Behind Enemy Lines: Pounding The Rock and Detroit Bad Boys edition

The guys at Pounding The Rock, one of SB Nation's most premier basketball blogs, have been running a series of "Behind Enemy Lines" discussions with bloggers from competing teams. SpursFanSteve at PoundingTheRock invited me to a pretty gracious chat about the Spurs, the Pistons, our collective DNA and of course-- Ice for Dyess. The discussion shows an interesting view into the DBB of the Spurs, and how their collective fanhood has a lot in common with our own.

The Pistons face off with the Spurs tonight, and I was obviously not boastful about Detroit's chances. Yet for a franchise that wasn't very welcome in Detroit in the middle of the last decade, I must say that the fans over at PTR carry themselves with a lot of class, and I shouldn't have been surprised by their candid respect. The feeling is mutual toward a team that represents what Detroit Basketball used to be... from the other conference. Keep reading, friends. It's a long one, but most certainly interesting.

SpursFanSteve:

Personally, I've always been a fan of the Pistons, dating back to at least the beginning of the Larry Brown era. I've got to admit that I am a bit too young to remember the "Bad Boys" era, but from what I hear and the highlights/ESPN classic games I've seen I would have loved them. Physical, tough, defensive minded...that's perfect basketball to me. Unfortunately, the NBA ratings machine disagrees so we get to see namby-pansies driving virtually uncontested to the rim and complaining about getting fouled every play.

While the Pistons and Spurs were pretty similar most of this decade, both being consistent, defensive minded teams that were always a threat to win the title, they don't appear to have much in common now. The Spurs success begins and ends with two things: our front office and Tim Duncan. I think the biggest difference between the Pistons' most successful teams and the Spurs was that we had a "Franchise" player, while ya'll caught lightning in a bottle with a bunch of (way) above average players that complemented each other perfectly. The similarity, then, was borne (in my opinion) from the craftiness of the front office. Dumars, I thought, was one of the best GM's in the league.

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From a time when the words "Dumars" and "Best" were more frequently used in conjunction.
via i.a.cnn.net

But then he shipped off Billups for Iverson and paid a ridiculous amount of money for two players in Ben Gordon and Charlie Villaneuva...and hasn't really done much since. I'm willing to give most GM's a mulligan, all of them have a bad free agent season every now and then. Dumars though hasn't seem to recover well, but how much of that is due to the attempts at selling the team? Is there a lot of resentment in the fan base towards Dumars, or do most think he's in a difficult position and doing as good as anyone else would?

I've got some more questions, but I don't want this to feel like an interrogation, or that I'm dominating the conversation, so I'll give you an opportunity to respond before I drop anything else on you :)

Mike Payne:

You know, Steve, the feeling of fanhood is mutual. The Spurs and the Pistons share a few strands of DNA that might in fact make us cultural cousins. "Physical, tough, defensive minded" are terms you can only lay on a handful of NBA franchises, which might only include the Spurs, Celtics and Pistons... well, the Pistons before Joe Dumars lost his marbles. Most educated Pistons fans have gotten over that Robert Horry three-pointer in 2005, and we can look at the Spurs with two emotions: admiration and regret.

Why admiration? For precisely the same reasons you pointed out. The Spurs represent what we think of Detroit Basketball in the Western Conference. And while the Spurs/Pistons finals of 2005 was tough on the eyes for casual fans, that was a brilliant moment in NBA basketball that may not again be repeated for decades. Today, an objectively-minded Pistons fan can look at the Spurs and say, hey-- somebody is still doing it right, and they're making a success of it against the current of league-driven trends.

Why regret? In one summer, one of the most universally-loved Pistons in modern history left the Pistons for the Spurs, and a fan-favorite draft pick in 2009 was selected by the Spurs as well. Antonio McDyess is loved and adored by pretty much every Pistons fan. Not everyone loves Rasheed (attitude), Rip (well, attitude again), Big Ben (bolting for Chicago) or Tayshaun (playoff disaster), but Antonio McDyess was the heart of the post-championship Detroit Pistons and from where I sit, the most deserving Piston to never earn a championship ring. There's a movement on DetroitBadBoys called "Ice for Dyess", where a group of us support the Spurs in the playoffs just so our boy can retire a champion.

