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Renovate–Don’t Rebuild–the Detroit Pistons

If it doesn't happen this year, will Dumars do what it takes to raise the trophy again?

In years past, as the Detroit Pistons made things more difficult on themselves than necessary in the postseason, Rip Hamilton would speak for the team in saying “if it ain’t rough, it ain’t right.” The mantra stays the same, but the sands of time are starting to muffle the reassuring resonance it once held.

Forget this series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, which is inexplicably tied at two games apiece heading into tomorrow night’s Game Five in Detroit. And should the Pistons snap out of a nearly eight-game funk in time to advance to the NBA Finals (which I firmly believe they will), the same cold, hard truths will still be staring this franchise in the face, title or no title: this summer, Joe Dumars has to figure out a way to renovate their roster before NBA Mediocrity knocks down the Palace door, stretches out, and puts up his feet until further notice.

On paper, the Detroit Pistons are superior to most NBA teams in terms of talent, experience, moxie, and coaching. Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton have been to the last two All-Star games, and Billups was the MVP of the NBA Finals in 2004. Rasheed Wallace has been an All-Star three times in his career. Tayshaun Prince is an all-world defender who can also score and rebound. Chris Webber is considered one of the best passing big men of all-time. Antonio McDyess is a former Team USA standout who’s overcome significant knee injuries and become a force off the bench. And between Flip Saunders, Terry Porter, Derek Harper, and Dave Cowens, there’s plenty of basketball wisdom and experience on the coaching staff.

This team was built for the playoffs, and for the last five years it’s worked. The core of this squad has been to five straight Eastern Conference Finals, and picked up one NBA title to boot. They still have a chance to win another one and cement their legacy as one of the best teams in recent NBA history.

The Pistons have also squandered even greater success. They had the San Antonio Spurs on the ropes in the 2005 NBA Finals, with a chance to go up 3-2 in the series, but ultimately came up short in Game 5 and lost the series in seven. Last year, they recorded one of the best regular seasons in history, only to wear themselves out in doing so and turning in a mostly underwhelming performance in the postseason.

Now, with a team that doesn’t hold a candle to them on paper growing more and more confident by the day, the Pistons are in serious danger of forever tainting their significant accomplishments of the last five years. The writing is on the wall: it’s time for some change.

I’m not suggesting that Joe Dumars blow this team up and start over. Let’s be realistic: the Pistons are still competing for an NBA title, and though the performance by the Miami Heat this year indicates that sometimes it *is* necessary, it’s rare for any franchise to look at their team in the wake of a championship and determine that changes need to be made. And if Detroit goes on to close out the Cavaliers in dominating fashion and even upset the Spurs in the Finals, some might think this column would effectively be rendered moot.

But as much as it pains me to say it, win or lose these Detroit Pistons need some renovations.

Chauncey Billups will shape the Pistons' future this summer

The tricky part is actually approaching what will inevitably need to be done the right way. It’s hard to specifically pinpoint exactly what this team needs, which isn’t surprising since they’re still the class of the Eastern Conference on paper. They have All-Star caliber players in their prime (Billups, Hamilton), veteran former All-Stars (Wallace, Webber, McDyess), a rising star (Prince), and a solid group of promising young talent (Carlos Delfino, Jason Maxiell, Amir Johnson). Most teams in this league would beg just to have a chance to be in the position Detroit’s in.

But something is just not right anymore. I’m not sure if it starts with Flip Saunders–who has a history of underwhelming in pressure situations–and trickles down to the rest of the players. It’s difficult to pin a team’s inconsistent play and lack of apparent hunger to succeed on a head coach, but it could be at least a part of the problem. More likely, this core has grown too comfortable with each other, too reliant on past glories and past performances, and it’s created a sort of mild complacency that’s not big enough to sink them in most situations, but just enough to hurt them when they least expect it.

I’ll readily admit that I’ve been a Pistons fan since my youth, and the core of this current team won my respect and admiration a long time ago. I’m fiercely loyal to the four mainstays in the starting rotation, and have a soft spot for a lot of the guys on the bench too. But everything that goes up must come down, they say, and through gritted teeth I say that Joe Dumars needs to take a long, long look at the roster and maybe make some tough decisions that could be in the best interests of the team in the long run.

