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Out With the Old, In With the New – Detroit Pistons 2009-10 Season Preview

Ben Gordon

Ben Gordon and Will Bynum Photo Credits: Icon SMI

The 2009-10 NBA Season Blog Preview Series, annually hosted by our friends over at CelticsBlog, is already a quarter of the way through, and it’s again time for ETB to throw our lot in with some of the best NBA writers on the Web and put our collective heads together to break down the league one team after another. Links to all the previews will be posted by division over the next few weeks: here’s the West’s Southwest Division and East’s Atlantic.

Andrew is up next week with his look at America’s Team, the Minnesota Timberwolves. For now, lose yourself in the splendor that is the Detroit Pistons.

Last Year’s Record: 39-43, 8th seed

Key Losses: Aaron Afflalo, Michael Curry (head coach), Walter Herrmann, Allen Iverson, Amir Johnson, Antonio McDyess, Rasheed Wallace

Key Additions: Austin Daye, Ben Gordon, Jonas Jerebko, John Kuester (head coach), DaJuan Summers, Charlie Villanueva, Ben Wallace, Deron Washington, Chris Wilcox

What significant moves were made in the offseason?

If the word “rebuild” only creeped into the team’s lexicon last season for the first time since the early 2000s, it was fully and finally realized in kind this summer. Following a disappointing and, arguably, mostly unwatchable season that essentially evaporated the moment Chauncey Billups was traded for Allen Iverson, GM Joe Dumars had no choice but to clean house, reshuffle the deck, and start from scratch.

Gone is head coach Michael Curry, who never won the confidence and trust of his veterans and toyed with the minutes of still-developing players like Jason Maxiell and Amir Johnson. His rotations lacked direction and cohesion, his game-planning was shoddy at best, and his ability to make the right in-game adjustments–long a criticism of Flip Saunders, the man he replaced–was negligent. Few Pistons observers supported another year of Saunders behind the bench, but even fewer saw any reason to bring Curry back for another whirl. It felt like the guy was just in over his head and not ready to lead a team of that makeup.

But Curry was only part of the problem. The Iverson Experiment was, clearly, a messy disaster. Rasheed Wallace’s motivation and focus went progressively south along with the team’s record. Rip Hamilton openly feuded with Curry and, right or wrong, felt personally betrayed by the Billups trade. Johnson and Maxiell struggled to carve out their roles, Rodney Stuckey didn’t take the steps forward many predicted he would, and, well… very little went the Pistons’ way other than Antonio McDyess cementing his legacy as one of the league’s all-time good guys and a tireless worker in nearly averaging a double-double in 62 games. I’m no Spurs fan, but it’s hard not to wish him anything but success in San Antonio. He’ll be missed.

So, now, the Pistons of old, the team that marched to six straight Eastern Conference Finals, two straight NBA Finals, and one world championship, are but a fond memory. Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince, along with the resigned Ben Wallace, are the only significant pieces remaining from that era. There’s no time for nostalgia, however, nor for this franchise to feel sorry for itself.

The past is the past and it’s time to move on. And, honestly, I don’t think this team is as bad as some think it is. They certainly can’t be much worse, more boring to watch, than last year’s oftentimes… heartless squad. While vets like Wallace and Chris Wilcox will fill out out the frontline, the youth movement is on. Four rookies will be on the opening-day roster–and at least two of them are going to play out of the gate.

At 25, Villanueva is the heir to Wallace’s vacated throne at power forward (and their games aren’t all that dissimilar either, save on defense). And though the 26-year-old Gordon still has 31-year-old Hamilton to contend with for minutes at shooting guard, that likely won’t last long: good luck getting anybody in Detroit to admit it, but Hamilton is on the trading block and will be moved once the right offer comes along.

Some will say it’s a season of change, and it is. But these wheels were put in motion a year ago, and only know are they really picking up speed. Truth be told, this was long overdue.

Much more on the 2009-10 Detroit Pistons after the break…

What are the team’s biggest strengths?

This might be the most underrated backcourt in the league. Already, Coach Kuester is faced with the luxurious connundrun of finding enough minutes for Gordon, Hamilton, Stuckey, and one of my personal favorites, Will Bynum. They all bring something different to the table, and all of them deserve a spot in the regular rotation. (Not to harp on this, but finding a trade partner for Hamilton would help solve the problem.)

Kuester is already experimenting with his options, including a super-small lineup that featured Bynum at the point, Gordon at the off-guard, and Stuckey at small forward. The three-guard lineup is an aggressive, somewhat risky strategy, but something tells me Kuester will have better luck figuring out the merits and disadvantages of such an approach than Curry did with Iverson/Hamilton/Stuckey last season.

