Detroit Pistons 2008-09 Preview

Here's my contribution to the series of Blogger Previews organized by Jeff Clark from Celticsblog. You may have already seen contributions from Need4Sheed and Empty the Bench (not to mention Skeets and Dwyer) earlier this week -- I'm a few days late with this.
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Last Years Record: A bunch of regular season wins - Not enough playoff wins (ahem, 59-23)

Key Losses: Flip Saunders, Lindsey Hunter, Jarvis Hayes, Theo Ratliff and Juan Dixon.

Key Additions: Michael Curry, Kwame Brown, Will Bynum, Alex Acker and Walter Sharpe.

1. What significant moves were made during the offseason?

The biggest move was the Flip Saunders for Amir Johnson trade. Okay, okay, that's not how it's officially going down on the NBA ledger, but that's what this summer's moves amounts to. The rest of the guys who left (Hunter, Hayes, Ratliff and Dixon) won't really be missed -- only Ratliff was part of the regular rotation in the playoffs, and he got the nod over Amir more for his resume than current production.

Herrmann can probably provide everything Hayes did with a dash of defense thrown in for good measure, and Bynum is basically a younger version of Hunter. Kwame will reprise the "token big man without any expectations" role that Ratliff, Dale Davis and Elden Campbell have played in the past, and Acker is more than capable of sitting in the same spot on the bench that Dixon did. Plus, the Pistons drafted Sharpe, a second-round project who's looked promising in summer league and preseason play.

But under Curry, the Pistons finally have a coach who's willing to give Johnson an honest-to-goodness chance to succeed. I'm already on the record saying Amir has the potential to someday be a star, but at worst he's already a taller, more athletic version of Jason Maxiell. The rotation is better with him in it. His presence on the court makes the team faster and more dangerous in transition, and he creates extra possessions by going all out after loose balls and rebounds.

And to think, the Pistons didn't have to give up anybody on their roster to add him to the rotation. I guarantee that Flip Saunders, when he's not in line at the bank cashing checks to do nothing, will blush every time he sees a Pistons highlight on SportsCenter. He'd still be employed had he taken advantage of his entire roster.

2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?

Experience? Veteran savvy? Other random intangibles? Even under Saunders, an allegedly offense-first coach, the Pistons remained one of the top defensive teams in the league. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that trend continues under Curry. (Okay, that limb isn't very long -- it's all but etched in stone Detroit will have a top three defense.)

This is going to sound weird, but I think the fact that this team has failed to get back to the Finals the last three years will actually work to their advantage this year. They have a new coach vowing not only to give his players a clean slate but also to hold everybody accountable (including himself). Under Saunders, roles were all but etched in stone, but Curry seems like a guy willing to shake things up (Amir to the starting lineup! Rodney Stuckey getting 30 minutes a game!), and the players seem frustrated enough with their status as the Eastern Conference bridesmaid to go along with it.

3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?

So long as we're talking about the regular season, they don't have one. That sounds brash, but this is a team that won 59 games last year, second-most in the league and fourth-most in franchise history. The fact that they didn't turn over their roster has been held against them, but objectively speaking, this is virtually the same team as last year.

The problem, though, is that this team knows it's good. That doesn't matter so much during an Atlanta-Memphis back-to-back in the regular season, but it can haunt them in a seven-game playoff series, as we saw in the first round last year against the 76ers which unexpectedly went six games.

Some people will point to Curry's lack of experience as a weakness, but I see it as more of a wild card than anything else. He did an outstanding job working with Detroit's young players last year, and he was also known for his intelligence and hard work as a player. If a team can win a title with Doc Rivers on the sidelines, I don't see any reason why the Pistons can't get it done with Curry.

4. What are the goals for this team?

I'm sure the politically correct answer within the locker room walls is, "NBA title or bust!" As a fan, though, I'd settle for a hard-fought loss in the Finals. Not a token appearance like the Cavs in 2006 or a frustrating "it was rigged!" series like the Mavs in 2005, but an honest-to-goodness "we tried but just weren't good enough" series like Philly in 2001 or Knicks in 1999.

A fourth straight loss in the Conference Finals would be disastrous, though. I'd rather Detroit lost to the eventual champ in the second round than coming oh-so-close only to watch another team advance to the promised land.

5. Is this Detroit's last stand?

As currently constructed, yes. Joe Dumars decided against making drastic change last summer, but he may not have a choice after this year. Rasheed Wallace will be an unrestricted free agent next summer and Rip Hamilton has the option of being one. And those are just the starters -- the bench might lose Jason Maxiell (restricted free agent), Walter Herrmann (unrestricted), Kwame Brown (player option), Cheikh Samb (restricted), Alex Acker (restricted). Not all of those guys will be missed, but not all those guys will be coming back, either. If Rodney Stuckey lives up to expectations in the first half, I won't be surprised at all to see Hamilton and/or Wallace dealt in a blockbuster at the deadline.

Predicted Record: 55-27

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