“It’s just another game for me. I’ve been in the league 13 years,” Iverson said of Friday night’s game at the Pepsi Center between Detroit and Denver, who teamed up in November for the season’s biggest trade.
Unless these teams beat the long odds and meet up again in the NBA Finals, it’s Iverson’s only chance to see the new-look Nuggets that he left behind when he was shipped to the Pistons in exchange for Billups.
“It’s going to be good to be back with the fans that had supported me,” Iverson said. “I have a lot of good memories from playing there.”
Nothing like hoisting a trophy or snipping the nets, though.
The AI experiment with fellow All-Star Carmelo Anthony didn’t work out. Although the Nuggets won 50 games last year, they went 1-8 with Iverson in the playoffs after acquiring him from Philadelphia in the middle of the 2006-07 season. The attendance jump they anticipated never materialized and neither did the success they envisioned.
It turns out the best thing about Iverson’s 22-month stay in Denver was his trade value.
The Nuggets are thriving under the leadership of Billups, a native son who is as good for the organization in the community as he is for the team on the court. Coach George Karl finally has the true point guard he’s coveted for so long and Denver looks more and more like a legitimate playoff power after five straight first-round flameouts.
At 25-12, Denver is off to its best start since its first season in the NBA in 1976-77, and Nuggets executive Mark Warkentien has done a masterful job of getting the team under the luxury tax threshold, shedding some $20 million in payroll and that much again in dollar-for-dollar tax bites—all the while improving the team.
“The priorities of training camp have been tested with some of the experiences we’ve gone through. Defense, to be more professional, to try to be a more serious, playoff-type team rather than an entertaining, explosive team like we were last year. The Chauncey trade re-emphasized those priorities,” Karl said. “Kenyon (Martin) and AC (Anthony Carter) and some of the older guys have been very good in the locker room demanding those priorities.
“In general, it’s been a pretty special season.”
The Pistons, who, for all they know, might only be renting Iverson’s services for six months if he bolts in free agency next summer, are balancing rebuilding with reloading under a rookie head coach. They’re 21-12 and beginning to find a rhythm after a fitful adjustment to Iverson, who started out running the point for the Pistons but has settled in at shooting guard.
Karl is looking forward to seeing him again.
“Thank you for the good 2 1/2 years,” Karl said. “It seems like their team has turned a corner a little bit and gone in a good way. I think you’ll see two playoff teams go nose to nose, and I’m sure it will be pretty intense because I know what kind of competitor he is.
“I’m sure our guys will want to go after him, too.”
Some of the luster is off the matchup, however, with Anthony sidelined by a broken hand.
Although Iverson might not be emotional about his return to Denver, a city where he wanted to end his career after his bitter departure from Philadelphia, several of his former teammates are certain there will be extra juice in the arena:
— “It will be quite emotional,” Linas Kleiza said. “He played here, he was a great player, he was a great teammate. I’m sure he’s going to come back here and make his points.”
— “It will be emotional for me,” J.R. Smith said. “He’s one guy that definitely helped me out. He helped me become the player I am right now. I was sorry to see him go.”
— “You know it will be emotional,” Carter said. “He was part of the family. I think he will get a good reaction when he comes back.”
— “I’m sure it will be great,” Martin said. “It’s the first game back after a trade, there will be a lot of emotion and energy in the building. We’ll put that aside and go after a win.
“I’m still loving him,” Martin added, “but there ain’t no love lost between us and the Pistons.”
Billups, who guided the Pistons to an NBA title and six straight trips to the conference finals, the longest streak in the NBA since Magic Johnson’s Showtime Lakers of the 1980s, is certainly eager for the reunion.
“I’m looking forward to seeing my guys. It’s going to be fun,” Billups said.
But he’s not out to prove anything about anybody giving up on him too soon.
“I’m good. I’ve proved everything I could in that city. I’m doing it now here,” Billups said. “I’m just looking forward to seeing my dudes, competing, playing, having a fun game. That’s all.”
Billups will get another chance to play in Detroit when the Nuggets visit The Palace in Auburn Hills on March 3.
AP Sports Writers Anne Peterson and Pat Graham contributed to this report.