Why Not Us?

Written off at the start of the playoffs (along with the rest of the Eastern Conference), the Detroit Pistons are showing signs that they're even better than the 2004 team, which won it all
May 20, 2007

Rasheed Wallace,the self-appointed deejay of the Detroit Pistons' locker room, had a tough timesettling on his musical mood on Sunday at Chicago's United Center. To preparefor Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals--and an expected sweep of theBulls--he first selected a high-energy Nas tune, but after nodding to the beatfor several measures, he abruptly switched to a mellower cut. Then, followingthe Pistons' 102--87 loss, Sheed cranked up Chaka Khan singing Tell MeSomething Good to ear-splitting decibel levels, only to emerge from the showerand switch to the Lipps Inc. classic Funkytown, shaking his booty to the bassline.

Like the mercurialWallace, the Pistons had a hard time striking the right note on Sunday. Aftersweeping the Orlando Magic, the Pistons had handled Chicago with suchinsouciance (they won the first two games by a combined 47 points andmethodically stormed back from a 19-point deficit to win the third) that it wasimpossible not to recall the playoff battles of two decades ago, when ChuckDaly's Detroit Bad Boys routinely beat up Michael Jordan and stole ScottiePippen's lunch money. But then Detroit botched a close-out game against a Bullsteam ripe for the picking, getting outrebounded 51--33 and outscored 27--13 ina tide-turning third quarter. "We were lackadaisical and just played toorelaxed both offensively and defensively," said backup forward AntonioMcDyess. The words lackadaisical and relaxed were seldom applied to the BadBoys.

Perhaps, then, themost salient question isn't how these Pistons stack up against the 1989 and '90title teams--the estimable link between the two, president of basketballoperations Joe Dumars, notwithstanding--but whether Detroit '07 can conjure upthe championship magic of Detroit '04, considering that the rosters are largelythe same (minus one neurotic genius on the bench named Larry Brown). Thispresupposes, of course, that the Pistons first eliminate the Bulls, then get bythe winner of the Cleveland Cavaliers--New Jersey Nets series, which the Cavsled 3--1 after an 87--85 win on Monday night. It's hard to imagine they won't.Having started the postseason 7--0 (chart, page 46), Detroit is clearlysuperior to anyone in the East. Funkier, too.

There are ways inwhich the current model out of Detroit is inferior to the one of three yearsago. While the Pistons of '04 took their preternatural cool from point guardChauncey Billups, who is still preternaturally cool, they got their defensiveferocity from center Ben Wallace. It was Wallace's ability to blanket thecourt--he would venture out to scuttle high pick-and-rolls and still be able torecover to defend underneath--that eventually turned the Finals against the LosAngeles Lakers into a runaway. (Detroit won in five, taking the last threegames by a total of 41 points.) Wallace is a Bull now, and in his place is34-year-old Chris Webber, who didn't play much defense even before the 2003microfracture surgery on his left knee that severely limited his mobility.Judging from his poor performance in the Chicago series (he missed all eight ofhis shots in Games 3 and 4 and sat both fourth quarters), C-Webb may well be anullity throughout the rest of the postseason, with most of his minutesabsorbed by McDyess.

Lack of depth isanother concern, especially if McDyess becomes a de facto starter. The '04Pistons brought Corliss Williamson, Mehmet Okur, Mike James, Elden Campbell andLindsey Hunter off the bench, trumping the current trio of Flip Murray andCarlos Delfino, both offensive-minded wings, and Jason Maxiell, a second-yearpower forward. In the first four games of the Chicago series, the five Detroitstarters plus McDyess played 796 out of a possible 960 minutes (83%). And whileHunter is still around, at 36 he is more Lindsey than hunter.

There's also theFlip-Saunders-instead-of-Brown difference. Though Brown's legacy has beentarnished by his nightmarish 2005--06 season with the New York Knicks, at thetime of the '04 championship he was the master of his domain, a Prospero ableto squeeze miracles from a team considered good but not great even when theplayoffs began. Saunders, by contrast, is burdened by years of playoff failurein Minnesota (his Timberwolves made it out of the first round only once innine-plus seasons) and the memory of last year when, in his first season, his64-win Pistons lost in the Eastern finals to the Miami Heat.

