If the 2004 NBA champion Detroit Pistons could somehow play this season's Pistons in an exhibition, it would be best to put your money on the latter.
The Pistons stunned the Los Angeles Lakers by winning the NBA Finals in five games. With an even more experienced group returning two major pieces in coach Larry Brown and Rasheed Wallace, three new additions in Antonio McDyess, Derrick Coleman and rookie swingman Carlos Delfino and an easier Eastern Conference road, the Pistons will be even better and repeat as champs.
"I don't want to add more pressure, but I do feel we got better," said Pistons guard Chauncey Billups, the Finals' Most Valuable Player. "We know what it takes. We know the sacrifice needed to win a title. You add McDyess, who is eager, hungry and wanting to show he can still play. You get Delfino. You get Rasheed for a whole year. We get to know Larry Brown better, and we don't have the learning curve."
Probably the most tired Piston when training camp arrives will be Brown, who is coaching USA's Olympic team. But after USA's pursuit of gold in Athens, Brown will quickly energize himself for the next NBA season with a big challenge in mind. The Pistons will try to match a previous franchise feat when "The Bad Boys" won back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990.
"Every championship team has to deal with defending what's theirs and being prepared to face every opponent's best game every night," said Pistons president Joe Dumars, a key member of "The Bad Boys."
The Pistons acquired Wallace on Feb. 19, and his arrival changed them from an East title contender to NBA championship contender. But with plantar fasciitis, the adjustment to new teammates and a new city hanging over him, Wallace wasn't the All-Star caliber player that Portland Trail Blazers fans saw for years. He averaged 13.7 points in 21 regular-season games with Detroit and 13 points a game in the playoffs. But now with a five-year, $57 million contract in hand and more familiarity with the Pistons, expect a healthy Wallace to team up with Billups and Hamilton to form the NBA's most intimidating scoring trio.
"The main thing I'm concerned about is guys staying healthy," Wallace said. "If we stay healthy as a team unit then definitely we can go on some runs. Guys are hungry. About 20 or 30 minutes after we won and were sitting in the locker room guys were ready and couldn't wait to come back next year. It's good to have one but it's great to have two."
The Pistons did lose a player this offseason in budding center Mehmet Okur after Utah signed him to a six-year, $50 million deal. But with the addition of Wallace, Okur went from starter to expendable and played sparingly in the Finals. While Okur has solid potential, he now has the pressure of living up to his big contract and the Pistons would have eventually pushed him behind young center Darko Milicic in the long run anyway. That's why signing McDyess to a two-year deal was such a big move even though it fell under the radar screen in July.
Knee injuries have made us forget that McDyess was once an All-Star, an Olympic gold medalist and possibly the best athlete in the NBA while playing with the Denver Nuggets. The last time the injury-riddled 6-foot-9, 245-pounder played over 45 games was with the Nuggets during the 2000-01 season. But after working hard on rehabilitating his knee in Houston and with Nuggets strength and conditioning coach Steve Hess in Denver this summer, word is that a hungry McDyess is close to being back to his old self. A healthy "Dice" would be a Sixth Man of the Year candidate and give the young Milicic two more seasons to develop.
"Sam Cassell recently saw him play in Houston," said Billups, McDyess' good friend and former Nuggets teammate. "He said he look good. Dice said he feels as good now as he did before he got hurt. I'm really excited for him, being a close personal friend."
Said Dumars: "McDyess has checked out great from a medical standpoint and we all feel great about adding him ... We all know exactly the kind of player he is when healthy."
What the Pistons lacked last year was a solid swingman to back up Hamilton at shooting guard and Tayshaun Prince at small forward. The have that swingman in Delfino, who is not your typical rookie.
Drafted 25th overall in 2003, the 6-6 Delfino was a major reason why Italy Fortitudo Bologna advanced to the 2004 EuroLeague championship game. At just 21 years old, he averaged 12.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.6 steals per game in EuroLeague action. He also will play a key role on Argentina's national team which could be the United States' stiffest competition in Athens. Delfino has spent the last four seasons playing in Italy and will make an impact on the Pistons just like fellow countryman Manu Ginobili did when he joined the San Antonio Spurs.
"Delfino is a tough, smart, athletic player that's going to add depth and versatility to our team," Dumars said. "He's a good player that we feel is going to be able to help us this year."
The Indiana Pacers will continue to be the Pistons' biggest challenge in the East, but they aren't as talented -- pound for pound -- as the champs. The New Jersey Nets won't be a challenge for the Pistons next season with All-Star forward Kenyon Martin and guard Kerry Kittles gone and star guard Jason Kidd possibly wanting out. The Miami Heat landed the NBA's most dominating player in mammoth center Shaquille O'Neal, but O'Neal, Dwyane Wade and Eddie Jones aren't enough to knock off the Pistons. New York, Milwaukee and Orlando could surprise some people, but the conference isn't as strong as a year ago with New Orleans moving to the West. A weaker East will leave the Pistons less battered once the playoffs begin with the West teams beating up on each other from the opening-night tipoff.
"It's a competitive conference," said Billups, who believes Orlando will be better than projected, about the East. "But I just worry about us."
The Pistons should be only concerned about themselves since another ring will come their way if they stick with their unselfish, defensive-minded and team-oriented approach.
"We feel good about our team and think we're going to be a good team again this coming season," Dumars said. "You only know if you're better once you start playing games, but we do like the new guys we're bringing in and think we have a chance to be as good as we were this past season."
Marc J. Spears, who covers the NBA for The Denver Post, is a contributor to ESPN.com.