(The following is Detroit Bad Boys' preview of the Detroit Pistons for the "NBA Blog Previews" project. When you finish reading, do not forget to check out Natalie's team preview over at Need4Sheed. As with the other Divisions, we'll recap the blogger previews of the Central Division once complete.)
Team Name: The Detroit Pistons
Head Coach: Flip Saunders
Last Year's Record: 64-18 (Lost in Eastern Conference Finals)
Key Losses: Ben Wallace, Maurice Evans, Tony Delk
Key Additions: Nazr Mohammed, Ronald "Flip" Murray, Terry Porter (assistant coach), Dave Cowens (assistant coach)
1. What significant moves were made during the offseason?
The Pistons made as much news with what they didn’t do this offseason as they did with their additions to the squad.
By far the most talked-about transaction (or lack thereof) was the decision to let Ben Wallace move on to the Chicago Bulls without meeting the Bulls' price. The Pistons made what they considered a fair offer to Wallace (4 years/$48 million), but the Bulls’ offer was $60 million over 4 years. Ben chased the money.
Immediately taking Ben's spot amongst the best starting lineup in the league was Nazr Mohammed. Last season -- his first full season with the Spurs -- Mohammed shot over 50% from the field and a career best 78.5% from the free throw line in limited minutes. Nazr’s game is nice in spurts, but it remains to be seen whether he can bring it every night in extended floortime.
During every interview this preseason, Nazr’s made a point of stating that he is not Ben Wallace and should not be expected to replace Ben's game; this is true. It will take a combination of Nazr, Rasheed, Antonio McDyess, and probably some Jason Maxiell to make up for the loss of Ben’s rebounding and shot-blocking. But make no mistake: with each of the aforementioned, the Pistons will be playing 5-on-5 ball on the offensive end of the court. All possess the offensive skills around the basket that Ben sorely lacked, and none will be the target of any "hack a ___" strategies. In short, expect the points sacrificed on D to be made up with a more efficient and dynamic O.
Less publicized than the addition of Nazr Mohammed but almost as significant is the addition of shooting guard Ronald "Flip" Murray. Murray, a notoriously streaky shooter, will get "Tony Delk" minutes this year backing up Rip Hamilton and occasionally Chauncey Billups (when Tayshaun Prince has ballhandling responsibilities). Murray is fully capable of providing instant offense off the bench. But as Cleveland learned during last year’s playoffs, when his shot is off, he’s way off. The strength of the Piston backcourt depth will hinge on how often Flip goes cold.
It will also be interesting to see how the Pistons hide Murray on defense. With Ben Wallace gone, breakdowns on perimeter defense will be of much greater concern, and Murray isn’t exactly a lock-down defender. Murray also does not play a pretty point, so Chauncey Billups or Lindsey Hunter will need to run alongside him. That means your backcourt’s average height, with Murray in the game, will be in the low 6’s. Flip Saunders’ gradual implementation of the zone defense should remedy some of these weaknesses on the perimeter, but the substitution patterns against some of the larger, more athletic 2 guards will be creative.
After the offseason departure of assistant coach Sidney Lowe (himself a former head coach) to North Carolina State, Joe Dumars stated that the spot should be filled by someone who commands immediate respect from the players -- not someone who would be learning on the job. Enter former head coaches Terry Porter and Dave Cowens.
If Ben Wallace’s tantrums last season proved anything, it is that a veteran team like the Pistons needs someone deserving of respect to get guys to buy into a system. Otherwise, minor problems with strong-willed players could become major. Porter and Cowens bring instantly respectable pedigrees and hopefully will not hesitate to get on guys if the effort is lacking.
As in previous seasons, the Pistons will live and die on the perimeter. Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, and Rasheed Wallace make up the most versatile ‘1 through 4’ in the league. All four can take it to the rim when the shot isn’t falling, and all four can sink the 3 ball.
Billups received MVP consideration and an Olympic team invite based upon his stellar play last season, and he is in a contract year. And if budding superstardom and the promise of a future max contract aren't enough to motivate Chauncey, the Boys in Blue are now his team. Sure Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince are listed as "co-captains" this year. But Chauncey is the man, and he'll have to lead by example for the Pistons to stay around the top of the league.
Obviously, interior defense and rebounding will take a hit from Ben's departure, but -- as mentioned -- expect the spotlight to shine bright on Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, and Tayshaun Prince's perimeter D as well. Too many times in past seasons a ballhandler was allowed a pass to the rim with the promise that the big guy would be there to clean up the mess. More energy needs to be expended by the guards keeping ballhandlers in front, and expect use of Flip Saunders' zone defense to increase as the season wears on to force opponents into jumpers.
The Pistons’ second potential weakness is the bench. I say "potential weakness" because no one really knows what the Piston bench -- outside of McDyess and Murray -- can bring. For the second season in a row (one under Larry Brown and one under Flip Saunders), the Pistons' starters logged a ton of minutes. Now Flip is quick to point out that none of his players were at the top of the league in minutes played. But with a bench populated with young, athletic, and yet unproven players like Maxiell and Carlos Delfino , playing time will be an important tool in finally developing some homegrown talent. Darko and Carlos Arroyo sure would look good in Piston colors this season (sigh…).
The goal, since the team’s ascension to the league’s elite has been to win the NBA championship. While last season was the fourth in a row with the Pistons reaching the Eastern Conference finals, the popular opinion of season previews is that this team is on the decline stemming from the playoff loss to the Heat and the loss of Ben Wallace.
Popular opinion should be wrong.
There is no good reason why this team cannot compete for another NBA championship. They may no longer be the clear-cut favorite as they were while racking up 64 wins last season, but they should be in the discussion. In some respects, you have to wonder whether the national apathy towards this team is exactly what they need in order to regain their fighting spirit. One thing is for certain: the City of Detroit (and surrounding areas) certainly enjoyed the chippy underachievers of seasons past more than they did the whining and bickering of last year's squad.
And before you point to Ben Wallace (and his 7+ points, 11+ boards, and 2+ blocks per) as the reason the Boys in Blue will step back, ask yourself which Ben Wallace you are thinking of: the dominating Big Ben from '03-04 -- or last season's Ben, who skulked all year long with Flip Saunders as coach and at 32 years of age had the worst playoffs of his Piston career. Could the dropoff from 64 wins really be so steep due to the loss of this one player, especially on a team universally thought of as balanced?
For the sake of the Pistons’ "us against the world" mojo, we hope you think so.