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|After bowing out of the past three conference finals with Game 6 losses, Detroit has a hump to get over.|
Each of the past three seasons began with the Pistons vowing that this time it would be different: They would play with more urgency in the playoffs; Rasheed Wallace wouldn't melt down at inappropriate times; they would regain the title they won so impressively in 2004.
Each year, the Pistons glided through the regular season with nary an injury while posting one of the best records in basketball, and cruised into the conference finals looking like a legitimate championship contender.
And each year, their season has ended with a Game 6 defeat in the conference finals. Last season was the first of the three in which they weren't favored, and in some respects that might have been the most worrying: This time, nobody was surprised when Detroit bowed out.
Of course, nobody was surprised that they were in the conference finals either -- probably because it was their sixth straight appearance, a jaw-dropping standard of excellence that has been given too little credit because only one resulted in a championship. No, they don't have the rings, but the Pistons are rapidly becoming the Atlanta Braves of basketball, establishing a remarkable feat of year-to-year consistency.
Last season the formula for pre-May success was a familiar one -- a slow-paced, high-efficiency team that didn't screw up, shot lots of jumpers and played great defense.
Detroit ranked fourth in defensive efficiency, and as a unit it has lost surprisingly little since four-time Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace departed two seasons ago. The only difference from the Pistons' long-term trend line was that they fouled much more than in previous seasons -- opponents averaged .328 free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt, the league's 10th-highest figure. Blame that on the exuberance of youth: While the Pistons' starting five fouled as infrequently as ever, the reserves saw heavy use last season and were much more willing to hack away.
Fortunately, the foul line was about the only place to get points on the Pistons. They ranked third in field-goal defense, 3-point defense and opponent true shooting percentage; in each case, the Celtics and Rockets were the only teams ahead of them. One reason was their shot-blocking -- Detroit turned back 7.57 percent of opponents' offerings, the highest rate in basketball. This fact was lost in the shuffle a bit since two teams had more total blocked shots, but once you account for the Pistons' turtle-like pace, they were easily the best.
Rasheed Wallace and Jason Maxiell were the team leaders in raw blocks, but the other difference-makers in Detroit's total were Amir Johnson and Theo Ratliff -- both of whom posted prodigious shot-block totals in limited playing time. Johnson in particular was awesome, sending back a shot every nine minutes.
Offensively, what stood out about the Pistons was how long they held the ball and how rarely they gave it away. The Pistons played the league's slowest pace, mostly because they didn't get out and run much on offense, but also because at the defensive end they were rarely out of position and gambled infrequently -- thus requiring opponents to beat them with half-court execution.
Inevitably, Detroit has been misunderstood because of its slow pace. The Pistons have been viewed as a tough, defensive team for the past few years because they're always among the top three teams in points allowed; conversely, their offense hasn't been valued as highly because of its middling status in the league tables. But look at things on a per-possession basis, and the Pistons' offense has been nearly as effective as the defense in the three seasons under Flip Saunders -- a key difference between this Detroit era and the Larry Brown teams.
In 2007-08, Detroit finished eighth in the league in offensive efficiency, with a game-plan predicated on taking more shots than opponents. It might not seem that way given their methodical offense, but the Pistons were a low-mistake offensive team that took lots of midrange jumpers and made a concerted effort to rebound the misses.
The Pistons actually were a hair below the league average in TS% at 53.9, so just relying on their shooting wasn't the ticket. The entire reason they were able to succeed was that, per possession, they took more shots than any team in the league. Detroit had the league's third-lowest turnover rate, making miscues on 12.9 percent of their trips, and the sixth-best offensive rebound rate at 29.4 percent.
Add those two items together and the Pistons were the league's only team to average more than one shot per possession (counting a free-throw attempt as 0.44 of a "shot"); in turn, that advantage alone was the reason their offense was so effective (see chart).
|Most Shots Per 100 possessions, 2007-08|
|TEAM||TO Rate||Off. Reb. Rate||Shots* per 100 possessions|
|Shots = FGA + (FTA * 0.44)|
Unfortunately, the offense melted down at the worst possible time -- a 13-point fourth quarter in Game 6 against Boston -- as Detroit was eliminated. Once again, Wallace was a key protagonist, essentially mailing in the most important game of the season. His final stat line read four points, three turnovers and zero interest.