Oh, and as for that draft pick, the Pistons selected DaJuan Summers instead of DeJuan Blair, and our nickname for Summers over at DBB is "The Wrong DaJuan". We joke that Joe Dumars accidentally drafted the wrong player, and Blair was the target the whole time. This loss and the loss of Antonio McDyess were representative of the Pistons failures since the Billups/Iverson trade. Now when we look at the Spurs still rocking, there's a tinge of regret in our collective stomachs.

220px-wallaceandgromitinthewrongtrousers_medium

The wrong choice can have dire consequences, like being controlled by a penguin masquerading as a chicken
via upload.wikimedia.org


I would like to touch on something you said, although it might ignite a bit of frustration amongst Pounding the Rock readers. You mentioned that "we get to see namby-pansies driving virtually uncontested to the rim and complaining about getting fouled every play". If I had to put my finger on where the most modern version of that trend started, it'd be 2005. The summer following the Pistons man-handling of the Lakers, the NBA enacted three rule changes that overvalued dribble penetration and limited stone wall Detroit defense. David Stern introduced new hand-checking and blocking foul rules, plus defensive three-second technicals. These rules benefited guard penetration by adding ticky tack fouls, and the defensive three second rule took defenders out of the paint.

The nature of the Spurs guard offense that season, which is clearly reflected in the shot charts, was based primarily around penetration from Parker and Ginobili. The Pistons had a spread offense whose guards used post-up, mid-range and perimeter shots (Billups) and off-screen pops (Hamilton) that were not rewarded by these new rules. While both teams defenses were hurt by these new rules changes, the Spurs offense was the recipient of a set of rules that made your already great guards into borderline super stars. This is the part that will likely rub Spurs fans the wrong way: I contend that if those rule changes were never implemented, the Pistons would have another championship banner hanging from the rafters in Auburn Hills. Maybe I'm still a bit bitter about the outcome of that series, but I mention it here as the point at which the culture of "uncontested penetration and foul complaints" really began. It didn't get really bad until the following season where Dwyane Wade out-shot the entire Mavericks team at the free throw line, but Pistons fans felt it far sooner that most basketball fans.

Hey, that was six years ago, and things are very different now. You mentioned that Joe Dumars appeared to be one of the league's best GMs. For his design of the "Going to Work" Pistons of the last decade, he certainly was one of the best. Today, he might just be the worst in the league. Think about it. Is there any other team in the league whose future is as dark as Detroit's right now? You've got the Cavs, of course, but they have a much, much cleaner salary profile and the best shot at a number one draft pick in 2011. The Timberwolves have Kevin Love and no player owed more than $5M this year, other than Eddy Curry's expiring deal. The Kings have Evans and Cousins on lock for the next four or five, the Clippers have Blake F-ing Griffin and the Wizards have John Wall. The only real hope that Pistons fans have is with Greg Monroe, and the rest of the picture is absolutely terrifying. Detroit has massive salary commitments to under-performing players, no real point guard, no efficient wing players and only one big man of significance as we enter the 2011-12 season. For the second season in a row, the fate of the Pistons at this point is based on lottery balls in a little plastic sphere. It sucks, and it is entirely the fault of Joe Dumars. Sure, people blame ownership for not giving Joe the flexibility to make moves, but these moves would only serve to un-screw a string of terrible mistakes by a once brilliant general manager. He made this mess, but fans look the other way and blame ownership for not giving him a mop.