And finally,Detroit's Western Conference opponent won't be a team with squabblingsuperstars (see: Shaq versus Kobe in L.A., the final days). The Pistons' likelyfoil will be whichever battle-tested and adaptable group emerges from thesemifinal between the Phoenix Suns and the San Antonio Spurs. In either caseDetroit can't bank on animus from within.

Now for the flipside: why Detroit '07 should like its title chances. Well, just to get this outof the way, the Pistons let Ben Wallace ride into the sunset (he signed afour-year, $60 million free-agent deal last summer) at precisely the righttime. While Big Ben is still missed on defense from time to time (see below),he has lost a step and his offensive game is as putrid as ever. Beforeredeeming himself in Game 4 with an 11-point, 17-rebound effort, Wallace playedpoorly and even drew a team fine for arriving only 76 minutes before Game 3.(Coach Scott Skiles mandates that his players are in the locker room 90 minutesbefore tip-off.) That prompted Steve Rosenbloom of the Chicago Tribune to blog,"A guy whose nickname comes from a clock was late to Game 3."

Plus, Big Ben, whowas sometimes the plainspoken diplomat on a Detroit team sorely in need of one,had just as often turned into a pain in the butt by last season. He defiedSaunders by refusing to reenter a game in Orlando in the final month and gripedthat not enough plays were being run for him.

As for who isthere, Billups and Rip Hamilton are an even better guard tandem than they werein '04, and they were good then. Not even the Suns' two-time MVP, Steve Nash,looks as downright comfortable with the ball as Billups, and no one sinceReggie Miller works harder than Hamilton at getting open. Dumars makes a greatpoint about the backcourt that, since he assembled it in 2002 with a free-agentsigning (Billups) and a trade (Hamilton), has only gotten better with age:"They don't get in each other's way."

Tayshaun Prince issignificantly improved from '04, his first year as a starter. The rationaleDumars always uses when asked why he chose Darko Milicic instead ofhigh-scoring Carmelo Anthony in the 2003 draft is that he already had a Princeof a small forward. Given the surrounding cast, is there any doubt that Prince,Detroit's most consistent player through the first four games of the Chicagoseries (he averaged 19.8 points, 8.3 rebounds), is a better fit for this teamthan Anthony would have been?

As for RasheedWallace, the Music Man, he is the fulcrum upon which the Pistons often turn.Though he too often defers to his teammates on offense, he is capable of takingover games. And he is the only 6'11'' player in the league who can post up,then go out and calmly drain three-pointers.

Defensively thePistons without Big Ben are not as good a man-to-man team; they surrendered 1.6points per game more this season than last. But they more than compensate withwhat Saunders calls his HPTFZ defense--the Hyperbolic, Paraboloid, TransitionalFloating Zone. Saunders wanted to use it last year, but Ben Wallace resistedbecause he preferred to play man. It's a basic 3--2 matchup, but consideringthat the 6'9" Prince and his freakish 7'2" wingspan occupy the middlespot on the perimeter most of the time, there is nothing basic about it."Tayshaun is my Garnett," says Saunders, who first used the defensewith the Timberwolves, installing 6'11" Kevin Garnett up top. "Agile,long arms, smart and wants to play it." The zone is so intimidating--inGame 3 the Bulls got about three good looks at the basket in the second half,scoring just 30 points--that sometimes after made baskets the Pistons fake it.They wait downcourt for the offense to arrive, hands held high, bouncing ontheir toes, as if they're about to employ the HPTFZ. The offense franticallyshifts gears to go against a zone, perhaps eschewing a high pick-and-roll, onlyto discover that Detroit is actually in a man-to-man.

The fact thatSaunders was able to institute his HPTFZ speaks to the firmer hold he has onthe team. The zone is Saunders's baby, and he was hesitant to use it lastseason because he was still feeling his way. The Pistons as presentlyconstituted will never be easy to coach--execs, coaches and teammates can talkall night about what a wonderful player Rasheed Wallace is, but he still losesconcentration during games, as he did in Game 4, and frequently hurts the teamwith his outbursts--and the players will never do backflips over Flip. But hehas their attention. "After Larry Brown left, these guys wanted to showthat they didn't even need a coach," says a member of the Pistons'hierarchy. "I don't think it was until March of this year that they reallygot on the same page with Flip. Now they're all together."

