|Friday, July 19
Updated: July 22, 11:00 AM ET
Billups fills up Pistons' biggest hole
By Mitch Lawrence
Special to ESPN.com
Back when the Detroit Pistons were enforcing the "Jordan Rules" and were kings of the basketball world, Joe Dumars had one particular admirer out in Denver at George Washington High School.
"I tried to pattern my game after Joe Dumars," Chauncey Billups said. "I've always looked up to him and respected him."
Now if Billups can only give the Pistons half the kind of stellar play that Dumars did during his playing days ... who knows, they might continue their surprising march right back to the top of the Eastern Conference.
By signing Bullups away from Minnesota and to a six-year, $34 million deal, the Pistons have appeared to shore up that glaring weakness, even if he's technically not a point guard. Fact is, he's an upgrade from Atkins, who was miscast as a starter, and a defensive liability at only 5-foot-11.
Take it from Dumars, who was a fixture on the NBA All-Defense teams (four times a first-team, one time a second-teamer) and the key to Chuck Daly's "Jordan Rules defense" that propelled Detroit by Michael Jordan and to world championships in 1989 and 1990.
"At the end of the game, you need guys with some flexibility that can guard different positions," said Dumars, now the Pistons president of basketball operations who might have been describing himself. "Chauncey speaks to very certain needs for us."
Of course, Billups doesn't speak to the Pistons' greatest need: A bona fide superstar who can take Detroit to a world title. Isiah Thomas, he's not.
But in the East, where those kinds of players simply don't exist, the Pistons can plug in Billups next to Jerry Stackhouse, build off of last year's Central Division title, and challenge the Nets for the top spot in the conference. Hey, that's not bad, considering where this franchise was just two short summers ago.
In the gutter, with no hope in sight.
In the summer of 2000, the Pistons lost their only true superstar, Grant Hill, as a free agent to Orlando. They never got out of the first round with Hill in four playoff seasons, a fact that dogged him during his stay in the Motor City. But without him, it didn't seem possible that they'd ever get back to the playoffs again.
Today, when you look at how little Hill has played for Orlando and what Ben Wallace, who went to the Pistons with Atkins in the sign-and-trade, has done, there's no question that the Pistons got the better of the deal. (The Magic are still kicking themselves, and not just because they knew Hill had ankle problems when they signed him to the $92 million deal. They also had the choice of keeping Wallace or John Amaechi and sending the other off to Detroit ... and they kept Amaechi.)
Then there was the trade that was very nearly made. A few weeks after losing Hill, the Pistons thought they had a deal to win the fans back and get them right back in the playoff hunt. Knowing he had to do something huge to offset Hill's loss, Pistons' owner Bill Davidson approved a three-way deal with Philadelphia and Charlotte that would bring Allen Iverson to Detroit. But after signing off on the trade, Davidson learned that Matt Geiger, also coming to his team from Philly, refused to waive a trade kicker.
So Iverson-to-Detroit died -- something the Pistons must get down on their knees and thank their lucky stars about every time they read the latest news out of Philadelphia these days.
No Hill. No Iverson. And yet, just two years later, Dumars and Co. have built themselves a nice little team around Stackhouse and Wallace, found the right coach in Rick Carlisle, and now have added what should be an important piece in Billups. Again, it doesn't make the Pistons the class of the East or even a title contender. But it should make them better.
It's not as if Anderson was the Second Coming of Iverson -- on the court, not in court -- when the Pistons' surprising season came to an end last May. Anderson averaged only 13.8 points on 40 percent shooting for the series.
But he finished with more points than Atkins and Jones combined (69-63) and more baskets (29-23), while the two Pistons' point guards were both making less than 30 percent of their shots from the field.
So drawing up their offseason free-agent shopping list, the Pistons knew they had to get better at the position where Thomas once dominated. Although Carlisle had known Travis Best from their days together in Indiana, Best turned 30 this month. Billups is four years his junior. Plus, in a conference where big guards are the norm, Best is also only 5-11. The 6-3 Billups quickly emerged as their No. 1 choice.
"To have a free agent the caliber of Chauncey Billups choose Detroit is a big moment for this franchise," said Carlisle, last season's Coach of the Year. "He saw a group of unselfish guys who care only about winning and he wanted to be a part of it. We won't hesitate to slide Chauncey over to the two spot and have him and Chucky both in there at the same time because of Chauncey's size, or have Chauncey at the point and have Chucky coming off picks. This gives us a lot of versatility."
Billups didn't get the number he wanted -- 4 -- because Dumars personally saw to it that it went right to the rafters of the Palace of Auburn Hills after his playing days were over. But he did get the No. 1 job he never had in Minnesota when Terrell Brandon was healthy. That was reason enough to leave Kevin Garnett and the murderous West.
"Detroit showed a lot of interest in me right from the start, and as a free agent, that's what you want," Billups said. "I really feel like they wanted me."
And as for his defense?
"I think I'm a good defender," he said, "and with a little work, I hope to become an even better defensive player."
If he studies tapes of Joe Dumars, he's got a chance.
Mitch Lawrence, who covers the NBA for the New York Daily News, writes a regular NBA column for ESPN.com.