AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Chauncey Billups is nearing the end of a distinguished career, and he has seen enough to realize that change can come at any time in the NBA.
Still, when the Detroit Pistons fired Maurice Cheeks after only 50 games as coach, he was surprised.
"I think, first of all, everybody was a little caught off guard," Billups said. "It's the NBA. You never know what's going to happen."
That's especially true when it comes to Detroit coaches, who have been coming and going with alarming frequency. It's been a decade since Billups led the Pistons to the 2004 NBA title. They haven't made the playoffs since 2009 and are now changing coaches for the fourth time since then.
Cheeks was fired Sunday, a move that was unexpected despite Detroit's continuing struggles. The Pistons were 21-29 entering Monday night's home game against San Antonio. They were only a half-game out of a playoff spot — thanks to the glut of mediocre teams in the Eastern Conference — when Cheeks was let go.
"It was definitely a surprise to me," forward Greg Monroe said. "You never want to see anybody lose their job."
Monroe has seen plenty of that since the Pistons drafted him in 2010. His rookie season was the second and final year of John Kuester's tumultuous coaching tenure, then Detroit gave Lawrence Frank two years as well before firing him.
Cheeks didn't even get half that — a sign that ownership and the front office may feel it's time for this team to make the transition from rebuilding to winning.
"Ownership's message was really — they want to give us the best opportunity to be successful, which is respectable from our perspective," said the 37-year-old Billups, who has played in only 19 games for Detroit this season. "They want us to know that they believe in us, and they expect a certain degree of commitment."
Cheeks was brought in as Detroit's ninth coach since the 1999-2000 season. Now assistant John Loyer is taking over the coaching duties on an interim basis.
"I told our guys it's got to be a gradual process. Playing hard supersedes anything we could possibly change, so we've got to start there," Loyer said. "But there's things we have to tweak on both sides of the ball, and we'll gradually do that."
Loyer inherits a lineup that was overhauled before the season, with mixed results so far. The Pistons traded for point guard Brandon Jennings and signed forward Josh Smith, moves they hoped would help the team increase its win total significantly.
Instead, Detroit is barely ahead of last season's pace — although a playoff berth would probably be viewed as progress no matter how low the bar has been set in the East.
The Pistons have won four of their last six, including one of their better performances of the season on Saturday. Detroit beat Denver 126-109 that night. Jennings had 35 points and 12 assists, while Smith had 30 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists.
"It seemed like guys were getting into a good groove," Monroe said. "We just have to focus on what's ahead."
Guard Rodney Stuckey sounded Monday like he was ready to move on.
"We play San Antonio tonight, so that's our focus," he said. "John Loyer is our head coach now, and that's what it is."