The best thing thePistons have going for them, though, is the same hard-edged attitude theyshowed in '04, a legacy from the Bad Boys. They seem fueled by a collectivedistemper. Virtually every whistle that goes against them is met withexasperation and disbelief. Rasheed Wallace has been the league'stechnical-foul champ for three years running (he had 21 this season), andHamilton, whose plastic face mask hides a persistent frown, tied Suns centerAmaré Stoudemire for second this year with 15. Prince appears as if he bearsthe weight of the world on his narrow shoulders. Billups is all business. Andif you look closely, the smile that Webber flashes from time to time isactually a smirk; although he arrived from the Philadelphia 76ers only inJanuary, as a Michigan native weaned on the Bad Boys, he's a perfect fit.

The Pistons arenot just an in-your-face team; they're an in-each-others'-faces team. It's notuncommon for Billups and Hamilton, the league's most coordinated backcourtcombo, to holler and angrily gesture at each other on the court, or for Wallaceto flap his arms and rail against a teammate for a missed assignment. "Weget mad at each other for maybe a minute," says Billups, "then it'sover." During a film session last Saturday the entire team goofed onHamilton when a clip showed him looking for his shot despite the presence offour defenders. Saunders once preferred to be a "general criticizer"rather than single someone out; on Sunday he said that Hamilton "blew"a defensive assignment that allowed Bulls guard Ben Gordon a wide-open threewith 3:19 left that salted the game away.

The calling-out ofplayers is a legacy of Brown's. "L.B. always held the individual, not theteam, accountable, and we do the same thing," says Billups. "Instead ofsaying, 'We gotta move the ball better,' we say, 'Chauncey, quit f---ing aroundwith the ball,' or, 'Rasheed, you're being lazy, let's get it together.' We'reveterans. We can handle it."

But can thePistons handle the challenge as well as they did in 2004? The play of DJ Sheedwill go a long way to determine whether Detroit can get back to being TitleTown or will settle for being merely Funkytown.

Lucky Seven?

Was there a silverlining in the Pistons' loss at Chicago on Sunday, their first of thepostseason? Of the six other teams that started 7--0, five won the title; ofthe four that went 8--0 or better, only two did.


YEAR TEAM START FINISH
1949 MINNEAPOLIS LAKERS 7--0 Won title
1950 MINNEAPOLIS LAKERS 7--0 Won title
1982 LOS ANGELES LAKERS 9--0 Won title
1983 PHILADELPHIA 76ERS 7--0 Won title
1989 LOS ANGELES LAKERS 11--0 Lost in Finals
1989 DETROIT PISTONS 7--0 Won title
1993 CHICAGO BULLS 7--0 Won title
1999 INDIANA PACERS 7--0 Lost in Eastern final
2001 LOS ANGELES LAKERS 11--0 Won title
2005 MIAMI HEAT 8--0 Lost in Eastern final
2007 DETROIT PISTONS 7--0 ???


PHOTO
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These Pistons have the same HARD-EDGED ATTITUDE theyshowed in 2004. They seem fueled by a collective distemper.

PHOTOPhotographs by John BieverA CUTABOVE
Hamilton's steady play is a big reason Detroit finished with the East's bestrecord and seized a 3--1 lead against Chicago in their conferencesemifinal.
PHOTOGARRETT W. ELLWOOD/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESTO A'T'
Wallace may be volatile, but his versatility is a blessing.
PHOTOPhotographs by John BieverLONGRANGER
Prince gets maximum use out of his 7'2" wingspan, whether on offense or atthe top of Detroit's zone D.
PHOTOPhotographs by John BieverHUSTLEPOINTS
The Pistons, even the 36-year-old Hunter, have kept the heat onChicago.
PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (CHART)BADBOYS
Dumars's Pistons stopped Magic's Lakers juggernaut in '89.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)