So much has changed since the last time Chauncey Billups set foot inside the home locker room at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
Billups, a relatively late bloomer in the basketball world, is now playing out the twilight years of his career. A torn Achilles and a later foot injury limited him to just 42 games over the past two seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Detroit Pistons are also a drastically different team than the one he left behind two games into the 2008-09 season. Detroit was an Eastern Conference finalist in Billups' last full season with the team but is currently mired in a four-year playoff drought.
Only two of Billups' former Pistons teammates still remain on the roster, reserve guards Rodney Stuckey and Will Bynum, but the 16-year veteran will find a familiar face on the Detroit sideline. Rasheed Wallace, who started with Billups on Detroit's 2004 championship team, is now serving in an assistant's role on new coach Maurice Cheeks' staff.
But amid all of the changes that have transpired since Billups last called Detroit his basketball home, could those old feelings of success be rekindled by the Pistons' prodigal son?
Detroit general manager Joe Dumars had spent the past few seasons slowly righting the ship for the former Eastern Conference power. A tantalizing group of blossoming bigs (Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe) and a prolific scoring guard (Brandon Knight) had the youthful Pistons holding at least an outside shot at a postseason return for the 2013-14 campaign.
Seeking a way to speed up his rebuilding project, Dumars attacked the 2013 free-agent crop with enough cap space to land an impactful player. He tabbed former Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith, a versatile forward with the athleticism and skill set to produce at both ends of the floor, to be that guy.
Smith landed in Detroit by way of a four-year, $54 million contract. Billups' return won't have the same financial impact on the Pistons—his two-year deal is reportedly worth $5 million—but his impact inside his former locker room could be too great to quantify.
Drummond, Monroe and Knight have never even sampled postseason hoops. Even Smith's playoff palate has never savored more than a second-round appetizer, and he's enjoyed all of three postseason series wins in his nine-year career.
Billups eats, sleeps and breathes playoff hoops.
He's been to basketball's biggest dance 12 different times. He's scaled the game's greatest summit twice (2004 and 2005 NBA Finals) and has a championship ring and a Finals MVP to show for his efforts.
There's a reason Detroit's youngsters can't say enough about their virtual throwback to the days of player-coaches.
Chauncey's the best. You can ask anybody around this league, they only have great things to say about him. I think we're all excited as an organization, but also the fans, too, as well. He's done great things for the city of Detroit, and you're just happy to have a guy like that back.
Monroe told Ellis that Billups is "an ambassador of the game" who should "help the younger guys on the team advance a little bit quicker because of his knowledge, his maturity and his leadership."
A less-is-more train of thought may be the best path for Pistons fans to follow regarding Billups' return.
He still has some good basketball left in his 36-year-old legs, but he no longer has the body to shoulder a starring role on an NBA roster. He barely eclipsed a 40.0 field-goal percentage last season (40.2 to be exact) and was only a 36.4 percent shooter in the year prior.
But while the expectations for Billups' individual success should be tempered, hopes for a Pistons return to relevance are anything but unfounded.
Monroe looks well on his way to a prolonged stretch as a 20-point, 10-rebound producer. Drummond is already building his All-Star campaign with a dominant week at the Orlando Summer League. For all of his faults, Smith is a supremely talented player, and no analyst can accurately predict what he'll look like when he's not playing home games in his native Georgia.
Billups' championship days may be long gone, but no one should be surprised if a postseason dessert is served up as the icing on the cake for one of the true good guys in the league.
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