Pistons' quick free-agent strikes promising first steps back to elite

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The Pistons won't contend for a championship next season, but will they be challenging in three or four years?

That is the question raised by Detroit president Joe Dumars after he used most of his cap space to negotiate free-agent contracts with shooting guard Ben Gordon ($55 million over five years) and power forward Charlie Villanueva (five years at $35 million) this week.

The key measure of both newcomers is their ages. Gordon is 26 and Villanueva is 24, and they'll join with 23-year-old point guard Rodney Stuckey to begin developing a new long-term core for Detroit.

This new era was launched in November by the Pistons' painful decision to move Chauncey Billups to Denver for the expiring contract of Allen Iverson. By breaking up a unit that had reached six straight conference finals, Dumars made it clear that he was planning to reload the franchise with younger players without plummeting deep into the lottery. It is an ambitious goal that will be difficult to execute.

But these free-agent agreements amount to a good start for Detroit -- so long as they are viewed as opening moves, rather than finishing pieces. As replacements, Gordon and Villanueva don't measure up to the departed Billups or soon-to-be gone Rasheed Wallace, but consider the value of the latter stars before they arrived in Detroit more than five years ago. Billups had been with five teams in five years when he signed with Detroit for the mid-level exception starting at $4.6 million in 2002-03. Wallace's value was so low that the Pistons stole him in 2004 for several role players and a couple of draft picks.

Villanueva has been criticized as a perimeter-shooting power forward who doesn't rebound, but his rebounding numbers (6.7 per game in 26.9 minutes last season) compare favorably with Wallace's (7.4 in 32.2 minutes), and Villanueva is coming off an efficient 16.2-point season with Milwaukee. If he maintains that production for Detroit, his contract will be viewed as an excellent value.

The Pistons remain frontcourt-thin while they wait to see if 34-year-old big man Antonio McDyess returns to provide short-term relief. Eventually they may have to improve that area by moving 29-year-old small forward Tayshaun Prince, whose contract expires in 2010-11 at a salary of $11.1 million, or 31-year-old shooting guard Rip Hamilton, who will be the more difficult player to deal with four years and as much as $50 million remaining on the books.

Hamilton could have an extended future as Detroit's version of Reggie Miller, who late into his 30s continued to excel as an agile shooter on the move while providing leadership for the Pacers and their young, redeveloping roster.

Gordon's signing makes sense in a couple of ways. Though many teams have questioned the usefulness of a 6-foot-3 shooting guard, the Pistons can live with his size while pairing him with the 6-5 Stuckey at point guard. In addition, Gordon doesn't mind coming off the bench as long as he is on the floor down the stretch, when the Pistons could go with all three guards to create a variety of scoring options among Hamilton, Gordon and Stuckey.

Whether they hire Avery Johnson, Cavs assistant John Kuester or a surprise candidate (such as Jeff Van Gundy?) as their new coach, the Pistons will go into next season with less talent than Eastern favorites Orlando, Cleveland, Boston and Washington. Will Dumars be able to establish a stable environment for developing new talent as he continues to rejuvenate the roster?

The next coach will be Detroit's fifth in eight seasons. But the Pistons should have enough firepower to contend for the playoffs as they spend the next two or three years developing their new signings as well as first-round pick Austin Daye, a long-term project at small forward.

Crucial to Dumars' plan is to keep the Pistons in contention during this transition, so his players will have value in potential moves down the line. For fans who fancy themselves as armchair GMs, the Pistons are going to be an interesting franchise to study over the next several years.