It’s unofficially Detroit Pistons Week here at ETB, with one or two random videos on tap as well as tender fireside chats with two of the most well-recognized names in the blogosphere when it comes to covering anything and everything that is the Pistons.
Kicking things off as the latest writer to be front and center in our ongoing Scribes of the NBA Interview Series is Matt Watson, mastermind behind Detroit Bad Boys and one of the leading columnists for that sports behemoth known as NBA FanHouse. Watson got his start writing for The Roto Times and Fantasy Hot Sheet, moved on to penning fantasy sports columns for USA Today online, and launched Detroit Bad Boys back in ’05.
We’re thrilled to have him–as you’ll see, the man knows his Pistons (and his NBA). Later this week we’ll feature another Pistons expert, Natalie Sitto of Need4Sheed.com. We’re psyched for that one too, but first things first: let’s hear from Mr. Matt Watson.
Empty the Bench: Despite the six straight appearances in the Conference Finals, the core of this Detroit Pistons team has gone to the NBA Finals only twice and won it all just once. Is it a fair to say this group has developed a reputation for choking under pressure?
Matt Watson: This is a difficult question to answer. On the one hand, yes, this team has definitely squandered some opportunities; that’s impossible to deny. But on the other hand, it’s really, really hard to win a title. In the last 25 years, only seven different teams have done it. Think about that: seven teams in 25 years.
Since the Pistons last won in 2004, they’ve gone on to lose to the eventual champion three times in four years. Did they choke, or were they simply not the better team? Considering teams simply don’t win on accident in this league, I think it’s the latter.
In a perfect world, I’ll admit that the Pistons should have at least one more ring on their fingers–I’m still in shock that Rasheed left Horry open–but I can’t hold it against them. Since losing to Detroit in 2004, the Lakers missed the playoffs completely in 2005, lost in the first round the next two years, and lost again in the Finals last year. After beating the Pistons (and in turn the Mavericks) in 2006, the Heat proceeded to lose in the first round the following season and posted the worst record in the league last year. From a fan’s perspective, who’s been the most fun to cheer for? (The correct answer, of course, is San Antonio, but Detroit has to be second, right?)
ETB: At times seeming disinterested and often being outhustled and embarrassed by Kevin Garnett, what do you make of Rasheed Wallace’s disappearing act in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals?
Watson: I wish I knew the answer. Considering he averaged his fewest minutes per game in a decade during the regular season, I figured he’d have something left in reserve for the playoffs. Instead, the more the Pistons needed him, the more he faded.
His showing in the final game against the Celtics was a complete disaster. I know some people have tried to use his strained relationship with Flip Saunders as an excuse, but if anything Saunders erred by giving Wallace too much respect. Wallace clearly didn’t deserve to play 32 minutes in Game 6, especially after showing up late to shootaround and the arena before the game.
ETB: Is this Sheed’s last season with the Detroit Pistons? Any chance he calls it a day next summer?
Watson: I think it is. There’s talk that Rasheed will see even fewer minutes this season… but he averaged only 30.5 minutes per game last year. How few does he have to average to still be effective come playoff time? To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if Joe Dumars pulls off a blockbuster at the trade deadline; between Wallace’s expiring contract and Rip Hamilton’s early-termination option, that’s $24.2 million of potential cap space. That’s enough to make a play for, well, anybody.
As far as next year and the future, I just don’t think he wants to battle for 36 minutes a night over an entire season anymore, which is what most teams will want if they’re paying him anything close to what he’s making now. If he does play next year, I’m guessing he goes to a team where he’d complement a dominant big man and doesn’t have to carry the load. Maybe home to Philly, next to Elton Brand? Or maybe Orlando, next to “his intern” Dwight Howard?
Much more NBA hoops talk from Matt Watson after the break…
ETB: As would be expected, there’s been a ton of positive reports coming out of Detroit about the breath of fresh air new head coach Michael Curry has brought to the team. Will he actually prove to be an upgrade over Flip Saunders in terms of how much he gets out of the players?
Watson: To be fair, Flip Saunders did a dynamite job getting the most out of his starters. Chauncey Billups was good under Larry Brown, but he became great under Saunders. Billups and Hamilton never made an All-Star team before Saunders came to town, but they’ve each made three straight since he’s arrived. Even Wallace was a two-time All-Star under Saunders.
I think Saunders’ biggest failing, though, is managing the rest of his rotation. Carlos Delfino was woefully underused in 2005-06, as was Jason Maxiell in 2006-07 and Amir Johnson last year. And when playoff time came around, forget about it. Saunders froze up and religiously stuck with his veterans, playing guys like Chris Webber, Dale Davis, and Theo Ratliff over young, fresh legs on the bench eager to play.
Saunders set the bar awfully high, especially if you’re only concerned about wins and losses. But if Curry can develop the bench so that Dumars can make informed decisions about how best to manage the roster, I think it should be considered a successful year. As things currently stand, I think there are too many players Dumars is (justifiably) scared to trade simply because we haven’t seen just how high their ceiling is.
ETB: The Pistons currently have a 3-year, $15 million contract extension on the table for Jason Maxiell. Can he ever be the starting power forward for a team harboring serious NBA title ambitions?
Watson: I can’t make up my mind. Maxiell is at his best when he’s playing full-throttle, whether he’s tearing the rim down or blocking shots into the fifth row. Can he keep that up for 30 minutes a game? Can anyone? At 6-foot-7, it’s easy to call him “undersized,” but he’s very strong, a surprisingly good leaper, and has extremely long arms. Plus, he knows how to get down low and knock larger players off their base – he did a surprisingly good job against Dwight Howard in the playoffs.
