by Rick Olivares
Detroit Pistons 2007-08
2006 record: 53-29
The one constant in the East for the last five years is that the Detroit Pistons are legitimate NBA championship contenders. And they still are despite replacing a coach, losing a key member of their 2004 title team, and collapsing to an overachieving Cleveland team.
The Pistons have made the eastern finals for five straight years; only four other teams have accomplished that (the Boston Celtics, the Los Angeles Lakers, the San Antonio Spurs and the Philadelphia 76ers are the others) feat. But that doesn’t mean anything to Flip Saunders and his Pistons. What they’d like most is to annex the club’s fourth NBA title. The holdovers from the ‘04 title team don’t have much to prove but Saunders does. He inherited a great team from Larry Brown that was on the cusp of greatness but they’ve instead had a tendency to lose focus and that killer instinct when the season is on the line.
No other team in the East has been close to rivaling the Pistons’ remarkable consistency in the regular season. In the last five years the Pistons have had a regular season winning percentage of .671. Compare that to the next three best teams, the Pacers (.509), Nets (.508), and Heat (.505) and you will see that the Pistons have won an average of 13 more games a year than any of these franchises. Yet despite that, one has to wonder if the Pistons have peaked and they’re nothing more now than the Utah Jazz of the late 90’s who won their division annually, made the finals and lost before they coasted to play-off mediocrity. The Miami Heat and the Cleveland Cavaliers have derailed the Pistons in the last couple of seasons so it will be interesting to see if they climb back to the top this year.
The loss of Ben Wallace, Memo Okur, and – don’t laugh – Darko Milicic were noticeable all throughout the season. When the Pistons couldn’t find a stopper in the middle they chose to outshoot the opponent; an uncharacteristic but no less effective wrinkle to the new look Pistons of Saunders. They got away with it in the early rounds of the play-offs especially since Chicago without a legit low post presence chose to jack up shots from the outside. But against the Cavaliers, LeBron James drove right through motor city well past the speed limits.
Chris Webber’s passing and shooting touch helped the Pistons for sure, but at 34 years old, he just doesn’t have that athleticism that made him a marvel to watch during his Sacramento days. In fact, he wore down during the play-offs. Ditto with Rasheed Wallace who instead of mellowing seems to be unraveling.
Their core is aging with an average age of 31 but Detroit has positioned themselves nicely with some young guns to take over like the energetic Jason Maxiell, Amir Johnson, and Ronald Dupree especially now that they’ve let Carlos Delfino go to the Toronto Raptors. Nazr Mohammed didn’t exactly replace Ben Wallace, but he had his moments. Still they’re one or two more scoring players away from winning it all again.
Rasheed Wallace is still deadly but the play-off losses in recent years seem to be unraveling him once more. Wallace, Webber, and Antonio McDyess have slowed down, but that suits the halfcourt game that they like so much. It conserves their energy and throws uptempo offenses like the Bulls and the Cavs off synch.
Just when the team has to answer questions about its aging stars, forward Tayshaun Prince suffered an ankle injury during the recent FIBA Americas tournament. Although Prince played in Team USA’s following assignment, the last thing this team needs is a gimpy kneed Prince who is all the more vital to the team’s defense since Big Ben skipped town.
Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton are still in their prime and Lindsey Hunter still provides quality minutes off the bench. But it is important to integrate Jarvis Hayes, Ronald Murray, Rodney Stuckey, and rookie Arron Afflalo into the mix. Mr. Big Shot is fine, but Rip got banged up pretty good last season lessening his effectiveness.
Other teams would love to have the problems the Pistons have. One of their biggest strengths is their mental fortitude. Now if Saunders can figure out a way to bring their young guns to play meaningful minutes it will ease the wear and tear on the vets and preserve them for the second season. This is perhaps the last ride for Webber and McDyess who have never won an NBA title. Unfortunately, the days when their teams’ fortunes rode on their broad shoulders are over. More than anything now, they have to rely on other teammates to cover their defensive problems.
And that’s what Pistons basketball is all about. Now if Saunders can only get this team running smoothly.