Beyond that small group, I'd say that most active Pistons fans have turned on Joe Dumars. I made my mind up about Joe on the night of the 2009 draft and upon the Gordon/Villanueva signings, but publicly said I'd give him until the trade deadline that season to work things out. But after this trade deadline passed, a much bigger group gave up on Joe. There are not a lot of fans calling for his head, but I don't think many of us wouldn't be surprised or upset with a change in management once the team is sold. Most of us over at DetroitBadBoys want a change across the board-- from ownership to management to coaching to talent. If there is a light at the end of the tunnel, I can't see it yet, but I do feel that the worst is behind us.

SFS:

Well, we appreciate the admiration, and were I writing this after the Heat game and before the Laker game, I'd probably say it's deserved. But at times this year, the Spurs have done everything exactly the opposite of the good ol' days. We've been at the top or near the top all year in pretty much every major statistical category (excepting FT%, as usual), but defensively we've been pretty eeehhh... all year long. Since 2011 started, we've improved to 4th in defensive efficiency. To a casual observer, that would seem pretty awesome, but unfortunately we've played a lot of less than stellar teams in that stretch, and then of course the Lakers destroyed us today, so we've got that hanging over our heads too. Defense shows up for a quarter or two at a time, but we never play that lockdown 48 minutes-of-hell style defense like us (and the Pistons) used to. Attitude-wise, the team hasn't changed much. We still "value" defense, and we're still the stereotypical "boring" all steak and no sizzle personalities, unless, of course, you overvalue dry sarcasm (like those of us at PtR).


Ah. Antonio McDyess. Or, as we like to call him San Antonio McDyess (clearly it was meant to be). SAM is definitely one of our fan favorites as well- I think every interview I've ever seen with him he's had this boyish grin plastered across his face the entire time. He loves basketball and it just radiates off him. Also, I've always liked him because he played for the University of Alabama (roll tide), and because he's got a bit of a mean streak in him. When other players get physical, he gets more physical. He's the first one to get in someone's face if they do something he perceives as dirty, and I love it. Ice for Dyess indeed- we'd all love to see him get a ring as well, and not just because he's on the Spurs, but because he's the perfect player when it comes to attitude, effort, and grit.

Ahh....Dejuan Blair. Where can I begin? I think he's absolutely established himself as the steal of that draft, but hey- I'm biased. I was blessed to see his first 20/20 game in person. He's pretty much the perfect man-child. Man, because he's 6'6ish (depending on who you ask) and 275 pounds. Child, for a number of reasons, first and foremost the way he laughs his way up and down the court, and occasionally makes silly mistakes. And also because on several occasions he's referred to Manu as "Nu-nu". Seriously, if you don't follow him on Twitter, you should, because he's good for pretty much one gem a day.

In response to the rule changes, we certainly have benefited. I doubt any reasonable Pounder would disagree- the new rules make Tony Parker, when healthy, near unstoppable. I think though you hit the nail on the head, and I'm not sure I could disagree with your argument about the outcome of that series. I'm inclined to think that Tim Duncan would have found a way to make it happen, but like you said- we definitely benefited from the rule changes.

Wow. That's some pretty good analysis on Joe Dumars, and it brings up something I've been meaning to talk about- the future. I'm truly sorry Detroit's looks so bleak. Hopefully the next CBA will include some kind of amnesty rule that allows teams to get out of bad contracts (for cap purposes), but still have to pay the player (a similar one-time deal brought Mike Finley to the Spurs)- since Mark Cuban was still paying him a buttload, he signed with the Spurs dirt cheap and helped us win a championship- including helping us destroy the Mavs. Gotta love that. Anyway, I hope the next CBA will include something like that. The Spurs future, though, looks different from the Pistons. While we lack the "franchise" player of our future, we've certainly managed to incorporate solid young role players into the system so that when Manu and Tim retire, we should still be competitive. We shouldn't bottom out with a core of George Hill, Dejuan Blair (the right Dejuan), James Anderson, and Tiago Splitter. Not to mention Tony still being under 30.

Speaking of coaching...John Kuester? Can you explain him at all? Plus, you know, the whole "players protesting/not protesting" thing that happened/didn't happen in the past week or so?

