The biggest issue is the coaching change from Flip Saunders to rookie Michael Curry. At the end of the season, team president Joe Dumars sounded like he was ready to blow it all up if the right opportunities came along. But then he didn't make any roster moves. Maybe he was frustrated at losing in the conference finals again, or maybe there were no trade opportunities that made sense, or maybe he figured the coaching change would address their issues and that they still have the talent to be successful.
Curry has been in the organization a long time as a player and assistant, and I think the players trust and respect him. Are they going to use that relationship to their advantage instead of accepting criticism and coaching from him? The expectations of a friend are different than the expectations of the boss. The key is whether the players will allow him to coach them. There may be some rough patches, but I think, in the end, they're going to let him be their coach, especially after making it clear that they didn't buy into the way Flip had been doing it.
They've made the conference finals six straight years with this group. Is the window starting to close? Absolutely. I don't see them winning the championship, but at the same time they're good enough that you can't write them off. The more realistic outlook is another season with home-court advantage in the first round at least. And yet, they played excellent team defense last year, they have Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince in their primes, and they're still a 50-win team with their eyes closed. If Boston stumbles or LeBron doesn't take another step up, then the Pistons could get to the Finals, because who else is there in the East?
I think we're going to begin seeing a changing of the guard -- literally. While Rasheed Wallace may be slipping, his game will enable him to fade a little more gracefully. But Chauncey Billups is going to begin showing his age [he turned 32 in September], and he has his built-in replacement right there in Rodney Stuckey. Billups' efficiency improved by playing fewer minutes last year, but he isn't getting to the rim as much as he used to. That could be a dicey issue for Curry to handle. One thing they could do would be to have Stuckey and Billups play at the same time. But it's easier for me to imagine them trading Chauncey than Stuckey, who is probably the closest thing they have to an untouchable player on their roster.
The Pistons have done a good job with their drafts, and the youth off their bench is a big help to their older starting lineup. But Stuckey is the only guy off the bench who has a chance to be a front-line guy. I think Jason Maxiell might have hit his ceiling last year. He's a tweener, an energy guy who gets exposed when he plays too many minutes.
Rasheed's contract expires this season, and they'll have a big decision to make. If they stumble in the first half of the year, then maybe it will be easier to trade Rasheed at the deadline in February. But if they're one of the top teams in the first half of the year, how do you trade your best big guy? It would be difficult to give up on this year by trading Rasheed unless you get equal talent back in return. But usually that doesn't happen in those kinds of trades. Even if they have no intention of re-signing Rasheed, they may let it play out to give this team one last hurrah.
Antonio McDyess should be a role player at his age . He can't continue to average close to 30 minutes per game as he did last year. In the perfect scenario, he would be their third big man who comes off the bench for 20 minutes. But that's the same role Maxiell should be playing. Kwame Brown is their fourth big guy, and he shouldn't play more than 10-15 minutes for a team like this. But if McDyess has injuries, they'll need more for Brown.
What kind of trade could Dumars pull off to energize their team? It would have to be one of those deals where he's the buyer instead of the seller. They've got to get a dynamic, team-changing player without breaking up their core. Right now, I can't imagine who that player would be or how they could pull it off. At the same time, this is a roster that came within one game of winning 60 last year. I think we all get bored with them because they've been so good for so long, but it will be hard to shut the door on them. They're too close to the top to give up and start all over again.
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