Wow. Who saw this coming? Not me. This wasn’t even on the radar. Pistons fans had all but given up hope of a big blockbuster trade after Joe D’s promise several months ago. And to be honest we didn’t really mind. We still had a great team with a new coach that was set to mix things up and give our young guys more of a chance. Detroit won the first two games of the season comfortably and even guys like Walter Hermann were stepping up (Flip Saunders would have never kept Walter on the court as long as Curry did in that game). The Sixers and Cavs had a rocky start to the season and the Celtics already lost a game. Yep, things were looking up in Detroit.
And then this happened. Allen Iverson to Detroit for Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess. The biggest trade the Pistons have pulled since famously acquiring Sheed in ’04, and we all know what happened that season.
To quote Coach Mike Brown, on paper this looks like a good deal for both teams. How will it actually play out in the real world? To say I’ve been mulling over this all day would be an understatement. Here are just some of my more coherent thoughts.
Make no mistake about it, this trade impacts Denver far more than it does Detroit, for two reasons:
1) The Nuggets have a lot more flaws than Detroit, and thus they have more to gain
2) They are acquiring a true All-Star point guard, and in the NBA having a true point guard can fundamentally change the way your team plays and behaves
Chauncey Billups belongs somewhere in the discussion of the greatest point guards of the new millennium. Other than Tony Paker he’s the only point guard with a Finals MVP, and unlike Tony Parker (and Dwyane Wade if you wan t to throw him in there) he’s been named to a few All-Defensive teams. He’s been deadly consistent in leading that Detroit team to six straight Eastern Conference Finals, and no other point guard today can boast that kind of track record. More important than any of that, he has defined Pistons basketball since he came to Motown – Chauncey Billups is Pistons basketball, or at least he was.
The Pistons played the way they did because Chauncey was at the helm. Rip Hamilton made scoring 20 points a game look easy because Chauncey knew where he was every second of every play. Tay, Sheed and Dyess had more open jumpers than they could care to count because Chauncey made space for them. Hell, Chauncey Billups even made Ben Wallace somehow fit into our offence, which many scientists believe is beyond the realms of possibility. And when all those guys were struggling late in games, unwilling to stand in the limelight, it was Chauncey who would put the team on his back and drag them to victory. At times the “Mr Big Shot” moniker seemed undeserving, but when you look back on Chauncey’s career, when you go and watch videos of the Pistons ’04 and ’05 Finals runs, you will realise that there have been few players in our generation with as much ice flowing through their veins.
Sure, he’s on the wrong side of 30 and passed his prime probably three seasons ago, but in a league with very few true point guards, Chauncey is still an incredibly valuable asset to have. Especially for Denver, who have been without a true point guard for quite some time (Andre Miller had once decent season with them). Remember Carmelo Anthony has never really played with a true floor-general, and the last couple of seasons running along side Allen Iverson hasn’t seen a measured improvement in his game. That doesn’t surprise me – Allen Iverson isn’t the kind of player who is going to make a fellow scoring teammate better. Chauncey Billups is.
Billups is going to redefine the way the Nuggets play ball, and if he can control his teammates the same way he controlled his fellow Pistons the last half-decade, the Nuggets have a promising future. A team full of misfits and egos just got the point guard from the most team-oriented franchise the NBA has seen in a long time. A curious match made in heaven.
I expect to see guys like Kenyon Martin and JR Smith pull their heads in a little bit. I expect to see the Nuggets offense being a lot more reliable, rather than the spurts they have been scoring in the last couple of seasons. That is because Billups is an extremely smart player who knows how to make the right decision. Think about it, for the last six years he’s been playing with a team full of scoring options – any one of Sheed, Rip or Tay could be scoring 20 a game on their own team (Billups included). But Chauncey always knew who to find and when, and that is exactly what the Nuggets desperately need. Someone to make the right call, and more importantly, someone they trust to make the right call. Defensively Chauncey is a minor upgrade over Iverson (and better equipped to handle the bigger guards), but more than his individual defensive talents he brings an understanding of how to play defense – an understanding he can teach his fellow team mates. These Nuggets are used to scoring 70 points in a half. Back in 2004 the Pistons kept opposition teams below 70 points in total – for five straight games (still an NBA record).
Make no mistake about it, this is a sad day for Detroit fans. I have both praised and lamented Chauncey over the past six years, but now that he’s leaving only the fond memories will remain. Behind Isiah and Dumars, Chauncey Billups might be the third greatest player to ever pull on a Pistons uniform. Not too often you see a player like that leave.