Mike:

When you spoke about the Spurs defensive woes and the aversion to 48-minute-per-game effort, this got me thinking. How much do you think Tim Duncan's age has to do with this? Or does it have more to do with a roster-level issue? What amazes me as a casual observer that doesn't follow the team closely is that the Spurs remain a championship contender even with Duncan playing at nearly 35 years old. It's rare for a player of his dominance age so gracefully at his position. It begs the question-- have the Spurs come to a point where the rest of the roster is of more value than Duncan himself? If so, how confident are you that the Spurs can still be a threat to contend as he continues to age?

San Antonio McDyess-- now why didn't I ever think about that as well? I tell you, if the Spurs win it all this season, DetroitBadBoys will be alive with celebration for our old pal Tony. Also, I'm with you on DeJuan. The knock on Blair, and the way people justify the fact that Dumars passed on him, is his lack of ACLs. The way I saw it at the time was-- so what? If the Pistons could have had two years out of DeJuan Blair (the length of his rookie contract, of course), why not? It wouldn't matter if his knees give out at some point, that's the kind of talent you absolutely do not pass up. Fast forward to today, the Spurs were smart enough to grab the steal of the draft and The Wrong DaJuan might not be in the NBA next season. I'll always like Blair, I enjoy the hell out of his personality (for precisely the reasons you mentioned) and he'll give me reasons to check in on Spurs games from time to time after McDyess retires.

Here's the thing with John Kuester. He's been a great career assistant on some really impressive teams. Personally, I feel that he's not the right guy to be making the final decisions on lineups, rotations, end game strategies and playbook execution. He was heralded as an offensive genius, an x's and o's guy who designed the Cavaliers offense around LeBron James. Now that he's at the point where he actually has to make the decisions on who does what, he's been a failure. For example, if your team is regularly losing its first and third quarters, you need to change your starting lineup. It took him three months to find the best starting lineup, and not due to his own proactive changes. Additionally, the start of the third quarter is indicative of your impact on your team in the locker room at half-time. Last, some of the most important moments of a game for a coach are the final minutes. It's a chess match between coaches, and chess is apparently not a game Kuester understands. I hope Kuester has a future in this league as an assistant, because he's been involved in some serious winners in time. But after this season, I'm hoping he'll never have the top job in Detroit again.

As a fan, I haven't called for Kuester to be fired strictly because firing him won't have a positive impact on wins and losses throughout the rest of the season. Let the man finish out his contract (which ends with an option this season) and send a signal to any players that may-or-may-not-have-mutinied. Kuester can be blamed for making some very bad coaching decisions this season, but the blame is ultimately on the one who hired that coach. Joe Dumars has hired two bad coaches in a row, and the culture in the Pistons locker room is not Kuester's doing.

SFS:

I'm not sure his age has a whole lot to do with it. I'm sure it's part of the problem, but individually he's about as good as ever- statistically he's the best he's been since 2007 defensively. As far as championship contenderdom, can we do a comparison? I like to do that. I'm going to give you three sets of numbers (courtesy of hoopdata.com), and you guess who they belong to (these stats are per game, instead of per 48 minutes) Oh, and no cheating:

37.2 Minutes 13.9 Rebounds, 2.3 Blocks
28.7 Minutes 9.1 Rebounds, 2.0 Blocks
31.7 Minutes 9.3 Rebounds, 0.8 Blocks

Care to guess who each belongs to?

Tim Duncan is still very much the heart and soul of the Spurs defense. Generally, people refer to him as the "Anchor" but I've never understood why that's a positive comment. Anchor's slow people down/stop them, so if Duncan is the anchor of the Spurs' defense, isn't he stopping or slowing them down? I digress. Duncan is very much so still the Spurs MVP, or at least their defensive MVP. As long as he plays, I fail to see a scenario in which the rest of the roster eclipses his overall value. Their is only one type of team that has an absolute advantage over us, and that is the super fast Phoenix Suns team from last year. The Lakers' overall size we can counter (although not easily), but Tim's knees do cut back his lateral mobility, so speed and teams with bigs who can stretch the floor present matchup problems. Because his game is based so much on skill and intelligence, instead of raw athleticism, he could probably play another 3 years at (roughly) the rate he's playing now and be effective.

