Billups: 'I know my gas light is on'
AUBURN HILLS -- This wasn't how Chauncey Billups planned his return to Detroit.
When Billups agreed to come back to the Pistons last summer, he knew what the short-term future held. He was going to be the starting point guard on a young team, and help take the franchise back into the postseason.
That would have brought everything full circle, with Billups helping to end the decline that many people think started the day he was traded to Denver for Allen Iverson.
Instead, Billups has been limited to 19 games due to a knee injury, including only one game since Jan. 10. He had surgery last week to finally solve the problem that has been bothering him since the first weeks of the season.
"I did when we played at Golden State in November, and since then, I've done everything in my power to try to get back on the floor," he said after Monday's 104-96 loss to the Warriors. "There was just nothing that worked, so they finally had to go in and repair my meniscus and clean up some other things."
Billups said that the knee feels better than it has all season -- he was having trouble with it even before the season started -- but he doesn't know if he's going to get back on the floor this year.
"I want to be out there, because I still believe that I can help this team," he said. "But I don't want to rush things and make it worse. I'm going to work as hard as I can to get back, but I have to be smart about it."
Billups could only shrug with a wry smile when asked if he wished he had just had the surgery after the injury, but it is obvious that watching the season from the sidelines has been tough for him.
"If I had been healthy this season, I think we'd be a little higher in the standings, and right now, that would be a big deal," he said.
After Monday's loss, the Pistons are in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, but are now four games out of the final playoff position with only 25 games to play. With 16 of those games coming on the road, Billups knows that his young teammates have an uphill climb if they want to end the postseason drought.
"I keep telling them that they have got to stay together as a group," he said. "I know we've had some tough times this season, but the only way they can do this is by sticking together through all of it. There's talent in this locker room, but there isn't enough talent to go out there and win by playing as individuals. They've got to do this together."
At 37, in the middle of an injury-wrecked season where even his patented 3-pointer has deserted him, Billups knows that he's getting close to the end of his career. His free-agent deal included a player option for the 2014-15 season, but he doesn't have any plans to limp around the Palace for another year.
"It all depends on my knee," he said. "If it feels good and I feel like I can help this team, I'll be back, but I'm not going to do this again. I'm not ready to be done, but I do know Father Time is still undefeated. If I can't play well enough to be a big piece of this team, I won't be here."
Even with the best-case scenario -- a return late this season and a healthy year at the age of 38 -- Billups knows he's running out of a time on a career that was always a little strange. He was supposed to be a star when Boston took him with the third pick in 1997, but the Celtics gave up on him after just 51 games, and he played for four teams in his first four seasons.
Nothing clicked until Joe Dumars signed him as a free agent in the summer of 2002, which is when he became the on-court leader on a team that made regular trips deep into the postseason. He was the NBA Finals MVP in 2004, and came within one game of leading the team to another title in 2005, but he was gone just two games in the 2008 season.
That led to stints with the Nuggets, Knicks and Clippers before what was supposed to be a triumphant return to Detroit for a glorious last ride into the sunset.
Instead, it might all end the way it does for too many aging players, with his body telling him he's done before his brain and heart are ready to quit. Fittingly for a Motor City star that loves a expensive automobile, he summed it up with a car analogy.
"I know my gas light is on," Billups said with a smile. "I don't know if I've got 15 miles left or 30 miles, but I know the light is on."