A Pistons comeback will have to wait

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- The raging debate entering Friday's Game 3 at The Palace -- well, as raging as it gets in a lopsided series everyone knows Cleveland will win -- is whether Detroit's 27-5 fourth-quarter run Tuesday was a meaningless blip or a sign that the former champions are die-hards who have too much heart to go out meekly.

The problem with the latter theory, as nice and romantic as it might be, is that the former champions had nothing to do with the surprising surge. Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince and Rip Hamilton were moping on the bench when the Pistons' five second-teamers showed some pride.

So no, the final period of Game 2 was not a fading group of greats saying, "Enough's enough." It was not a sign that Bad Boys the Remix has one last jam left in the crate. Sadly, instead it was probably the one highlight of this soon-to-be-over series for a franchise witnessing the ugly end of an era.

Make that the official ugly end. The unofficial end came in November, when Pistons president Joe Dumars traded team leader Chauncey Billups to Denver for Allen Iverson. From the moment the trade was made, Detroit began barreling downhill like a sleigh.

While Iverson is rightly being criticized for his behavior over the past few months (I doubt there's a person in the league who believes he's really too hurt to play), the fact is he did try to fit in initially. But the Pistons are a tough bunch, not just for coaches but for newcomers in general.

While the vets respected A.I. as a person and his accomplishments as a player, they didn't exactly embrace him with a loving bear hug. They were too stunned and disappointed by the departure of Billups to excitedly put out the welcome mat.

Plus, their "We've-won-a-championship-and-you-haven't" attitude meant they expected A.I. to do all the adjusting. They weren't going to change at all, not even a little bit. Nothing was said and the actions weren't overt, but A.I. felt the lack of love.

Michael Curry's eventual benching of Hamilton in favor of Iverson only compounded the problems in the locker room. While Hamilton was professional enough to give it his all as a sixth man, he's been upset ever since, even though he's returned to the starting lineup, and multiple sources tell me that he and Curry haven't been on speaking terms for months.

The rest of the old guard isn't about to run through a brick wall for Curry, either. Curry was hired as a replacement for Flip Saunders because of his leadership and toughness. Detroit's management had watched the players blatantly disrespect and curse out Saunders for years, and they knew Curry, a Pistons assistant coach last year, would put an end to that mess.

But it's hard to move from being an assistant who serves as a buffer between the players and a coach they think is milquetoast to ruling with an iron fist. It's been an uncomfortable situation to say the least.

Curry probably will be back next season, with the harsh economic times -- he has two years left on his deal -- working in his favor. But speculation throughout the league suggests his return is not certain.

So the Pistons aren't exactly in the proper mental state to go out and "shock the world" by upsetting Cleveland. Their play, their body language and their understanding that the Cavs are just better than the Pistons all say they just want this nightmarish season to end.

But for all the drama and losing that has followed the Billups trade, I still wholeheartedly believe it was a good move. First of all, the Billups you're seeing outplay Chris Paul in the Nuggets-Hornets series is a Billups with a chip on his shoulder. He had lost that chip in Detroit, failing to come up big in his last three postseasons as a Piston.

Secondly, even with Billups, Detroit wasn't going to beat Cleveland and a healthy Boston. And while making the second round (or even the conference finals) will make Billups the mayor in Denver, another playoff exit would've done nothing but anger the fans in Detroit, whose standard for success is understandably much higher. After another pre-Finals departure, the Pistons would've been a year older, with little financial flexibility, and Billups, with three years and $40 million left on his contract, would've had less value on the trade market.

Sure, it cost them a season, but the Pistons still made the playoffs and now they have the flexibility to rebuild on the run. By letting Iverson and his $22 million walk along with Rasheed and his $13.7 million, Detroit will have roughly $17 million in cap space this summer.

With only a few other teams significantly under the cap and most teams trying to cut payroll rather than add it, the Pistons are in terrific position to improve their club. Impact players who are likely to be available as free agents are Carlos Boozer, Paul Millsap, Ben Gordon, Marvin Williams, Hedo Turkoglu, Charlie Villanueva and Anderson Varejao.

On top of that, several teams may be looking to trade good players merely to gain financial relief, as New Orleans attempted to do at the trade deadline with Tyson Chandler. Detroit is in position to take advantage of whatever fire sales may take place around the league.

Dumars said after last year's playoffs that everyone on his roster except Rodney Stuckey was available. There's no reason he won't be of the same mindset this year.

So while Detroit's fans and critics are focused on the impending end of the six-year run to the Eastern Conference finals, Dumars is more farsighted, preparing to build toward another successful stretch. In November, they broke ground. They hope to lay the foundation this summer.

Then, maybe there'll be some sizzle the next time Cleveland and Detroit meet in the playoffs.

Chris Broussard is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.