4882628025_73955f827e_medium

Tim? Tim is that you?
via
lemarc_ch at flickr.com

How hard is it to design an offense around Lebron? Wasn't their inability to score one of the biggest knocks on those Cavs teams? I mean, I guess some of it could be personnel, but load up with 3pt shooters and 1 solid defensive big and you should be set, right? But, hey, if building a Championship caliber team was that easy, even Donald Sterling could do it. Good points about firing Kuester. From an outsider's view, it appears changes need to happen top-down at Detroit. Just hope they don't hire Isiah Thomas as a replacement :)

I guess, at this point, we should maybe actually talk about this game instead of the game. What do you expect to happen tomorrow? Who should the Spurs really watch out for? Is there someone on your bench most of us probably haven't heard of that could go off for 20 points?

Oh, and I've been meaning to ask...How's Tracy McGrady working out? Any chance he'll be back next year?

Mike Payne:

What do I expect to happen tonight? I expect the Spurs to have their way with this group of "Pistons". Really, from my perspective, it's not even about watching the Detroit Pistons any more this season, it's about watching the Detroit Greg Monroes. He's been Detroit's best player this season, and he has a lot of hope riding on his shoulders. In case Spurs fans aren't fully initiated on Monroe, and I imagine most of you are, its looking like "The Monroad Warrior" (for away games, "Monrobocop" at home) has been the best rookie of the 2010 draft. John Wall has been wildly inefficient, DeMarcus Cousins has been an inconsistent headcase, and even John Hollinger agrees that Monroe is the best rookie from that draft thus far (http://insider.espn.go.com/nba/players/rookies/rankings).

What will Spurs fans see tonight in Greg Monroe? You may not even notice him if you aren't paying close attention. You'll see him shake hands at the beginning of the game, and then next thing you know he's got a double-double. He'll sneak up on you with 15 and 13 and you can't remember witnessing a single notch in the box score. Okay, I'm exaggerating, but the guy is sneaky good. Tonight will pose a big challenge to Greg, as DeJuan Blair and Tim Duncan present one of the better front lines he's had to contend with. I'm confident in Monroe, however, as he is a crafty below-the-rim player who uses a high IQ to work in the paint and he rarely makes mistakes on offense.

Last, as for Tracy McGrady, no-- he will not be back next season. The Tracy McGrady signing by Dumars was a smart, win-win move that could have netted Detroit a pick or two by the deadline. But Dumars decided to keep Tracy McGrady for the rest of the season. When Joe signed Tracy, I thought: "This is brilliant. If he gets injured or fails, cut him. If he does well, he's a free trade asset since ticket sales and league subsidies will pay his salary. Trade him at the deadline for a second rounder, a low first rounder or package him for better options." Apparently Joe Dumars didn't see it that way. Now we get nothing out of having Tracy for a year, other than a "thanks" when he's out the door to a new contract elsewhere.

Individually, however, Tracy has been surprisingly good. 2010-11 McGrady isn't the same player that you may have seen before, but he is damn good at what he does. He's lost most of the speed, athleticism and physical dominance he showed before. Without that, however, you realize just how brilliant of an IQ player he really is. He's been a great point guard for the Pistons this season, and he's been one of the better defenders in the league (if you have access to Synergy Sports, you'll see precisely what I mean).

Thanks for inviting me to take part in this, Stephen. I'm hoping I can do the same with you next time around! In the mean time, remember that many of us at DetroitBadBoys are pulling for a Spurs title this year, if only for the chance for Antonio McDyess to retire a champion. He deserves it-- and the Spurs brand of basketball does too.
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