Wednesday November 26th, 2008

The Pistons' stunning trade for Allen Iverson continues to shake itself out. The latest ripple has affected Tayshaun Prince, the deferential wing player who is becoming a point forward in place of Chauncey Billups.

The Pistons experimented more than ever last week with running their offense through the 6-foot-9 Prince, which enabled Iverson to play off the ball as a receiver rather than quarterback.

"This is the most that I've played at the point position,'' Prince said the other day after going an uncomfortable 2-for-9 for four points with three assists in a 98-80 loss at Boston. "It's a work in progress.''

The Pistons hope the new responsibilities will eventually bring out the best in their 28-year-old co-captain, who is averaging career bests of 15.5 points and 7.2 rebounds to go with 3.0 assists.

"Even before Iverson got here, we had sat down with Prince before the season and said, 'It's really not an option for you to be passive here anymore. It's imperative for you to be aggressive every night,' " Pistons president Joe Dumars said. "We want Iverson and Rip [Hamilton] flying off screens, and Prince is our best decision-maker with the ball in his hands.''

The Pistons are 4-5 with Iverson and enter their Wednesday game against New York with two losses in a row, the latter a humiliating 106-80 home defeat to Minnesota in which Prince scored a team-high 20 points and Iverson, Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace were a combined 8-for-32. But Dumars sees hope in his array of ball handlers as the new mix.

"Between Iverson, Prince, [backup point guard Rodney] Stuckey and [No. 3 point guard Will] Bynum, we have four guys who can make plays,'' Dumars said. "That's new to us to have that many guys.''

It didn't take long for the Pistons to realize that they needed to take the ball out of Iverson's hands, making Prince the next-best option.

"It's something he likes and it keeps him involved,'' coach Michael Curry said of Prince. "The last few years he's been a guy who has spotted up in the corner, and he may get some shots or he may not. But now as a point forward he's able to create plays for others and be involved with the ball in his hands, and so he's better when he's attacking that way.

"When I call sets for Allen to initiate, sometimes Tay will wave me off and let me know he's got it, he'll run the play. So he likes that role, he's a great decision-maker, and he keeps a calmness to us when he's handling the basketball.''

But Prince didn't sound so comfortable in Boston, where he admittedly found himself forcing up two jumpers he normally wouldn't have attempted.

"I have to read [the defense] better and find out where my shots are going to come from that point position,'' he said. "Especially early in the game, because if you get off to a slow start, it kind of plays with you throughout the whole game.''

Think about how difficult it is for scoring guards like Ben Gordon, Jason Terry or Iverson to make the transition to point guard. Yet Prince has a chance to succeed at point forward because he is naturally a selfless player who worries more about fitting in than having things his own way. In order to maintain offensive balance, however, the Pistons also need Prince to remain aggressive, and so he wonders about creating shots for himself while making sure his star teammates are involved -- a difficult assessment for experienced point guards.

"I've got to try to get Rip going, I've got to try to get the ball in AI's hands, but at the same time I've got to figure out when to do my part,'' Prince said. "The huge transition for me is to say, 'Hey, I've got to break a play and try to create something for myself.' I know they're not adjusted to me playing the point that much. I've got to recognize different reads that normally Chauncey would do. Chauncey and Rip had that connection coming off those screens, and so did Rasheed, so they've got to get that connection with me now.

"We'll have one great game, and then the next day it's a bad game. So clearly we're not on the same page at both ends.''

This is why there's no sense in deciding one way or the other whether the Iverson trade will pay off. It's going to take months of effort to create a role for Iverson while replacing Billups' offensive leadership.

The mission for Oklahoma City is to realize improvement in its young players, hastening the conversion from rebuilding franchise to playoff contender. That's why the Thunder recently replaced P.J. Carlesimo with interim coach Scott Brooks, who made a long career of improving beyond his apparent means.

Brooks was a 5-11 point guard who bounced from TCU to San Joaquin Delta College to UC Irvine, where he averaged 23.8 points as a senior. He was undrafted and spent a season with the CBA Albany Patroons. From that unremarkable background he somehow was able to create a surprising 11-year playing career in the NBA, including a championship with the 1993-94 Rockets as a reliable backup worth 16.8 minutes and 5.2 points per game.

Brooks should create a different tone than Carlesimo, who had been tuned out by his team. No coach could win with a roster so heavily under construction; the goal is to endow the young players with fundamentals and a consistent approach to hard work that will result in long, successful careers. On that score, the 43-year-old Brooks should feel no insecurity about his interim-rookie status as a head coach. Instead, he can relate to the players based on his own experiences. If Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are among those who show improvement by April, then Brooks will have produced a successful year.

The season isn't a month old yet and the league's three worst teams have already undergone major changes. The Wizards (with a 1-10 record) and Thunder (1-12) fired their coaches, while Clippers GM and coach Mike Dunleavy attempted to stabilize his listing team by acquiring Zach Randolph to go with centers Chris Kaman and Marcus Camby.

The Knicks were unable to play Randolph and center Eddy Curry together because both needed to score in the low post. Will the same problem follow Randolph to Los Angeles when he tries to share the frontcourt with Kaman?

At least Kaman can be effective without needing the ball as much as Curry did. It was a risky move, but Dunleavy clearly believed the bigger gamble would have been to ignore the Clippers' 2-9 start.

The team next in line to make a move could be the 4-9 Bobcats, whose coach, Larry Brown, is always interested in making trades. The trend of early-season anxiety would appear to stop there; the next-worst teams -- the young, 3-9 Timberwolves and 4-10 Grizzlies -- have been more competitive than anticipated, while the rebuilding Kings have gone 5-7 since their 0-4 start on the road.

Apart from the Lakers and Celtics at the top and a few teams at the bottom, the league appears to be taking on aspects of NFL parity. At least 24 teams, including every Eastern team but the Wizards, head into December with realistic hopes of making the playoffs. And who is to say that the Wizards couldn't make a late run pending a January comeback from Gilbert Arenas?

Helen J. Heinsohn died Tuesday after fighting cancer for six years. Despite the illness, she would regularly accompany her husband, Tom, the Celtics' broadcaster and Hall of Famer, to the games in Boston, her good humor and perseverant strength in the worst circumstances serving as an example of how one should live. Athletes strive for and rarely fathom the courage she displayed so humbly. Our prayers are with her and her family.

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