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Four Factors in the Detroit Pistons’ Sudden and Surprising Fall from Grace

Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace

Detroit Pistons Photo Credit: Icon SMI

Success can be fleeting in the NBA. For proof, look no further than this year’s disappointing version of the Detroit Pistons.

Many of the faces from the Pistons’ half-decade plus of Eastern Conference dominance are still the same, but this lineup bears little to no resemblance to those teams to which wins often came all too easily. They were hungry, they were underdogs, and they were cocky. Sometimes too cocky, in fact, an attitude which manifested itself in increasing amounts of chirping and barking at referees and a palpable disdain for opponents they deemed lesser.

Despite it all, they were winners. Heading into this season, the Detroit Pistons had been to six straight Eastern Conference Finals, including that ’04 title that effectively ended the acrimonious Shaq & Kobe Years and a repeat Finals appearance the next season which they lost to the San Antonio Spurs in a grueling seven-game series. Many, including myself, would argue that a lack of urgency combined with untimely mental lapses, amongst other things, potentially cost them one or two more titles in this era. But hey, there was always next year.

Well, there’s no more “next year” this year.

I don’t know who these Detroit Pistons are anymore… and I don’t think the players do either. Gone are Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups, Larry Brown and Flip Saunders, and in are Allen Iverson, Rodney Stuckey, and Michael Curry. Perhaps most notably, however, gone are the days when the Pistons could bully their way to a win almost despite themselves. The days when most teams penciled in a “L” on the calendar when it was time to travel to the Palace of Auburn Hills. And, yes, the days when the Pistons were a near shoo-in for a Central Division crown and a trip to the Conference Finals.

This year, at a shocking 27-27 following Sunday’s sixth straight loss (a blowout affair at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers, their successors atop the Central), they’ll almost certainly be considerable underdogs in whichever first-round matchup they draw come the playoffs… assuming they actually make it in, which is looking less and less likely with each passing defeat.

Here’s four factors in the Detroit Pistons’ fall from grace in 2009:

Allen Iverson and the Pistons are in a funk

Identity Crisis: Over the past 6+ years, the Pistons made a name for themselves as a team that hung their hat on hardcore, lockdown defense. They were also capable of running one of the most efficient, effective offenses in the league. They’ve never been amongst the league’s highest-scoring, but they got the job done.

It’s hard to say what kind of team they are this year, besides a terribly mediocre one. On offense, this team is a mess. Some of it surely has to do with the underwhelming, puzzling sets run by Michael Curry, who seems to have lost his team and may soon lose his job along with it.

Time after time, their possessions seem directionless and reliant on individuals with the hot hand staying hot for as long as possible; they’re near the bottom of the NBA in team assists per game with 20.3. More on that later.

The offensive ineptitude doesn’t stop with the lack of ball movement. It’s hard to believe with guys like Iverson, Wallace, Hamilton, Stuckey, and Prince in the mix, but the Pistons’ 93.5 points/per ranks them ahead of only the Charlotte Bobcats in scoring (they’re tied with the Memphis Grizzlies). Three-point shooting is an abyssmal 34.6%, and their 74.5% free-throw shooting is even worse.

At the other end, they’re again amongst the league leaders in points allowed (94/per, good for 4th overall), but are consistently torched by marquee players both down low and on the perimeter; the help just isn’t there like it used to be, either. Nobody fears their defense.

Iverson plays the passing lanes well, but will never be mistaken as a defensive stopper. Wallace is still a premier interior defender, but those aging legs of his are catching up on him and there’s very little front-court depth of consequence behind him and Antonio McDyess. Tayshaun Prince hasn’t had the same spring in his step ever since Billups was dealt, and second-year PG Stuckey is a defensive work in progress.

In short, this team’s inability to collectively figure themselves out has proven to be damning.

The Writing is on the Wall: Change has come, more change is coming this summer, and everybody in Auburn Hills knows it. That’s especially true for the players: this core is well aware that their best days are behind them, and that’s proven to be a drain on the team’s psyche, like a whiskey hangover that won’t go away no matter how many glasses of water you drink the next morning.

It started when Ben Wallace left, and was accelerated when Billups was traded for Iverson. The mantra of “winning now” has become “let’s try to win now, but let’s also put ourselves in a position to win later.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing (and is probably a good thing), but it’s also a distracting thing this year.

Iverson and Wallace are almost as valuable for their massive expiring contracts as they are for their on-court play–don’t think they don’t know that. Second-year PG Rodney Stuckey seems entrenched at the point, but as evidenced by his recent play, he’s probably not ready to be handed the keys to the fleet just yet. And Curry hardly seems like the type of coach ready to lead a team to the promised land, or anywhere else other than to the lottery for that matter.

The Kids Aren’t Alright: With Antonio McDyess now in the starting lineup from here on out, Amir Johnson is back on the bench with Jason Maxiell. Those are two guys the team has been waiting for to take the next step for a few years now, and two guys in the midst of two very disappointing seasons that are likely causing GM Joe Dumars to rethink his frontcourt plans.

Now in his fourth season out of Cincinnati, Maxiell seems to have hit a wall. Compared to last season, his per-game points (5.3), boards (3.7), and blocks (0.8) are all down, as is his fixed place in the rotation. He used to compare favorably to Utah’s Paul Millsap, but that seems like a distant memory in light of what’s happened with both players this season.

Johnson’s performance has arguably been even more disappointing. Handed a starting job earlier this season, he did little to nothing with the opportunity, establishing himself as one of the league’s most foul-prone players while contributing little to nothing in the way of offense. He still won’t turn 22 until May, but the clock is ticking ever faster on all that potential.

Rookie Coach Curry: In the waning minutes of Detroit’s 83-79 loss to the San Antonio Spurs last Thursday, Michael Curry called a timeout and drew up a play with less than 30 seconds left and his team down by only 1 point. What play did they run coming out of the break? Inbounds to Iverson, who dribbled, dribbled, dribbled at the top of the key, pump-faked, then passed to Wallace, who was posted up about halfway between the left block and the three-point line. Blanketed by Tim Duncan on this isolation, he threw up a jumper that fell short. The rest is history.

It’s only one play, but it’s indicative of so many head-scratching sets seen by the Pistons offense at all times of the game. Curry came in with coaching defense as his perceived strength, but you have to score to win, too–and that’s where he seems to be coming up alarmingly short in his early head-coaching tenure. There’s no ball movement, no consistent motion, no bread-and-butter plays, nothing. His manmishandling of the team’s rotation comes in a close second.

If this reads like an epitaph for the Detroit Pistons as we’ve come to know them, it’s because it is. This season hardly tarnishes what they’ve accomplished in recent years, but it’s that success that makes this unfolding catastrophe that much tougher to stomach for its fans. Don’t underestimate Dumars’ ability to get things turned around in a hurry, but in the meantime, th-th-th-th-th-th-th-th-that’s all folks.

Related Reading:
Time Running Out for Detroit Pistons
Rodney Stuckey has Arrived
Meet Allen Iverson, NBA Punching Bag
Witness the Predictable Growing Pains with Allen Iverson and the Detroit Pistons


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