Is The Answer the answer? Allen Iverson made his home debut with the Pistons on Sunday night with a horrifying 88-76 loss to the champion Celtics, the team he was acquired to beat.
The dismantling of Detroit's nascent experiment will affirm the majority opinion that Iverson is more likely to lead the Pistons astray than to a title. But don't forget this about Iverson: Everything he has accomplished in his 13 NBA years has come as a surprise. He was supposed to be too small at 6 feet to be a dominant player, too selfish to lead the 76ers to the 2001 NBA Finals as league MVP, and too vulnerable physically to maintain a high level of play for so many years. Now that he's 33 with a career 27.7-point scoring average and Hall of Fame numbers, it may be wise to view the glass as half full rather than half empty. If he succeeds in Detroit, it won't be his first revelation.
His opening performances demonstrate that the Pistons will need a few weeks to renew their identity -- and their playbook -- around Iverson. Boston held Detroit to 34.7 percent shooting while Iverson went 4-for-11 (10 points) with four assists and four turnovers. The Pistons were 4-0 without Iverson but lost their first two games with him. On Friday in New Jersey, Iverson led them to an early 14-point lead before succumbing to 38 points from Devin Harris in the Nets' 103-96 victory.
"I expect him to be aggressive, and that's why we brought him here,'' Pistons coach Michael Curry said before that loss. "When we look back at Allen's past teams, I haven't seen top-to-bottom a group as talented as our group. So he's going to have more space to operate, and he's going to be able to create shots for a lot of our shooters. I don't think he's ever had a pick-and-roll with a guy who can shoot the ball like Rasheed [Wallace].''
Yet Iverson has had little team success, winning one playoff series since 2001. The transition in Detroit won't be simple: Not only must Iverson learn to operate the point alongside Rip Hamilton and other established Pistons, but also his new role must be navigated during the season by Curry, a rookie coach.
Boston had a better feeling for what the Pistons were trying to accomplish offensively than Iverson himself. The Celtics' swarming defense anticipated the passing lanes while forcing Iverson and his teammates to fritter away half-court possessions with the dribble. The Answer wanted to circulate the ball, but he couldn't figure out how to initiate the offense.
One year before its championship trades for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Boston made a serious run at acquiring Iverson from the 76ers. It was a bad idea for those Celtics because they were a young team without structure, and Iverson's one-on-one play never could have turned that group into a contender.
These Pistons were at the other end of the spectrum. Their starters were entirely too comfortable with one another, having already won the 2004 title while reaching the conference finals for six straight years. From a team that maintained offensive balance -- no Piston has averaged more than 20.1 points during their extended run of contention -- Detroit has shifted to a more traditional hierarchy with Iverson as its clear No. 1 scorer and Hamilton as the second option.
"I was looking for a different style -- push it more, try to get more easy baskets, slashing, break the other teams down, get more points in the paint,'' Pistons president Joe Dumars said. "Those were all the things that I thought this team needed. As good as we've been, our Achilles heel has been that we don't get points in the paint, we don't get easy buckets and the pace slows up too much. It becomes predictable.''
Curry's goal is to shift the ball back and forth from one side of the floor to the other -- "to keep people guessing who the offensive sets are being run for.'' But there was no sign of this against the league's most intimidating defense Sunday.
No one from Detroit should ever have anything bad to say about Billups, who emerged as MVP of the 2004 Finals while stabilizing the franchise as its leader at point guard. But it is fair to say that Billups did not play to his normal high level over the last three conference finals. The Pistons were counting on Billups to dominate his matchup against Boston last postseason, but instead he was outplayed by second-year point guard Rajon Rondo.
The Pistons will be counting on Iverson to win that matchup should they run into Boston next spring. But they'll also need to strengthen their perimeter defense overall after watching Tony Allen burn them off the dribble for a season-best 23 points, much as Harris did for New Jersey. In addition, the Pistons are hoping to re-sign Antonio McDyess, who negotiated a buyout after being sent to Denver in the Iverson trade.
Before last week, the Pistons' starters knew each other as well as any team in the league; now they have to establish a new rapport.
"Obviously, it's going to take time because it's a different look, a different flow,'' Iverson said Sunday. "I think I'm a totally different player than what they're used to playing with. We're just going to have to get used to each other.''