No one, no matter how big the name, gets a two-year farewell tour.
No, this was about protecting Detroit's investments in blossoming bigs Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. It was the safety net in a swing-for-the-fences offseason that brought feast-or-famine contributors Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings into the fold.
That was the plan, at least.
Nearly four months into general manager Joe Dumars' latest quick-fix experiment, though, Billups is standing out as the Pistons' worst gamble. He has struggled to see the floor (19 appearances in Detroit's 58 games) and encountered even more problems when he's hit the hardwood (3.8 points on .304/.292/.833 shooting).
He's now sidelined for at least the near future after having arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. The 37-year-old admits he can see the finish line rapidly approaching.
“My gas light is on, but I don’t know if I have 15 miles left or 30,” he said, via Keith Langlois of Pistons.com. “The light is on, though.”
The mileage has certainly piled up over his 16-plus seasons in the NBA, but what a ride it's been. As "Mr. Big Shot" creeps closer (or beyond) his last shot, let's travel down that path and see where it might be headed next.
After two seasons of net shredding (career 18.5 points) and table setting (5.1 assists) at the University of Colorado, Billups tossed his hat into the 1997 NBA draft.
It wouldn't sit there for long. The Boston Celtics snatched him up with the third overall selection, something of a consolation prize for missing out on the Tim Duncan lottery jackpot.
Billups needed seasoning, but the Celtics and first-year coach Rick Pitino were short on patience. The stench of the previous season's 15-67 record loomed large over the storied franchise, and Billups was moved after 51 games with the Celtics in a seven-player deal that sent him to the Toronto Raptors.
From there, Billups kept bouncing like the lottery ping-pong balls that initially determined his point of NBA entry.
He played 29 games for the Raptors before being shipped out to his hometown Denver Nuggets prior to the start of the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season. He made 58 appearances over parts of two seasons for the Nuggets before a shoulder surgery put him on the shelf in late 1999.
He was moved again at the 2000 trade deadline, this time winding up with the Orlando Magic in a five-player swap. He never suited up for the Magic, though, finishing that season on the injury report and then inking a free-agent deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves over the offseason.
Billups was brought in to back up incumbent starter Terrell Brandon but caught something of a break when Brandon suffered a knee injury in 2001-02. Forced into action, Billups' stat sheet, while still falling well short of his draft position, at least showed a player picking up the pieces—12.5 points with then-career bests in assists (5.5), field-goal percentage (42.3) and three-point shooting (39.4).
Still, an underwhelming five-year sample (11.3 points and 4.2 assists) left him fighting the dreaded "bust" label. Luckily, his next NBA move would help him hurl a knockout blow at that assessment.
Finding a Home—and a Place in the History Books
Fit and opportunity are vital components of draft assessments, but they're too often forgotten for the seasons that follow. When a top pick struggles, it's easier to write him off as a disappointment than it is to dig deeper for the reasons behind his less than impressive stats.
The Pistons didn't make that mistake. They saw untapped potential in Billups and lured him in on a six-year deal.
"He's a pretty good size for his position," Dumars said of Billups at the time, per the Associated Press, via SI.com. "We like the fact he's poised on the court."
Billups liked the fact that he finally had free rein to run an offense—and his numbers reflected it. His first season in Detroit produced new career highs in scoring (16.2 points) and efficiency (20.4 player efficiency rating).
It also powered the Pistons to their second consecutive 50-win season and their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance in more than a decade.
Dumars had found a winning formula, but he kept tinkering with it. Coach Rick Carlisle was ousted in favor of Hall of Famer Larry Brown. The executive's boldest, and eventually most impactful, move was a three-team trade-deadline exchange that brought veteran big man Rasheed Wallace to the Motor City.
Brown's players bought into his methods, and the Pistons unleashed a suffocating defense rife with length and intensity.
Billups led the defensive charge (Detroit finished second in defensive efficiency, allowing 95.4 points per 100 possessions, via Basketball-Reference.com.), but he also drove the offense. He finished second on the team in scoring (16.9 points), assisted on more than 29 percent of Detroit's field goals when he was on the floor and gave away just 2.4 turnovers in 35.4 minutes a night.
The Pistons rattled off 54 wins and grabbed the Eastern Conference's No. 3 seed. They survived a seven-game slugfest with the second-seeded New Jersey Nets in the conference semis and then dispatched the top-seeded Indiana Pacers (coincidentally coached by Carlisle) in only six games in the following round.
The mighty Los Angeles Lakers, who were only one season removed from a three-peat, awaited them in the NBA Finals. Behind Billups' steady hand, the Pistons needed all of five games to knock off the heavy on-paper favorites.
Billups averaged 21 points on .509/.471/.929 shooting and 5.2 assists in the series. After those five games, the former "flop" had a championship ring and an NBA Finals MVP award sitting on his mantle.
