The Pistons made few changes to their roster, but point guard Chauncey Billups would have you believe that the club has undergone a major makeover. Reserves buried at the end of the bench last season will get more minutes, creating a deeper rotation. More significantly, the departure of a coaching icon has made them hungrier than ever. "We're going to miss Larry Brown, but so many times it was just about Larry," says Billups of the 65-year-old coach, who at first appeared on his way to the Cavaliers but wound up with the Knicks. "It was always, 'Larry did this, Larry did that,' with the result that I don't think the players got enough credit."
The controversial departure of Brown, who had three years left on his contract, has given way to the low-key approach of new coach Flip Saunders, who helped resurrect Billups's career when the two were together for two seasons in Minnesota. Now Billups is returning the favor. "Chauncey is working with the guys and helping to explain what we're trying to accomplish," says Saunders, who was fired by the Timberwolves last February. "This is a team that polices itself. They have a high basketball IQ."
During his 10 years in Minnesota, Saunders was adept at carving out valuable roles for players who, like Billups, had been overlooked elsewhere. That augurs well for Pistons reserves such as Carlos Arroyo, Carlos Delfino and Darko Milicic, all of whom had trouble earning minutes in Brown's seven-man rotation. "We're going to be deep like we were in our championship year [2003-04]," vows Billups. "Last year we played our starting five, and it seemed as if Lindsey [Hunter] and [Antonio] McDyess were the only people who played consistent minutes off the bench."
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Pistons
"I wonder how much longer Ben Wallace, at 31, can continue to perform Herculean tasks against larger centers, when every night he's overmatched physically. But I'm not predicting his downfall, especially while he's playing for a new contract this year.... They're hoping to get Darko Milicic ready to step in, but I'll believe it when I see it. In the summer league he showed some skills but looked unsure.... I always thought Flip Saunders was a terrific coach. Offensively he can pick you apart, and his teams are very well-prepared.... Saunders's telling relationship will be with Rasheed Wallace, in particular whether Rasheed respects Flip. Rasheed respected Larry Brown, but this relationship might be different. My gut feeling is there are going to be a few explosions during the year--fewer than Rasheed used to have in Portland, but I imagine he'll fight back occasionally, because Flip is a controlling coach.... Richard Hamilton might be the sanest guy on the team. He's intense, he does what's asked, and he's highly respected. Some people are good leaders because they're vocal, and some people are good followers. Hamilton is a good follower: When teammates see him following the leader, they fall in step too, because they figure if it's good enough for Hamilton, then it's good enough for everyone."
Opponents shot 42.5% from the floor in the 74 games that Ben Wallace played. In the eight games he missed because of injury or suspension, foes shot 47.5%.
Projected Starting Lineup with 2004-05 statistics
Record: 54-28 (2nd in East)
Points scored: 93.3 (24th in NBA)
Points allowed: 89.5 (2nd)
Coach: Flip Saunders
(first season with the Pistons)
BENCH 2004-05 STATS