The knock on him is that he seems to wear down and disappear for a few games, but to be honest, everybody on this team is guilty of that. Tayshaun Prince is here one series and gone the next; Wallace will lead the team in scoring one night and fail to crack double-digits the next. Antonio McDyess is hitting everything in sight one game and then taking just a couple of shots the next. To accuse Maxiell of fading when he doesn’t get a single play called for him is a little unfair. If he’s satisfied with the role, though, I think he could have a long career as a Corliss Williamson-type player – a starter on a few bad teams and an excellent sixth man on a few good ones.
ETB: Amir Johnson has tantalized Pistons fans with his undeniable potential and short bursts of production, but frustrated them with his inconsistency both in terms of minutes played and performance. Now 21 years old and entering his fourth NBA season, will this kid eventually be well worth the wait?
Watson: I’m absolutely convinced Johnson will be a star in this league. Just like Maxiell, he doesn’t need time to warm up when he enters the game: the moment you call his number he’s diving for loose balls, blocking shots, and making things happen. But unlike Maxiell, he won the genetic lottery–he’s taller, faster, and younger.
In addition to the highlight reel stuff–the awesome blocks and dunks–he’s also one of the most productive players in the entire league when you adjust for minutes played. That’s not a fluke, that’s a direct result of pure effort. He needs to harness that and continue to play smarter (he averaged 8.8 fouls per 48 minutes), but I think that will come with experience as well as confidence knowing that he has a legitimate role in the rotation.
ETB: Will Chauncey Billups play out the life of his current contract, which goes through the 2011-12 season, as a member of the Pistons?
Watson: I’d be shocked if Billups is traded this year, and beyond that I think it depends on what Rip Hamilton decides to do next summer. If Hamilton exercises his ETO (Early-Termination Option), I could see the Pistons letting him go and sticking with a Billups-Stuckey backcourt. If Hamilton stays and Stuckey develops as expected, I imagine Dumars will consider moving Billups or Hamilton in 2009-10.
It’s also worth mentioning that 2011-12 is a team option year, so it’s theoretically possible Billups could walk after 2011, though I can’t imagine any scenario not involving severe injury in which that would actually happen.
ETB: Which NBA team will most improve upon their regular-season record last year compared to this year, and why?
Watson: This is easy: the Miami Heat. Dwyane Wade looked like his old self in Beijing, and a whole year with Wade, Shawn Marion, and Michael Beasley in the lineup may be enough to get them back into the playoffs. I personally think 9th or 10th in the conference is more realistic, but that’s still a huge step forward from where they were last year.
Plus, James Jones gives them the long-distance shooter they missed by letting Jason Kapono go. They still need some depth, but it’s easier than most people think to pick up spare pieces along the way, especially if Alonzo Mourning makes it back sometime in the second half.
ETB: Which two rookies will have the biggest impact for their respective teams?
Watson: I’m guessing O.J. Mayo will lead all rookies in scoring, but what does that get the Grizzlies? They’re still going to be bad. I think Beasley will make more of an overall contribution to his team’s success, even if that means playing third-fiddle to Wade and Marion.
Same goes for Greg Oden. The Blazers have a nice thing going with Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, but Oden should provide that anchor in the middle that really helps this team take the next step. There’s no way his numbers end up being as gaudy as other players, but that’s because he’ll be on a winning team and not playing a starring role to failure.
(Also, a bonus player: I’m not sure how much better the Timberwolves will be, but Kevin Love convinced me in summer league that he’s going to be extremely productive from Day 1. A lot of people have low expectations for him, but he has all the makings of being a solid, solid player for a long time.)
(Okay, naming four players is kind of a cop-out, so to recap: Beasley and Oden will make the biggest impact; Mayo will have the best stats and win Rookie of the Year; Love will turn heads.)
ETB: What’s the most memorable NBA game you’ve ever been to, and why does it stand out as such?
Watson: I was fortunate to get tickets to Game 5 of the 2004 Finals, so I’ll never forget being at the Palace to see the Pistons win it all. (Fun fact: the picture at the top of my blog was taken from pre-game introductions of that game.) The funny thing is that our seats were so far away (literally the last row) and I was so excited that I actually remember very little of the action on the court.
If I could, I wish I could see that game replayed on television; I feel like I’m missing out whenever people mention specific plays from that game. All I recall is that the Pistons had built such a big lead after three quarters that everybody in the Palace spent the last quarter celebrating and counting down the minutes. It was absolutely electric: random strangers were buying each other beer, everybody was high-fiving each other, the entire place was singing “Deee-troit Basket-ball” (which, at the time, was still new and catchy) with Mason the PA announcer every time the Lakers turned the ball over – as a fan, it was just an incredible experience.
Recommended Reading from Matt Watson:
More ETB’s Scribes of the NBA Interview Series:
– J.E. Skeets of Yahoo!’s Ball Don’t Lie
– David Friedman of 20 Second Timeout
– Ron Hitley of Hornets 24/7
– Ryne “Odenized” Nelson of SLAMonline
– Tom Ziller of Sactown Royalty and FanHouse
– Brett Hainline of Queen City Hoops
– Dave Deckard of Blazer’s Edge
– Kurt of Forum Blue and Gold
– Brian Powell of Awful Announcing
– Lee Grammier of The Dream Shake
– Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead
– Scott Carefoot of Raptor Blog
– Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, Part 1
– Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, Part 2
– Matt Watson of AOL FanHouse and Detroit Bad Boys
– Natalie Sitto of Need4Sheed.com
Jason Maxiell Photo Credit: Icon SMI