Detroit Pistons forward Charlie Villanueva came to training camp with expectations of resurrecting his career under a new coach. He could never have imagined in December that he'd be a spectator most of the season, whether or not he was healthy.
Sightings of Villanueva have been rare until this week, when he played a combined 25 minutes at Orlando and Charlotte. His six-minute stint against the Bobcats in a 109-85 victory Thursday was just his sixth appearance this season. There are no guarantees he'll play during a three-game homestand that opens Friday against Milwaukee.
Villanueva was expected to be the starting power forward but nothing has gone right for him this season. He had some differences with previous coach John Kuester, particularly over his defensive effort, but was at least part of the rotation during his first two seasons with the Pistons after signing a five-year, $35 million free-agent contract in 2009. This season, he's become the forgotten man.
"This has been a terrible year for me," he said. "Sometimes you've got to hit rock bottom in order to build yourself back up. That's the mentality I'm taking."
Villanueva knew he'd have to miss the first three games because of an NBA suspension. He tried more than once to enter the visitors locker room in the home finale last season after an on-court confrontation with Cleveland's Ryan Hollins. Before the suspension was lifted, he began experiencing pain in his right ankle and foot.
He was eventually diagnosed with tendonitis and bone spurs. Season-ending injury surgery was seriously considered but he managed to avoid that option through a treatment program designed by trainer Arnie Kander.
Villanueva made the most of his two months off, dropping nearly 30 pounds and getting into the best shape of his playing career. But once he was healthy enough to play in early March, coach Lawrence Frank opted to stick with his established frontcourt rotation of Jason Maxiell and Jonas Jerebko at power forward and Greg Monroe and Ben Wallace at center.
"It's been a long time waiting," Villanueva said. "It's been a hard, frustrating past couple of months, from the injury to getting back in shape to not being able to play. It's been very frustrating but that's basketball. At the same time, it's a humbling experience, too."
Another humbling experience might await him this offseason. There's widespread speculation that the front office will use the amnesty clause to get salary-cap relief from the final two years of his contract. An alternative would be a buyout, a strategy the club employed to set longtime shooting guard Richard Hamilton free prior to the season.
"I can't worry about things that I cannot control," Villanueva said of his future. "I am just going to finish out the next couple games and if Coach calls my name, I will be ready to play. That is the only thing that I can worry about."