Will Bynum

Save for the deceptively cagey Hamilton, none of these guards have particularly distinguished themselves as standout defenders (though Bynum’s quickness makes him a threat in the passing lanes), but as it so often does, I think it may come down to coaching and to the system; Kuester has a reputation as a solid defensive coach. As for offense, nobody should question this unit’s ability to put up points in (big) bunches.

There’s depth in the frontcourt, too, though the effectiveness of this group is a much bigger question mark than in the backcourt. Prince is Prince; we know what we’re getting there. At 35 years old, Wallace isn’t the same player he was in Pistons’ heyday, but nobody expects him to be–after playing the role of well-paid vagabond the past few years, it’s good to see him come full circle and wind his career up in Detroit. He just might have more left in the tank than some think, and could be the team’s starting center, though Kuester has been raving about Kwame Brown and predicting the breakout season everyone’s been waiting for for almost a decade. Don’t hold your breath though.

Villanueva, I’ll be honest, is an exciting acquisition. I want him to excel, to finally make good on his crazy talents and potential, to stay healthy. He’s a likeable player on and off the court, and has the ability to be a 20-10 guy for the next half decade. He really does. Keep in mind that the Pistons would love to play him 32+ minutes a night, and that last year in Milwaukee he averaged 16.2 points, 6.7 boards, 1.8 assists, and 1.1 triples per (all career bests) in just under 27 minutes per. He’ll have every opportunity to succeed, but many are skeptical, especially given his track record of swinging-door defense.

Rounding out the frontcourt are Maxiell, 6-11 first-round pick Austin Daye (he’s probably at least a year away, but he’ll be in the rotation), second-round picks DaJuan Summers, Jonas Jerebko (a Matt Harpring-type), and Deron Washington, and intriguing free-agent pickup Chris Wilcox, whom I’m somewhat of an apologist for.

There are some interesting pieces here, but how well they all shake out is anybody’s guess.

What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably noticed what could be considered a strength of this team could double as a weakness. Let’s be honest: few teams that experience roster turnover of this magnitude meet with success on the first try. It takes time to get to know your teammates: where they want the ball, how well they play defense, how to compensate for their shortcomings, what they’re like in the locker room, in which situations they can and can’t be counted on. Throw in a healthy batch of rookies and another inexperienced head coach into the mix, and it all adds up to a team that’s going to suffer through frustrating bouts of inconsistency and struggle to beat the NBA’s elite.

The Pistons we’ve all come to know over the past decade were mostly defined by their defense; this version has no identity… yet. On a team with its fair share of question marks, that lack of a true identity is their most significant weakness. Don’t underestimate just how crucial having one–or not having one–can be at this level.

What are the goals for this team?

Pistons fans accustomed to the “championship or bust” mantra may not like it, but for the first time in a long time, realistic title hopes are a sucker’s dream. Here’s how I see it (and there’s a certain degree of blue sky to this, even):

– Develop palpable chemistry between all these new pieces early in the season
– Stay competitive throughout
– Squeeze into the playoffs
– Steal a series from a higher seed
– Head into The Summer of 2010 with more positive vibes, more continuity, and a clearer vision of what they need to get back to the top than there was after their embarassing first-round sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers in April.

How long until Richard Hamilton is traded?

Okay, I said I wasn’t going to harp on this, but I just can’t wrap my head around it. I like Rip. I think he’s aging well and that he can still be a major part of a winning cause. I just don’t see how he fits with this team anymore with Gordon locked up for the next 5 years at a $55 million price tag. I touched on this back in July:

There is still a market for the well-conditioned Hamilton, who at age 31 should still be plenty effective for the duration of his three-year extension, which kicks in for the 2010-11 season. That said, he’s already hit his peak and last season was only the second time in his 10-year career that he’s played in less than 70 regular-season games (67). He’s a luxury this team can no longer afford: though standing at 6-11, newly signed Charlie Villanueva is not a natural center, and Kwame Brown is not a starter.

Given his contract and “the economy,” it’s not unfathomable to think that nobody is willing to pay Dumars’ asking price, whatever it might be. It’s long been said that Dumars values his guys more than he should. Could the Hamilton-for-Boozer rumors resurface? Will the Clips discuss Chris Kaman or Marcus Camby, despite the presence of Eric Gordon?

Expect Hamilton to be sporting new colors no later than the February trade deadline.

Predicted Record: 40-42, 7th Seed

More 2009-10 NBA Season Blog Previews:

Western Conference – Southwest Division
Eastern Conference – Atlantic Division

Read all of the NBA season predictions at BetFirms to see what the NBA odds are on your favorite teams.

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