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You Go Back, Jack, and Do It Again – Detroit Pistons 2008-09 Season Preview

Does this Pistons core have one more legitimate run in 'em?

You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away, and know when to run.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table.
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealins’ done.

– Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler”

Their sixth-consecutive run for a NBA title fell short yet again. The Big Trade that everyone anticipated this summer never happened. And with most of their salary-cap dollars tied up until next summer, they barely dipped their toes into the free-agent pool.

Detroit Pistons GM Joe Dumars ultimately chose to keep his cards and call the rest of the league’s bluff once again: outside of Boston and LA, has the rest of the Eastern Conference, and the NBA at large, really caught up with his Pistons over the past few months? Though many–including myself–were calling for change after the team’s meltdown against the Celtics in last season’s ECF, it’s hard to blame Dumars for sticking with his big guns one more time.

After all, three of his four core guys are still perennial All-Star considerations; the other one regressed some last season but has been named to the NBA’s All-Defensive Second Team 4 years in a row and counting. They have a deep, versatile stable of big men and a second-year guard in Rodney Stuckey who many think has superstar potential. The playoff-retarded Flip Saunders has been replaced as head coach by Michael Curry, whom the players reportedly already hold in higher regard than they ever did Saunders.

Like it or not, for all the criticism leveled at the Detroit Pistons they’re still better stacked than most NBA teams. They will compete for a title again this season… but can they get over the hump one more time before the core is likely broken up next year?

As part of the legendary Blogger NBA Team Previews Series hosted annually by Jeff Clark and the good folks at Celtics Blog, Empty the Bench takes an in-depth look at the 2008-09 Detroit Pistons. We’ll be back later this week with another preview, this one penned by my esteemed colleague Andrew Thell and focusing on those up-and-coming Minnesota Timberwolves. (Links to the rest of the blogger previews at the bottom.)

Read the 2008-09 Detroit Pistons team preview after the break….

Detroit Pistons 2008-09 Preview

2007-08 Record: 59-23, 1st in Central Division, 2nd in Eastern Conference
Key Losses: Jarvis Hayes, Theo Ratliff
Key Additions: Kwame Brown, Michael Curry (Head Coach)

What significant moves were made during the offseason?

A lot of Pistons fans were filling out their player wishlist this summer like overzealous little kids on their way to the mall to sit on Santa Claus’ fat lap. “I’ve been oh-so-good this year Santie Claus, won’t you get me a XBox, a Wii, a Playstation 3, 10 games for each one, and…”

Carmelo Anthony, Tracy McGrady, Andre Iguodala, Josh Smith, Gerald Wallace, and Baron Davis were but a few big names tossed around in various trade scenarios after Dumars publicly decreed that most of the Pistons’ roster was on the table. How realistic the chances actually were of any of those guys coming to Motown will probably never be known, but suffice to say none of the proposed deals came to fruition. So, with hopes high and anticipation of a franchise savior riding into town atop a golden chariot and all but guaranteeing another championship, the Pistons main personnel addition this summer was… Kwame Brown.

Mmhmm. That Kwame Brown.

The team also spent a high second-round pick on Walter Sharpe, a kid who could eventually blossom into a serviceable backup for Tayshaun Prince, but for now is a major project and will in all likelihood see few minutes in his rookie season. Third-year PG Will Bynum was also signed for insurance, and ’05 second-round pick Alex Acker could round out the roster.

The main headline this summer, however, was the removal of Flip Saunders as head coach and the subsequent elevation of assistant coach Michael Curry into the leading role. We’ve already written about Saunders’ time with the Pistons at length, so check out those articles to get a full sense of our thoughts on Saunders. As for Curry, few rookie head coaches could hope for a better situation than his: he’s got an experienced, talented, deep team to work with and a core of youngsters to really develop and put his stamp on for the future. That said, there’ll be a significant amount of on-the-job training going on here and a few missteps along the way.

One of Saunders’ most pronounced weaknesses was his inability to manage a tough playoff series; will Curry prove to be more successful in this area? Make no mistake, this team was kept together for one more run. This run. Once again, anything less than a title is a disappointment.

What are the Pistons’ biggest strengths?

Rodney Stuckey was fearless against the Orlando Magic

There are few teams with more raw talent and depth in their main rotation. Chauncey Billups has lost a step, but is still one of the league’s best long-range bombers, free-throw shooters, and game managers. Rip Hamilton might have the sweetest and most reliable midrange jumper in the league, and last season really stepped up his man-defense.

Beyond being one of the NBA’s most entertaining on-court personalities–both when he’s in a good mood and in a mopey mood, for different reasons–Rasheed Wallace is also one of the NBA’s most effective post defenders and can score from all over the court; consistent effort and motivation remains the problem there.

You should be well-versed on what those three bring to the court by now, however, along with Tayshaun Prince and Antonio McDyess. If you don’t know much about Rodney Stuckey yet, though, you will–soon. Taken with the last lottery pick of the 2007 NBA Draft, the 6-5 guard is a bull in the open court and especially when driving into the lane. He really started coming into his own towards the end of his rookie season, averaging 14 points, 4.2 assists, 3.3 boards, 1 steal, and 89% FT in about 27 minutes per in April. If he can find more consistency with his outside jumper, watch out. Curry says he has Stuckey pegged for 30 minutes a night, so he’ll be a big part of the team’s storyline as the season unfolds.

