Chauncey Billups will play for the Pistons tonight against the Minnesota Timberwolves, returning to a Pistons team that looks and plays much different than before he got injured Nov. 12.
Billups will provide a big lift to a back court that had been reduced to Brandon Jennings and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with spot minutes from rookie Peyton Siva. And while he is back, the team he returns to looks much different than the one he played for 14 games ago.
Caldwell-Pope has injected some much needed perimeter defense and athleticism to the starting unit, and it is unlikely he will cede the starting shooting guard role he stepped into when Billups went down. Teams were absolutely torching Detroit's defense when Billups and Jennings shared the floor, but KCP has been largely glued to his man, which has settled down the rotations, and allowed the big men to stick to their assignments and not scramble during a pick and roll or well-place screen.
Thanks in large part to Caldwell-Pope's defense, Detroit starters are outscoring opponents by 3.1 points per game in the first quarter since KCP was inserted into the starting lineup. But the team has been unable to keep that momentum going once it turns to the bench, especially as quality opponents have been able to ratchet up the defense in the second half.
Enter Billups, who, if he has anything left to offer the Pistons (and I think he does), should be able to serve as a quality shooter and calming influence on bench units that feature Rodney Stuckey and maybe even Jennings in small doses, though the pair would have to show they can at least hold their own on defense to make the idea viable. But at least now Cheeks has options.
Jennings has been forced to play 38 minutes per game since Billups went out, but with Will Bynum also hurt and Siva simply not ready, Cheeks had little choice. With Billups back, Cheeks should be able to ease the load off of Jennings, but it would be unfortunate if CB also took a big slice out of Caldwell-Pope's minutes as well. KCP is averaging 25.3 minutes since Billups' injury, and should remain at around the 20-22 minute mark going forward.
Rodney Stuckey, who missed the Pistons' game against the Miami Heat, said today that his knee pain is gone and he could play tonight as well, but he has not been officially cleared by the team. Once he does return, however, the minute crunch at the guard position will only get worse.