he’s been at 18.9 points, 6.0 assists and 1.1 steals, with a PER of 18.8 and a shooting line of 41.6/39.5/91.3.
He’s very well could be capable of similar performances. Just not for as long or as often.
“You’ll see it, you’ll see it,” Billups said, when a familiar face asked him about his DNP against the Bulls. “Absolutely I’m fine [being a veteran voice]. But I’ll be here to play and help. As needed. I mean, I’m not going to play 35 minutes a game. If I want to make it through I’m not. But nah, I’m here, man. I’m healthy to play.”
The openings might be there, given the NBA’s injurious ways. Jennings and Stuckey both are hurt, the former with a hairline jaw fracture and impacted wisdom tooth, the latter with a bum thumb. Caldwell-Pope looked good with 18 points and seven rebounds in 40 reserve minutes Wednesday and another newbie, Peyton Siva, logged 26 minutes backing up Will Bynum. But they’re rookies.
In the meantime, Billups can be Yoda, the vestiges of his serious Jedi game under wraps.
“Off the court, his knowledge can only help our team,” Cheeks said. “He’s been through every situation imaginable. … Things I’m trying to tell ’em, he can reinforce it to players. Any time a player of Chauncey’s [status] says it, it validates what the coach is saying.
“Jennings, Bynum, Siva, Kentavious. He can help a lot of guys: big guys, small guys. He can help ME.”
Said Bynum: “Chauncey’s been through the wars. He’s been through ups, he’s been through downs. We’re all eager to learn from that. It’s the small attention to details, the critical things. Splitting the screeners, small things Chauncey’s telling us that can be the difference between winning and losing.”
Then Bynum — with Stuckey, the only two Pistons remaining from Billups’ first Detroit stint — stuck in a needle for old time’s sake. “I hope he’s healthy enough to play on an everyday basis,” Bynum said. “Father Time’s undefeated, though.”