Last spring, the Detroit Pistons looked like they were down for the count. For good.
They may have officially lost the Eastern Conference Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers by a 4-2 margin on the historical record, but make no mistake: The Pistons were outplayed six times in six tries. By a Cavs team that some will maintain to the death wasn't that much of a world-beating group in the first place.
Scarier still for those in Motown, when push came to shove late in the series, the Pistons got away from what made them better than anybody else in the East over the past couple of years: tough defense and smart basketball. The image of Tayshaun Prince cowering away from a thunderous Bron Bron dunk remains etched firmly in the minds of many who watched the epic fifth game as the visual embodiment of what the Detroit defense amounted to down the stretch. That wouldn't have happened under Larry Brown. Rasheed Wallace lost his cool and flipped out in Game 6, and the Pistons were done for the 2006-07 season.
At the time, it seemed like Rasheed was officially on the clock for the flipout that would push his tenure in Detroit into the "finished" stage, and it seemed that while the Pistons might still be a very competitive team that they had fully lost their aura of dominance in the East.
Instead, a recent 8-1 run has propelled the Pistons off to a 15-6 start for the new campaign, making them one of five teams (joining Phoenix, San Antonio, Orlando and Boston) to be playing basketball at a .700 clip or above, and perhaps even more astonishingly, they are in the league's top three in offensive efficiency. That would start with the turnaround of this team's other biggest flaw from late last spring: The point guard play of one Chauncey Billups.
It was my contention at the time as well as something that I have postulated on several occasions since then that Chauncey Billups didn't simply cost himself a bundle of money from teams around the league in his walk year last spring but that he had also irreparably damaged his career over the course of one Eastern Conference Finals.
For all the talk about Rip Hamilton's jump shooting and the development of Tayshaun Prince's game, it all starts with Billups in Detroit these days. This was the guy who went from getting dumped by Rick Pitino in Boston and failing in Toronto and Denver to becoming an All-Star in Detroit. This was the guy who after five fairly unimpressive seasons in four different cities still managed to get his career averages up to 14.6 points, 5.4 assists and just 2.0 turnovers per game in the time since. In his fifth season as a Piston, he has never averaged less than 16 points per game in Detroit and is in his third campaign of going for 7-plus dimes per night. But the regular season performances don't tell the whole story about where the kid from Colorado made his name. That (nick)name would be Mr. Big Shot, which he made by playing postseason basketball with ice in his veins, hitting an array of improbable shots over several Detroit runs from 2003 through 2006 and seemingly never missing a crucial free throw. This would be the guy who averaged 17.5 points, 5.8 assists and just 2.4 turnovers per game over more than a hundred playoff games and, who, prior to last season had shot over 90 percent twice and never inside 89 percent from the foul line in four playoff campaigns with Detroit.
Yet in one fell swoop, that all came crashing down in the Eastern Conference Finals. We can get to the numbers, putrid as they are, but they don't tell the entirety of the story. Chauncey Billups was completely and utterly lost during this series. Playing against a team that alternated between seemingly playing without a point guard and playing with the up-and-coming (some games he looked much better than others) Daniel Gibson, Billups was clueless. He threw passes away. He didn't hit his foul shots with his usual panache. He wasn't looking to have the ball in his hands in critical situations. His body language was terrible. Ultimately, for the biggest six games of the season, the point guard on the Eastern Conference's top regular season team was no longer the leader he had spent five seasons becoming in Detroit. For what they are worth, the numbers don't indicate anything otherwise: Billups avearged a pedestrian 15.3 points and a miserly 3.5 assists while turning the ball over an astounding (by his standards) 3.8 times per game to go along with a particularly un-Billups-esque 78.8 percent performance from the charity stripe. That would be less than a one-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio for one of the game's upper-echelon point guards and premier postseason performers. It was a complete and total meltdown.
It was a meltdown that at least some (self included) felt would carry into this year and permanently affect the player Detroit PA man John Mason (perhaps the coolest guy in the league) affectionately calls B-B-Billups. Twenty-one games into the season (or 19 since he missed two earlier), that hasn't been the case at all. To the pleasant surprise of those who support the Pistons, just the opposite has been the case. Billups is playing at a level close to the highest of his career, going for 17.1 points, 7.8 assists and 2.2 turnovers per game to go with 90 percent shooting from the line and a career-best 44.3 percent shooting from the field thus far. In seven December games, Billups has played his best basketball yet on the young campaign, putting up 19.1 points, 8.7 assists and just 2.0 turnovers per game along with 91.8 percent foul shooting and 45.9 percent field goal shooting. Of those seven December games, the Pistons have won six times. Since Billups came back from injury on November 18, the Pistons are 9-3 and have been absolutely rolling as of late.
Ultimately, the season is 21 games old for the ballers from Detroit, and this isn't to say that all the troubles from last spring -- for the team or the individual -- are fixed. But the Pistons are hot, and the man in the Original Piston One (my affection for Mason is unparalleled) is once more leading the way. Whether the demons will return in five months remains to be seen. But the early returns can only be considered encouraging to the highest degree.
Unless you live and die with another Eastern Conference team, that is.