The NBA lost one of its most beloved personalities Sunday when Flip Saunders passed away at the age of 60 due to complications from cancer. What followed was an enormous outpouring of grief from former players, colleagues, and even assorted media personnel who were devastated by the news. One of those former players was Chauncey Billups, who Saunders coached during his tenure with the Detroit Pistons from 2005-2008 en route to a 176-70 record, which is the highest winning percentage of any coach in the franchise’s history.
But that wasn’t the first time their lives intersected. Saunders first coached Billups during the 2000-2001 season, when the young point guard was a struggling journeyman whose future in the league was anything but certain. Speaking with ESPN Sunday, Billups acknowledged the tremendous impact Saunders had on his game and his career:
“For me, I give Flip so much credit for making me the player I became,” Billups said. “I went to Flip in Minnesota as a guy who had been on five teams in five years. So if it was not for me going to Flip, who knows what my career would have turned out to be because, quite frankly, in Minnesota is where my career kind of turned around. And it all had to do with Flip Saunders and his coaching prowess and his system. He forced me to learn how to play the game of basketball and learn how to offensively know the third and fourth options on plays. I mean, I’m just so sad today. We lost a good one, man.”
The numbers back that up. Billups had been shooting a dismal 36 percent from the field throughout his first few years in the league and an absolutely horrid 17 percent from downtown the previous season in Denver. Those percentages shot up to 42.2 percent and 37.6 percent, respectively, under Saunders. He also posted a career-low in turnovers that season, which is another trend that held steady as his career advanced. It’s not an overstatement to say that the Chauncey Billups we know today might never have existed had it not been for Flip Saunders.