Amir Johnson, still only 21 years old in his fourth NBA season, is the early favorite to assume the starting power forward role with McDyess being shifted back to the bench. He’s long and lean with plenty of athleticism and hustle to spare, and many still believe he is going to be a major impact player in time. Johnson still has a ways to go, though, and a good place to start will be limiting his fouls and developing some bread-and-butter post moves.

Johnson will be fighting for minutes with Jason “Babyeater” Maxiell, as well as Kwame Brown; game-to-game matchups should dictate many of those minutes. Second-year swingman Arron Afflalo will also see time backing up both Hamilton and Prince, while Argentinean heartthrob Walter Hermann should crack the rotation after mostly riding the bench last season.

Michael Curry clearly has a lot of options; his challenge will be figuring out how to distribute the minutes and keep his players content with their roles… or lack thereof.

What are the Pistons’ biggest weaknesses?

The answer to this feels like something you’d say in a job interview when asked what your weakness is. You know… “oh, I work too hard sometimes and get too wrapped up in my job.” But in this case, it’s actually true–what could technically be considered a strength must now be talked about as somewhat of a weakness: familiarity.

Familiarity is said to breed contempt, but I’m not sure that “contempt” accurately characterizes the relationships between Billups, Hamilton, Wallace, Prince, and McDyess. At all. It’s more that after playing together for so many games over so many years, this group tends to get too comfortable with each other at times. They each know exactly what the others are capable of, and unfortunately falling into and leaning upon these loosely defined “roles” has, at times, not served them well.

The hope is that the injection of guys like Stuckey, Johnson, and Afflalo into the regular rotation will help shake things up some and push the vets to adopt a new, more urgent mentality and to stop subconsciously thinking that when push comes to shove, they should and deserve to win. You know, that whole “flip the switch” garbage that has plagued the Pistons at various points since they won the title in ’04.

The bulk of the league may not have fully caught up with this team yet, but they’re gaining, they’re hungry, and they’re sick of seeing Detroit at the top of the Eastern Conference hill. The Pistons have not always matched that enthusiasm and urgency, but I have a hunch that we won’t see many prolonged bouts of that haughty disdain when this year’s Pistons tangle with inferior or more inexperienced opponents.

In all fairness, underestimating or disrespecting lesser opponents happens to every good team from time to time. But it’s gotten to be somewhat of a problem over the years for the Pistons, so until I see that attitude fully erased on the court it still counts as a trouble area that needs to be addressed.

What are the goals for the Pistons?

The expectations from the owner, team management, players, coaches, and fans for these Detroit Pistons are the same as they’ve been for the better part of the last decade: a NBA title. Despite six consecutive appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals, however, they’ve only made the Finals twice in that span, winning it all in 2005.

Will the seventh time prove to be charm? Very few think so, but I’m optimistic despite that horrendous, hard-to-watch performance against the Celtics a few months ago. He might be a rookie coach, but Curry is going to instill a greater sense of accountability within the players than Saunders ever did, and the veterans now have a young, hungry group of youngsters to contend with who will push them for minutes. Say what you will about this Pistons core, but there’s no denying their overall success and ability to get the ‘W’ on most nights.

What should be expected from Amir Johnson this season?

The Legend of Amir has reached near epic proportions in Detroit, even if outside of the Pistons fanbase he’s likely viewed as simply another talented, athletic flyer who’s still nothing more than a relatively well-paid, unproven commodity.

Johnson was drafted with the 56th overall pick back in ’05, the last player to ever be taken straight out of high school before Stern bumped up the age limit. He played in just 11 games combined during his first two seasons, but raised eyebrows from time to time when he actually saw the floor… namely on April 17, 2006, when he hung 18 points in 18 minutes on the Milwaukee Bucks in shooting 6-6 FG, including 2 triples.

Despite his lack of playing time, Dumars unequivocally stated his faith in Johnson’s potential last summer by signing him to a three-year, $11 million deal. Many thought that signaled an automatic increase in PT for the 07-08 season, but the results were mixed: 63 games played, but he averaged just 12:18 per, with many of the big minutes coming in blowouts. Still, as Detroit Bad Boys’ Matt Watson pointed out in his ETB interview, Johnson was one of the most productive players in the NBA when you adjust for minutes played.

Curry has pegged Johnson as the early favorite to start at power forward alongside ‘Sheed and Prince, so–finally–it looks like this should be the season that Johnson gets some honest-to-God burn. It’s important to remember, though, that we’re still talking about a very raw, albeit talented, basketball player who only turned 21 five months ago; he’s going to need time and will undoubtedly endure some growing pains.

That said, I agree with Watson: this kid could be good. Really good. Maybe not this season–check that, definitely not this season–but down the road we could be looking at a consistent double-double player who averages 3+ blocks per. For this year, however, here’s a reasonable baseline projection for Johnson: 8 points, 8 boards, 55% FG, and 2 blocks a night. Anything more would be gravy.

Predicted Record: 53-29, 1st in Central Division, 3rd in Eastern Conference

More 2008-09 NBA Blogger Previews

Eastern Conference:
Atlantic Division

Western Conference:
Southwest Division

Get more NBA predictions for the upcoming season and start beating the NBA odds from the start.

Detroit Pistons Photos Credit: Icon SMI
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