Weekly Countdown: Here's why the Pistons are capable of winning it all
Each player declared what he could do to help the Pistons win their first title since 2003-04. They spoke in front of each other, and it became a personal contract among the players and their coach.
"I'll read it before games to see the mentality of where our players were at the beginning of the year, to see where they're at [now],'' Saunders said. "
"It was good that we sat in there and talked about it. You could see where they were coming from and what they thought.
"They have lived up to it,'' Saunders said. "At times, everyone's going to veer away a little bit. But because of that [meeting], our players have been more vocal with each other, about guys not doing things, and letting them know this is what you have to do.''
Detroit has reached the Eastern Conference finals for a sixth straight year, a streak last achieved by
"I saw someone say, 'They've turned the switch on and off this year,' " said Pistons president
The idea that the Pistons flick their effort off and back on again infuriates Dumars.
"Sometimes I think we are under a different set of rules,'' he said. "We lose a game and, well, 'Those guys didn't show up, and the switch was off.' And you see other people lose games, and there is such a different standard. Are we ever allowed to lose a game where some other team just plays better than us?''
The point I'm comfortable making about the Pistons is that they've played 99 postseason games over the previous five years. As tiring as the regular season can be, they've averaged an additional 20 games per year, and those games obviously have been more demanding than, say, a December homestand against Chicago and Charlotte.
Dumars insists that Detroit's six-year run of postseason excellence is proof that the proverbial lights are always on.
"You're asking these guys to go out there and play at an elite level every second of every game, and that's just not going to happen in this league,'' he said. "There are some nights that teams are going to have your number, and they're going to make shots and you're not, and you're going to come up short. To do what we've done, sitting here six straight years, you're not turning switches off a whole lot. And so that sometimes seems to be more of the emphasis than the six straight years we've done this, and it's like, Are you kidding me?''
"You've got to be truthful and honest and make an unvarnished assessment of your team,'' Dumars said. "Here's the conclusion that I came to: that we were playing our starters too many minutes. We did not have enough youth and athleticism on our team, and we weren't deep enough. So I sat down with Flip and talked about how we have to cut our starters' minutes back. If we want to continue at this pace, that's what we have to do.
"The second thing is -- and this one's on me -- I've got to make sure that we go out and get these athletic, high-energy guys, because that was missing as well when I watched us play. Not only were the starters tired, but when we turned to the bench, it wasn't to high-energy guys. I don't think we could have gotten back here without cutting those minutes and adding those guys. And then you've got to make a commitment to playing them.''
The corners of the Pistons' foundation -- Billups,
"He's extremely athletic, very talented and very instinctive in how he plays,'' Saunders said of Stuckey. "I'm very geared to a point-guard system. I give the ball to the point guard and let him make decisions. The other four guys have their jobs as far as what they do, but that point guard makes the decisions to set everybody else up. That maybe facilitated his progress a lot, because he couldn't go hide. He had to make decisions.''
"If you've never been in this type of environment before,'' Dumars said of the annual pursuit of a championship, "then you have to get used to it. It's his third year of being in this type of environment, and any team other than San Antonio would have thought, Wow, [look at] what kind of success we've had -- 64 wins [two years ago] and  wins [last year] and 59 wins this year. But you have to get used to being in that environment where you hear, 'You guys didn't make it to the NBA Finals? What happened?' A lot of other organizations aren't used to that, and what we claim as success here is a lot different than what most people claim is success.
"So without a doubt, Flip has gotten a whole lot better here as opposed to when he first walked through the door. That's no knock on him, that's just reality.''
My take on Saunders is that he earned respect by integrating Stuckey, Maxiell, rookie guard
This year, however, Saunders improved the team by working the young players into the rotation and elevating their play to a level of championship contention. The older players needed help off the bench, Saunders provided it for them, and the Pistons wouldn't be back in the conference finals without him. He needed something to do, some way to make an impact, and the young bench provided that opportunity.
Over the second half of the year, Saunders began to bench his young players after making a single turnover -- getting them ready for the high demands they would face during the playoffs, when one error can ruin the season. It says a lot about Saunders' coaching ability that Stuckey, a rookie who missed the first seven weeks of this season with a broken left hand, was able to come off the bench in Game 2 of the conference finals Thursday and play a terrific 17 minutes (13 points, three assists) in relief of Billups while making one big play after another to help the Pistons even the series and seize home-court advantage.
"We were playing in Atlanta [in February] and I was on Stuckey pretty hard,'' Saunders said. "We called a timeout and he goes, 'You're yelling at me, but you're not on Chauncey all the time.' And I told him, 'That's because I was on Chauncey six years ago.' "
Let's see how the series plays out. The Celtics were sharp in Game 1, but coach
He would be even better if he played with better players. It's clear that he wants to play more often in the open court, and that he looks forward to sharing the ball with teammates who not only spread the floor for him but also enable him to create plays with his exceptional vision for passing. Basically, he wants to win championships, and he can't do it with this team. But the Cavs know this -- that's why they acquired $30 million in expiring contracts to apply to trades over the coming year.
