By signing Detroit's own Chris Webber, the Pistons refueled their offense and became the team to beat in the East
IN A 59-SECOND span of the opening quarter of last Friday's game at Minnesota, the Pistons demonstrated why picking up Chris Webber has revived their title hopes. On successive plays, guard Richard Hamilton and Webber took turns feeding each other for layups—a pair of simply beautiful backdoor cuts rarely seen in today's fundamentals-bereft NBA.
"When you have good players on your team, you're supposed to use each other," a fatigued Webber said after playing 38 minutes and producing 16 points, seven rebounds and four assists in his debut as Detroit's starting center, a 104--98 double-overtime win. "As I get my wind back, they'll be able to cut that much more because I'll be able to hit [my outside] shot and the [defender] will have to stay up on me."
A Detroit native, Webber signed with the Pistons after receiving a buyout from the 76ers. Though he won't be able to single-handedly turn the Pistons into a fluid offensive machine in the mold of his old Kings teams, Webber's presence and skills should allow Detroit to reclaim its authority over the moribund East. Despite the free-agent defection of center Ben Wallace to Chicago and the graying of the players he left behind—the addition of the 33-year-old Webber gives the Pistons a quintet of rotation players on the wrong side of 30—there is still no deeper team in the conference than Detroit.
Webber's creativity should liberate a group that stagnated during last year's conference finals. Heat guard Dwyane Wade tore through the Pistons' defense, and Detroit wasn't able to take similar advantage of rules that encourage drives to the basket because it doesn't have one-on-one players. With Webber's signature playmaking ability out of the high post, the Pistons can now penetrate using the pass rather than the dribble. "We're not a team that's geared toward one guy having to score 30 points a game," says coach Flip Saunders. "We're a team that's multidimensional with a lot of guys being able to do a lot of different things, and Chris fits right into that."
Here are three more reasons the Pistons are optimistic about reaching the NBA Finals for the third time in four years.
Webber plays to his new coach's strength. During the conference finals last season, Wallace publicly chafed at Saunders's score-first approach. Now, instead of trying to hide his center offensively, as he had to do with Wallace, Saunders will be able to run the offense through Webber much as he used to channel play after play through big man Kevin Garnett in Minnesota.
Webber won't hurt Detroit defensively. Though their disappointing record (23--16 at week's end) belies it, the Pistons rank No. 4 in field goal defense—an astonishing hike of nine spots since last season. They'll continue to play tighter around the edges, and Webber will shore up their defensive rebounding. (He had nine in 30 minutes during a 91--74 win over the Kings last Saturday.) Moreover, forwards Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince and Antonio McDyess will keep Detroit among the league's elite shot blocking teams.
Webber instantly becomes one of the best centers in the East. Don't forget that just a season ago he set a career high for minutes and averaged 20.2 points and 9.9 rebounds in the more strenuous role of power forward for the 76ers. The only Eastern center capable of running circles around Webber in the playoffs is the Magic's Dwight Howard.
All of which should make the Pistons the decisive conference favorite going into the spring.
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On the eight-player trade last week in which the Pacers sent Al Harrington, Stephen Jackson, Sarunas Jasikevicius and Josh Powell to the Warriors in exchange for Troy Murphy, Mike Dunleavy, Ike Diogu and Keith McLeod:
"At first I wasn't sure what to think, other than that this was one of those deals in which each team is trying to get rid of its problems. But then I looked at the salaries and realized that the Warriors are saving $33 million over five years while unloading those big contracts that [G.M.] Chris Mullin regrets giving to Murphy and Dunleavy. Harrington (right) is going to give the Warriors the kind of versatile low-post scoring they've been seeking for a long time, and Jasikevicius will do much better playing in Don Nelson's up-tempo system than he did while slowing it down for Rick Carlisle. Put that together with the financial savings and the overall edge goes to Golden State—even if Jackson is sidelined later this year by his ongoing legal troubles."