You can already sense the hesitation in the Detroit camp. Sheed gave a typically Sheed assessment: “Do we like the trade? Maybe not. Ain’t no telling”. Tayshaun Prince probably said it best: “When you have six straight years with somebody, you’ve got that bond, that connection. Now all of a sudden it’s gone.” Iverson won’t only have the challenge of blending with his new team on the court, but he’ll also have to earn the respect and friendship of a seriously fractured team. Iverson is an experienced pro and I have no doubt he can do this. As always, the easiest way to do it is to win. If the Pistons keep winning with Iverson you won’t hear words like that from Sheed no more.
Just how is a scoring combo guard going to take the place of a true point guard like Billups? It is an interesting question. As high as the Pistons are on Rodney Stuckey, the general consensus is he’s more of a Baron Davis-style combo guard than a traditional point guard. That’s why Stuck has been so successful the past year, because he can share the court with a guy like Chauncey. Now the play-making responsibilities are a bit weightier, and it will be interesting to see how he handles them. Remember that most young point guards in this league take a while to develop – well, Stuckey’s development just got seriously fast-tracked.
That’s not to say he won’t learn a lot from Allen Iverson. AI’s game resembles Stuckey’s a lot closer than Billups does, and if the Pistons are hoping Stuckey is going to be their prime scorer for the next decade then they couldn’t have found a better mentor than Allen Iverson – the NBA’s All-Time third highest points per game scorer. AI and Stuckey can both share the one and two guard spots, perhaps even running with Rip at small forward for a seriously high-potent offensive attack. Afflalo is carving out a nice role as a defensive stopper coming off the bench, and even Will Bynum (who?!) got a bunch of minutes today against the Bobcats (including an impressive 10 fourth-quarter points). So the Pistons backcourt is looking just as healthy as ever, and a bright future lies ahead with or without Iverson.
I will make one disclaimer here though: we can not underestimate the impact of Billups’ departure on Rip Hamilton. I don’t know if there’s been a scoring guard in the history of the league more dependent on his point guard. I honestly can’t think of one. Chauncey was to Rip what Robin was to Batman. What Simon was to Garfunkel. What Andy is to Hamish. For years I’ve had to listen to people tell me that Rip Hamilton was only as successful as he is because of the Pistons’ system, a system run by Chauncey Billups. What will happen now? Will Iverson really be happy to hold the ball at the top of the key and wait for Rip to run around five screens before hitting him on the chest for a fifteen foot jumper? I’ve got a feeling AI might run out of patience or at least get bored after trying that a few times. This is probably not a bad thing and just the change Joe Dumars was hoping to bring about. I have no doubt Iverson will find a way to be effective in this Pistons offense. But can Rip?
The main reason I love this trade though is that Iverson brings something the Pistons (and Chauncey) have severely been lacking the past few years: Hunger. The kind of hunger you could see in the eyes of KG, Pierce and Ray last year. The kind of hunger that makes you absolutely distraught at the thought of finishing your career without a championship. That is something that Chauncey simply cannot bring any more, and the more I heard his comments year after year, postseason failure after postseason failure, the more I got the impression that Chauncey was happy resting on the success and reputation he earned during that ’04 run. There’s a fine line between arrogance and confidence, and Billups has walked that line finer than most the past few seasons. But ultimately I think his nonchalance and sense of entitlement was damaging to the Pistons franchise and their culture. Instead of facing every new season determined to right the wrongs of the past season, the Pistons seemed to stubbornly believe their postseason failure was an aberration, a false reflection of their worth. “I still think we’re the better team” Chauncey said after losing to the Cavs in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. He didn’t say anything about working hard over the summer, needing to improve, remembering this feeling so it doesn’t happen again. “I still think we’re the better team” is all he could say. Can you imagine Allen Iverson saying that after bailing out of the playoffs?
Then of course there is the salary cap aspect to all this. Next year Iverson and Sheed are set to come off the books, potentially opening up the much anticipated 2010 class to the Pistons deep pockets. What happens next season will obviously depend on how this new Pistons team fares in the playoffs. If Iverson gels perfectly with this team there is the chance he’ll be resigned and perhaps Sheed will be sent packing. But you’d think unless Detroit wins the Championship this season that one (or both) of Sheed and Iverson will be let go. It is a smart move from Joe Dumars, because although its a big gamble, if it doesn’t payoff there is still a huge potential upside. I won’t go as far as saying its a win-win for Detroit, but its pretty close.
The Pistons are in somewhat of a lucky position. Already title-contenders, they only needed a little push to make them even more firm favorites. Sure, Detroit is no longer the same team, but that is exactly why the Magic, Cavs and Celtics will have a little more fear in their eyes come postseason when Iverson steps onto the court in that Pistons uniform.