Friday, April 20, 2007

Billups, Like Bing And Thomas, #1 In His Own Way

#1, #11, #21.

There's a reason that the three best point guards in Pistons history have a "one" in their jersey number.

#21: David Bing, out of Syracuse. Unwanted when he was drafted in 1966, by a basketball populace that was rooting for the Pistons to be eligible to snatch the U-M star Cazzie Russell. But alas, the coin flip with the New York Knicks didn't flip the right way, and the Pistons were "stuck" with Bing. "Don't worry," then-scout Earl Lloyd told team brass. "We just got the best player in the draft."*

Lloyd wasn't far off the mark, if at all. Bing led the NBA in scoring in his second season and the Pistons into the playoffs, where they upset the Celtics in Game 3, in Boston Garden, to temporarily put the Pistons up 2-1 in their series. They lost the series in six, but it was the first of the great Pistons-Celtics playoff tilts, some 20 years before many people believe it to be.

Bing played nine wonderful seasons in Detroit, and he was also the leader in the '74 playoffs against the Bulls, a heartbreaking seven-game loss for the Pistons. It was the first of the great Pistons-Bulls playoff tilts, some 15 years before many people believe it to be.

See a trend here?

#11: Isiah Thomas, out of Indiana University. A college champion in his sophomore season before making his pro debut seven months later. He blew into town, full of talent and creativity, and when he got here he wondered who he'd pass the ball to. The Pistons were 16-66 and 21-61 the two previous, pre-Isiah seasons. Who WOULD he pass to, indeed?

Thomas played 13 seasons with the Pistons, a two-time NBA champion and a smiling assassin who put to rest the myth that a little man can't lead a basketball team to the promised land. As an executive and a coach, there can be much debate about Thomas's abilities. But there can be very little questioning that he was, pound-for-pound, the greatest Piston of all time.

#1: Chauncey Billups, out of the University of Colorado. An NBA vagabond. A journeyman, before he came to Detroit in 2002 and instantly ingrained himself as the leader. He joined the Pistons the same summer as Richard "Rip" Hamilton, and before long the Pistons had a backcourt tandem that had folks daring to make the comparison between them and Thomas/Joe Dumars. And some had the Chauncey/Rip duo coming out on top.

Billups, in his first five seasons as a Piston, has directed traffic and taken the "big shot" well enough that the Pistons have won 50+ games every year he's been here. One championship and a whisker away from a second. Easily the strongest of this point guard trio, and certainly the best clutch shooter in franchise history not named Isiah Thomas. Coated with a non-turnover surface.

Today, as the Pistons get ready to open the 2007 version of the playoffs against the Orlando Magic, Chauncey Billups has a chance to match Thomas in one category, and surpass him in another.

If the Pistons reach the Conference Finals, it will be their fifth straight appearance there, matching Thomas's Pistons teams from 1987-1991. Those Pistons won three of them, and lost two. Billups's Pistons are 2-2 in Conference Finals. So if the Pistons get there again, and advance to the NBA Finals, they'll match the Bad Boys, at least that way.

More hardware for Billups in '07 might put him ahead of Thomas

But Billups can leapfrog Thomas, too. For the stage is set for Billups, "Mr. Big Shot," to have a playoff that dwarfs his previous four in Detroit. He's in the last year of his contract, as everyone knows. He can be a free agent in that scary, unrestricted way, come July 1. So he has about seven weeks, if the Pistons go all the way, to cement his case as being deserving of a bank vault-breaking contract.

It's because of this incentive, I believe, that Chauncey Billups has a chance to make an imprint on franchise history that's at least as great as Isiah Thomas's, and probably even better. If he plays like he's shifted into fifth gear, possessed and on a mission, then we're in for a treat. And stories of Thomas's legend will be gradually replaced with those of Billups's.

It's all conjecture, of course. Thomas is still the gold standard for Pistons point guards -- Pistons players, period. But Billups is on his tail, and an MVP-like 2007 playoff could very well nudge him past Zeke.

Chauncey Billups is a premier point guard playing for a premier team in the final year of his contract. That's an NBA version of a tornado watch.

* (source: "The Detroit Pistons: Capturing a Remarkable Era," by Jerry Green)

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