"The Pistons are playing at a higher level than they have all season,'' Denver coach George Karl said after the 100-95 loss. It happened in the absence of former teammates Carmelo Anthony, who was suspended for refusing Karl's order to come out of the previous game, and Allen Iverson, whose back injury coincides not only with the Pistons' decision to bring him off the bench but also with their ensuing victories over Orlando, Boston and Denver.
If this little run against contenders absent Jameer Nelson, Kevin Garnett and Anthony is viewed as a dramatic revival of the Pistons, then too much is being made of it. Detroit is no threat to Boston or Cleveland in a seven-game series unless the trend of the last week is extended through the six weeks ahead. Which is unlikely, considering its fitful 22-28 record in games started by Iverson. The Pistons are still going to have to find some way of working him back into their rotation. In theory, Iverson could become a new version of Vinnie Johnson, microwaving offense off the bench, but the Pistons are weary of such optimism.
"It was two-pronged,'' Pistons president Joe Dumars said of his decision to deal Billups for Iverson in November. "I knew one of the prongs wasn't going to change no matter what -- the future. That was going to be set no matter what. What you hope for in a situation like this is that the present plays out favorably for you.''
The trade generates $17 million or more in space (based on the league's projection of a reduced salary cap) this summer for new players in trades, free agency and the draft. The Pistons could wind up with more than $20 million to spend in July by moving Kwame Brown ($4 million next season in the last year of deal) or Amir Johnson ($3.7 million), so there's no sense in judging the outcome of the Billups move until Dumars has turned over the cap space from the expiring contracts of Iverson and Rasheed Wallace. But Dumars admits he has been surprised that Iverson has backfired so badly in the short term.
"My hope was that we could absorb whatever change was thrown at us and get through it for this season,'' Dumars said. "I'm disappointed we haven't been able to sustain success this year. Win a game, lose a couple, win a game, lose a couple -- that's been the roller coaster we've been on all year.''
Yet Iverson has also served to affirm the Pistons' belief in their system. They remain the only franchise in recent years to win a title without an elite star, emerging in 2003-04 with a nuanced blend of talent lacking the traditional superstar scorer found on all other championship teams of the last three decades. In that sense, Iverson amounted to an experiment: Could Dumars upgrade the Pistons' operating system by plugging in an elite scorer? The Answer has provided that answer: No.
Some will say that Iverson isn't the right kind of star, that at 33 he can no longer carry a team. But he remains a terrific scorer who averaged 26.4 points in 82 games with Denver last season. More important than his age or the merits of his talent is the style of his play. He holds the ball. He creates for himself.
That's who he is: a player who carries a team. The Pistons know now more than ever that one player can't carry them. They lost eight straight games with Iverson, and after he suffered a back strain last week at New Orleans, the ugliness ended. Rip Hamilton was restored to the starting lineup in place of Iverson, and the Pistons have won every game since.
"By him starting,'' forward Tayshaun Prince said of Hamilton, "we get a comfort level to start the game off and get off to a good start. Of the  games he came off the bench, I think 12 or 13 of them in the first quarter we were down six to eight points early. He gives us that chemistry we've had, and it does make a difference.''
"We knew where our guys were at,'' Hamilton said after contributing 25 points and nine assists in the 105-95 win at Boston on Sunday. "That's a key thing for me with Tayshaun and Rasheed and [Antonio] McDyess -- I always know where they are going to be all the time, they always know where I'm going to be."
What has become obvious is that a star like Iverson can't be expected all of a sudden to stop trying to carry a team, because he doesn't know how to play any other way. It would be just as unfair to ask Hamilton to all of a sudden carry a team with his scoring. Could Hamilton have dragged the 2000-01 Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA Finals as Iverson did as league MVP? Absolutely not.
The Iverson experiment goes to show that the Pistons shouldn't seek just any kind of star this summer. They need talents like Toronto's Chris Bosh or Atlanta's Joe Johnson, who will both be on the market in 2010 (which unfortunately is a year too late for Dumars, unless their teams choose to put them on the market this summer). The Pistons' recent success also shows that they aren't too far away from becoming relevant again, so long as the right talent is placed around Hamilton (who is 31), Prince (29) and 22-year-old point guard Rodney Stuckey.
"The way Joe's been running this team, he's always going to run it the same way,'' Hamilton said. "He's not going to switch it up because that's not him. This is the style he played in, and this is the style that won us championships.''
By trading Billups, Dumars was hoping to rebuild the Pistons without having to ultimately reinvent them. He wants to bring in two or three ready-made talents to return Detroit to contention next season.
"I'm trying to avoid running the tires completely off,'' he said of hoping to dodge a down cycle that bottoms out at the top of the lottery.
The Spurs have remained relevant by plugging in younger pieces around Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker -- a threesome that is far more dynamic than Detroit's surviving trio of Hamilton, Prince and Stuckey. But Dumars believes in the system and the availability of talent to plug into it. Don't forget that he originally signed Billups as a free agent to the mid-level exception.
"We're not going to change our model in order to lay the success or failure on one superstar,'' Dumars said. "We're going to continue the model that we've had here and that has worked for a long time. We will always try to build one of the deepest teams in the NBA, which is what we've done over the years.
"I'm not averse to a star. But it has got to be a star who can flourish in this type of environment, this type of culture that we've become accustomed to here.''