In the wake of a third straight conference finals defeat, team president Joe Dumars set about shaking things up. First he basically announced to the world that his entire roster was available in a trade. Then he fired Flip Saunders, in spite of the fact that by any reasonable standard Saunders had been wildly successful. I should also point out the Pistons weren't favored to beat Boston, so it seemed a little disingenuous to fire him for losing.
Nonetheless, few deny that a shake-up might do the Pistons some good. In addition to the rumored friction between Wallace and Saunders, there was the little matter of it being their third straight conference finals defeat to a team that was visibly hungrier.
To replace Saunders, Dumars opted for Michael Curry, a former Piston who had an outstanding reputation in the locker room as a player, but who possesses no head coaching experience. He'll have to ramp up to speed quickly with a team for which the only goal is winning a championship, so he'll be under a microscope. Of course, Dumars has never been shy about switching generals -- this is his fifth coach since he took over as general manager (including the coach he inherited), even though each of the previous three he hired won a minimum of 50 games per season and made it as far as the conference finals at least once.
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One former sub who may be graduating to starter this year is Maxiell, who seems set to take over Antonio McDyess' starting frontcourt spot after outperforming the veteran as a reserve a year ago. But Maxiell may find himself having to hold off the challenge of another rising young star, as Johnson is a huge talent coming into his own as a player and needs only to curb a mammoth foul rate to become a more regular contributor. McDyess, of course, isn't chopped liver himself, and if you're a Kwame Brown believer, that takes Detroit to five-deep in quality bigs.
It's a similar story on the perimeter. Herrmann has been under the radar the past two years but has played quite well whenever he has been given the opportunity, while Arron Afflalo emerged as a potential defensive stopper as a rookie last season and likely will get more time this year.
And then there's Rodney Stuckey. The 6-5 combo guard appears to have all the makings of a future star, with a sketchy outside shot being the only potential hurdle. The plan is for him to get 30 minutes a game backing up both backcourt slots this season, and his development could be one of the key factors for Dumars in deciding whether to deal Billups or Hamilton at the trade deadline.
But the thing that stands out more than the others are these three names: Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Kevin Garnett. These are the three players who have outgunned Detroit the past three seasons, respectively, and it points out the one obvious weakness Detroit has in a playoff series against other top contenders. Whereas these teams had a superstar player who could go 45 minutes, making their teams far more potent in the playoffs than in the regular season, Detroit lacked the kind of freakish talent who could put them over the top in those situations. No matter whom they face in a conference finals, you can pretty much guarantee that the best player on the court won't be a Piston.
In that respect, what's amazing about Detroit isn't that they've continually fallen just short, but that they've even been in the hunt. Make a list of the league's 10 best players and I guarantee there won't be a Piston on it, but they've been to six straight conference finals and won a championship with the Billups-Hamilton-Prince nucleus.
It's likely to be the Pistons' undoing again, whether it's LeBron, KG or some other burgeoning talent who knocks them out, and there's really not much they can do about it -- except changing the roster. That's exactly why Dumars has been fishing around for deals that might put such a player onto his own roster.
Certainly there are reasons to think Detroit might be better -- even while nurturing a contending nucleus, Dumars has brought along a second wave of talent in the likes of Maxiell, Stuckey and Johnson that has eased the burden on his veteran starters. The youngsters also provide some insurance in case somebody on the Pistons ever gets injured -- their track record of health the past half-decade has been completely ridiculous, but now they're so deep that injuries would have to pile up en masse to materially affect them.
Standing against those positives are the facts that the Pistons who will play the crunch-time minutes are getting fairly long in the tooth -- Hamilton is 30, Billups is 32, and Wallace and McDyess are 34 -- and that first-year coach Curry may have to endure some growing pains this season.
Add it all up and we're right back where we started. Yes, we must take Detroit seriously as a title contender. But much like last in the past three seasons, it appears that the Pistons are really, really good and there's one other Eastern team that's better.