That's a good question. The way it looks now, the only championship team in the history of the league that may not produce a Hall of Famer is the 1978-79 Sonics.
But where does that leave Billups, Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince? Each may need to win another championship in order to be judged Hall-worthy for his team play rather than by the individual stats, which each of them has sacrificed in pursuit of the greater good. (If Rasheed is seen as the difference-maker and most talented player on two or more championship teams, then I think concerns about his attitude will be dismissed. And yes, I'm expecting to receive a lot of angry e-mails for that one.)
Is this a bad system? Yes, because it is set up to disperse money to everyone except the players who -- more than anyone -- bring in that money. What would be a better system? I don't know that answer. All I know is that it's not right for a sport that generates billions of dollars to invent a thick tangle of rules to prevent players from receiving any money, especially when so many of those players and their families need it desperately.
The colleges don't necessarily have to pay players. They could simply allow players to receive money from boosters or other sources so that it is no longer delivered under the table. Anecdotally, we know Illegal payments to players are widespread in major college basketball (and football). The only way to stop the rule-breaking is to do away with the stupid rule. Decriminalize it. If coaches can receive hundreds of thousands of dollars for outfitting their players with a certain brand of sneakers, then why shouldn't the players be allowed to receive money too?
He shouldn't be fretting in a panicky way, but I can guarantee you he frets passionately. It's obvious that James not only badly wants to win championships but also that he's capable of doing so -- just look how far he has carried these Cavs over the last three postseasons.
In 2006, LeBron signed a shortened three-year extension. He negotiated a deal that can set him free in 2010 for a couple of reasons: As a seven-year veteran, he'll be able to demand a salary worth 30 percent of the team salary cap (as opposed to the 25 percent he can receive before 2010), and he'll also be able to jump to a more competitive franchise if he doesn't have faith in the Cavs to build a title team around him. If he leaves, the value of the franchise shrinks. There is nothing wrong with Gilbert fretting about the future in a constructive way that means to build a championship contender that James can't afford to leave.
With all due respect to Rivers -- who doesn't feel comfortable speaking on behalf of the league on this topic; he was responding politely to a question -- no one should assume this scandal is behind the NBA. That would, in fact, be absolutely the wrong conclusion to draw. Once Donaghy has been sentenced and the details of his sports-betting relationships have been made public, the league needs to provide a compelling and comprehensive explanation of how a referee was able to engage in this kind of behavior for an extended period of time, and what is going to be done to prevent it from happening again.
It may appear as if fans have paid little attention to the Donaghy scandal, but be assured that sports bettors around the country understand its implications. The NBA was surprised by the criminal activities of its disgraced referee, and fans of all kinds must be convinced that constructive reforms are being created to avoid further surprises to come.
I live in Boston, and on Monday I woke up realizing I had four tickets to the Red Sox game that night. This is a true story. I called many people to invite them to join us, and half of them had a valid reason for not coming. The other half wanted to know who was pitching.
Jon Lester, I said.
"You know, I haven't been feeling well. I think I'm going to stay in tonight.''
"I should really be spending more time with the family.''
"Jon Lester? I'll pass.'' Laughing as they said this, like I was trying to pull something over.
The one person who showed half-hearted interest was Montville, whose
"I was 50-50 on going,'' admitted Montville, who said he wanted to stay home and watch the Spurs-Hornets Game 7.
Plus, I said, you probably didn't want to watch Jon Lester.
"Yeah, Jon Lester ...''
So the four of us went that night to see Jon Lester throw a 130-pitch no-hitter against the Kansas City Royals less than two years after he completed treatment for cancer. It might be the most amazing athletic performance I will ever see. The next morning this e-mail was waiting for me:
Let me assure my readers that my insistent plugging of Montville's latest and finest work is not intended to discourage legal action, but rather is done as a public service, to encourage people to read a compelling and hilarious story about a golfer who was hitting 300-yard drives in the 1930s as best friend to
One other thing I haven't mentioned is that we had received these tickets from my sister-in-law, who agreed to trade nights with us only because I had been forced to miss a Red Sox game the previous week while covering the NBA playoffs. This turned out to be a good break for us, obviously, but not for my sister-in-law. And so moments after the final pitch was thrown, while the players were dancing in a big scrum near the mound, my wife handed her phone to our 12-year-old son to call his generous aunt `"so she could hear the roar of the crowd,'' and before he could say a word in all the ambient noise of 37,000 people clapping and cheering, he thought he heard something that sounded like her voice yelling into the phone: "You shuck!''
Let me add that the reason we live in Boston is to expose our children to their relatives who live here. Because family is everything.