So what should he do about it? For starters, there’s no question that Chris Webber should not be resigned this summer as an unrestricted free agent. While his first two months provided a feel-good story in Detroit, his performance in the postseason has been mediocre at best, especially in the last two rounds. There’s just not much left in C-Webb’s tank. Those minutes are better spent on developing young talent. Unfortunately, the man he replaced at center, Nazr Mohammed, is under contract through the 2010/11 season at a ridiculous $6 million per and is not the answer either. If Dumars can find a taker this summer for Mohammed and his contract, he should cut his losses, chalk up signing him as a mistake, and move on.

The big question this summer is Chauncey Billups. Look, Chauncey is one of my favorite players in this league and ideally he’ll end his career as a member of the Detroit Pistons. Despite his struggles against Cleveland, he’s this team’s leader and best player, one of the top three point guards in the league. To lose Ben Wallace and Billups in successive summers would be a devastating blow to the franchise and its perception by fans, and I don’t think Dumars will let it happen.

I’m curious, however, to see how much money he demands as a free agent. Will the Pistons–whose owner is not a fan of the luxury tax–pony up a near-max contract to keep Billups in Detroit? Would they at least be open to listening to any sign-and-trade offers that might come their way from teams with equal or greater compensation? Remember, the Pistons’ current run of success started when their old franchise player, Grant Hill, was shipped to Orlando for a guy named Ben Wallace. Is it that unreasonable to think something similar could happen?

And what about Flip Saunders? He’s near the end of that magical two-year timeframe of a Pistons head coach, a time after which both his predecessors, Rick Carlisle and Larry Brown, were shown the door despite differing levels of success. If–and it’s still a HUGE if–the Pistons were to lose this series to Cleveland, some of the blame is bound to fall at his feet and could result in his dismissal. It’s no secret that anything short of an appearance in the NBA Finals would be considered failure in the eyes of the Detroit front office and ownership.

There’s no easy answers here, but here’s the facts: Tayshaun Prince is locked up for the foreseeable future and isn’t going anywhere. Rasheed Wallace is signed through the 2008/09 season, and his contract ($12 million next year, $13 the next) likely makes him immovable. Rip Hamilton is inked through 2009/10, as is Jason Maxiell. Dale Davis, Lindsey Hunter, Ronald Dupree, and perhaps Flip Murray may not be back next season, and Antonio McDyess could opt out of the final year of his deal (though more likely, he’ll sign a one- or two-year extension).

It's time to get Amir Johnson on the court

Second-year monster Jason Maxiell has earned more minutes and a spot in the regular rotation next season. The Pistons need his energy, hustle, and low-post game. Amir Johnson, a second-round pick in the 2005 draft, is 20 years old and by all accounts has a world of potential. Some have said he’d be a top-five pick in this year’s draft if he was just now coming out. It’s time to unleash this 6-11 talent and get him some on-the-job training–lots of it. The same goes for Carlos Delfino: it’s time for him to make good on all that promise and sink or swim.

Looking outside the current roster, the Pistons have two first-round picks in what’s been called the deepest draft ever this June (#15 and #27). They need to get at least one guy between those picks that can step in and contribute immediately. Going back to Billups: what if, say, the Atlanta Hawks–who have two lottery picks and a huge hole at point guard–called Dumars with a sign-and-trade offer involving Billups, the third overall pick, and, say, ZaZa Pachulia? Would he do it, knowing that a guy like Mo Williams could probably be had this summer at a much smaller price tag and that you’d then have picks #3, #15, and #27 in the draft?

I don’t know that moving Billups, or dismissing Saunders, or shaking up any other major components of the Detroit Pistons is the right thing to do. Right now, the only thing Dumars is concerned with is this year’s team and winning this Eastern Conference Finals and then winning this NBA title. But no matter what happens, some renovations of this franchise are needed this summer. It’s up to Joe Dumars to figure out how to go about doing it.

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