Friday, July 3, 2009

Motown Mix Up

For years, until last season, the Detroit Pistons were a fixture in the Eastern Conference Finals. From 2003 to 2008, the Pistons appeared in the Conference Finals, winning two of their six trips and defeating the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals, a defeat that would have unsettling consequences for the Lakers and would resonate throughout the league, as Shaquille O'Neil would quickly pack his bags in route to Miami.

These days, things seem a far cry from the days when a Chauncey Billups led Pistons team would run through the first two rounds of the playoffs to meet whichever foe await them in the Eastern Finals. Although they would lose more than they won, playing the Pistons in the Conference Finals was not a warm feeling for any team.

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Some may say that the Pistons were a powerhouse in those days, but never an elite team worthy of being called a dynasty. The roster was packed with all the right players, but never that one player who could carry the team on his shoulders. Chauncey Billups would come the closest, burying big shot after big shot deep in the playoffs, rightfully earning him the nickname 'Mr. Big Shot'. But he was essentially a floor general and a team leader whose steady hand allowed the Pistons to earn their way to the Conference Finals year after year.

Without their Michael Jordan or Larry Bird or LeBron James or Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade or Isaiah Thomas, the Pistons have come up flat more often than not. We called it an upset, to say the least, when the Pistons defeated the Lakers 4-1 in the 2004 Finals, with the Lakers able to grab only Game 2 from Detroit.

Now, with Allen Iverson leaving and Rasheed Wallace likely out, the Pistons were busy Wednesday, the first day of free agency, rebuilding their roster. What did they accomplish? The beginning of another solid team. Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon are both excellent players in their own right, but neither lifts them beyond the Cavaliers or even the Celtics (a healthy Celtics team, that is).

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Perhaps the Pistons, like many other teams, are preparing for the all out bidding war we may see in 2010 when James, Wade and Chris Bosh may become free agents. I say 'may' because Pat Riley has made it his priority to extend Wade's contract and I, for one, find the prospect that LeBron James will walk away from his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers as suspect. He is the unyielding staple of that team in a way unlike how others may be team leaders or fan favorites in their respective cities. It is, however, much in the same way that Kobe Bryant is the rock of the Los Angeles Lakers. And, surprise, Kobe isn't going anywhere.

So now, with a different look, the Pistons are hoping that their revamped roster will drive them above .500 again and make them competitive once more with the contenders in the East. They do face some troubling scenarios, though. A new head coach will be coming to town as the team faces a logjam at the shooting guard position. Gordon, Richard Hamilton and Rodney Stuckey will vie for playing time, although if the three accept their role and either Gordon or Hamilton accepts coming off the bench, they will have found a potent guard rotation.

Villanueva will likely replace Wallace at the power forward position, although Wallace's departure is not yet set in stone. Resigning Antonio McDyess now becomes important for the Pistons to secure another proven big man in the starting five. The starting five will likely look something like this: Stuckey, Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Villanueva and McDyess (I am assuming that McDyess stays and Wallace goes).

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Hamilton and Gordon each have the potential to take over a game, but neither have shown the consistency in doing so that allows us to place them among the game's elite. The Eastern powerhouses have built solid teams just like the Pistons, but the best of the best have that one guy who can turn everybody on their head. You've got James, Wade, Paul Pierce, Dwight Howard, and hey, I'll even add Andre Iguodala to the 'in-crowd'. To regain their form, the Pistons need that one player that can change everything night after night.

You may argue that San Antonio shares the same way of thinking as Detroit. None of their big three (Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili) are larger than life in their own sense, but together they form a cohesive battering ram that has moved them through the Western Finals and won the trio three championships (Duncan has won four, winning for the first time in 1999). What may be most important is Ginobili's willingness to come off the bench and his acceptance of the role he plays for the team. Here's hoping, for the Pistons' sake, that Gordon accepts a similar fate.

The 2010 offseason will be prime feeding grounds for teams like the Pistons, Knicks and Bulls to grab a player from the 'in-crowd' to call their own and find themselves once again among the league's best teams.

Written By Danny Hobrock



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