DETROIT (AP) – Chauncey Billups has become the face of the Detroit Pistons.

The All-Star point guard is hardly new to the team, but his status changed when Ben Wallace took his muscle and assorted hairdos to Chicago as a free agent last summer.

“I guess this kind of fell in my lap, and I’m comfortable with it,” Billups said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I never chased being able to be “the face’ or “the man’ of a team because that’s not what I’m all about, but I’m not running from this role because it’s an honor. It’s not going to be tough because I’m just going to be me.”

On the court, that means being a smooth leader with the ability to make 3-pointers – especially in crucial situations – and to run Flip Saunders’ free-flowing offense. Off it, Billups said it entails being levelheaded and available to answer questions – win or lose – in front of his corner locker.

The Billups-led Pistons make their regular-season debut Wednesday night at home against Milwaukee.

“There’s no question, this is Chauncey’s team,” Saunders said. “He’s coming off his best year, and I look for him to be even better this season. I think he’s getting into the prime of his career. What’s really great is he’s told me this is the most excited he’s been since he’s been with the Pistons.”

Four years ago, Pistons president of basketball operations Joe Dumars saw something special in Billups, a player who had bounced around the league. The former Colorado star was drafted third overall by Boston in 1997 and was with four teams – the Celtics, Denver, Orlando and Minnesota – in his first four seasons.

After two solid seasons with the Timberwolves, Detroit gave him a home. He signed a six-year, $35 million contract that gives him an option of becoming a free agent in July.

“I hate to think of how my career would’ve ended up if Joe wasn’t searching for a player like me,” Billups said. “Joe is not just my boss, he’s my confidant. He’s also my mentor on and off the court.”

Each of Billups’ coaches with the Pistons – Rick Carlisle, Larry Brown and Saunders – helped him evolve into one of the NBA’s best point guards.

“I owe a lot to all three of them,” Billups said. “It started with Rick, who gave me my first opportunity to run the show. It was tough to play for Larry, but I learned a lot about the cerebral part of the game – knowing when to pick my spots to shoot and how to get guys involved better.

“Then, Flip opened things back up for me last season to make plays and my own decisions because he had confidence in me from our time together in Minnesota.”

Billups averaged career highs in points (18.5), assists (8.6) and 3-point percentage (43.3), finishing fifth in MVP voting last season.

He led the Pistons to a franchise-record 64 wins and their fourth straight trip to the conference finals, a mark of consistency reached for the first time since the early 1990s when Michael Jordan was leading the Chicago Bulls. When the Pistons won a title in 2004, Billups was the NBA Finals MVP.

“Chauncey’s our catalyst out there – he pretty much runs the ship,” Detroit shooting guard Richard Hamilton said. “I don’t expect anything less than what he did last year. I think every year, he gets better.”

The Pistons lost Wallace to the Bulls, who gave him a $60 million, four-year deal. Dumars hopes to keep Billups with a new deal next summer.

“We want Chauncey to finish his career here,” Dumars said. “I was hoping Ben would, too, but obviously that didn’t work out. We’ll do what we can to keep Chauncey because he’s one of those guys you want around for the long haul.”

Billups can opt out of the final year of his deal after this season and likely will because he will be one of the NBA’s top free agents. He understands his upcoming free agency will be a topic of conversation this season.

“I’m going to do my best to not talk about it,” he said. “There’s nothing I can really do or say until July 1, so I’m not going to regardless of how much I’m asked about it.”

AP-ES-10-31-06 1619EST

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