This was both a crowning achievement and a sign of things to come.
Although the Pistons haven't won a title since, Billups did lead them back to the NBA Finals the following season. Detroit suffered three straight eliminations in the Eastern Conference Finals during the three seasons after that.
While he'd lifted the Pistons back to relevance, Detroit had given him a platform to succeed. He made three All-Star appearances and was named to two All-NBA teams during his tenure.
His first six seasons in Detroit yielded 17.0 points, 6.3 assists and a well-deserved reputation as a clutch contributor.
It did not, however, earn him a permanent home.
Back to Where It Started
Following their third consecutive Eastern Conference Finals loss, the Pistons were feeling restless. That's all it took for Billups to rediscover the nomadic nature of an NBA career.
Two games into the 2008-09 season, Billups was sent as part of a three-player package to the Nuggets for Allen Iverson.
Dumars subsequently said that it was "without a doubt" a mistake to move Billups when he did. "If I had to do it all over again, absolutely not," he said, via Jeff Seidel of USA Today. "I never would have made that move."
Iverson played 54 games in all for the Pistons, who were ousted in the opening round of the 2009 postseason and haven't had their playoff ticket punched since.
While it was the beginning of a nightmare for Dumars, it was a fantasy realized for Billups.
"I am extremely happy to be home. It's a dream," Billups said at a press conference, via ESPN.com. "It's a dream to me to be coming back home at a time of my career where I'm established."
His hometown couldn't have treated him any better. He was the perfect Robin to Carmelo Anthony's Batman, averaging 17.9 points on .420/.410/.913 shooting and 6.4 assists alongside the scoring forward.
By season's end, he managed to do something none of Melo's teammates before or since have done—get him multiple playoff series wins.
Behind Billups, Anthony and coach George Karl's wizardry, the Nuggets made their first Western Conference Finals appearance since 1985.
Of course, that's just what Billups does. It marked his seventh consecutive conference finals, a feat matched by only four other players since 1970.
Billups was an All-Star and All-NBA third-team selection in 2008-09, and he found his way back onto the All-Star squad the following season.
None of that could help hold him in one spot, though. As had been the case so many times before, someone else's impatience forced him to start packing.
A Turbulent Descent
As Anthony was plotting his way out of Denver in 2011, Billups was desperately searching for a way to stay put.
But with a glowing track record and a cap-friendly contract, he couldn't keep his name out of the Anthony trade rumors—no matter how hard he tried.
"His position is steadfast," Billups' agent Andy Miller said, via Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports. "He doesn’t want to go anywhere. Even if it were a rebuilding situation, he’d prefer to be in Denver."
Miller voiced those pleas in January. On Feb. 22, Billups was on his way to the New York Knicks with Anthony.
Billups eased into his new home, averaging 17.5 points and 5.5 assists in 21 games. The new-look Knicks grabbed the East's No. 6 seed, but Billups could help them no further. He suffered a leg injury during the opening game of the first round and watched as the Knicks were swept by the Celtics.
Things only got worse from there.
When Tyson Chandler hit the free-agent market, New York waived Billups with the amnesty provision to clear salary-cap space. The Los Angeles Clippers swooped in and claimed Billups off waivers—two days before landing Chris Paul in a trade.
That moved Billups over to shooting guard, a position he was still getting used to (15.0 points on 36.4 percent shooting) before a torn Achilles abruptly ended his 2011-12 campaign. He worked his way back into playing shape and made his 2012-13 debut on Nov. 28, but a variety of maladies limited him to just 22 games.
Little did anyone know that he hadn't yet crash-landed.
From the Floor to the Front Office?
It's harsh and not easy to say about the league's first recipient of the Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year Award, but it needs to be said: Billups' playing days are finished.
"He is far too slow to defend anyone at this stage of his career, his 22 percent turnover rate blows away his previous career high, and his assist rate is way down from his career levels (for a guy who never amassed huge assist totals)," says PistonPowered.com's Tim Thielke.
His body is battered to the point that he'll be a defensive sieve from here out, and he's given the Pistons next to nothing at the offensive end. He's either a shooter who can't shoot or a playmaker who can't create.
Either way, he's dead weight. As NBCSports.com's Den Feldman noted, it's time for the Pistons and Billups to move on:
The Pistons have a team option for Billups next year, and if they didn’t already plan to cut him loose, this should push them firmly in that direction. They wasted one chance to put a better player on the roster, and they shouldn’t squander another.
Billups can transition to his next career in a team’s front office – he’s always said he prefers that to coaching – and the Pistons can sign someone younger.
It'd be nice to see Billups get back for a proper exit, but I'm not sure the Pistons (3.5 games out back of the eighth-seeded Charlotte Bobcats) can even afford to give him one.
Billups might just fade into the history books, at least until he starts his climb up basketball's corporate ladder.
He's had an unbelievable playing career, but that chapter's been closed for a while.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
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