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Today and for the Rest of Our Lives: A look at where we stand

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By Kevin Sawyer

A few weeks back, after a couple of disappointing losses, I said that it would take about 20 games to evaluate the impact of Joe Dumars’ semi-overhaul. 21 games later … Check that, 21 below-.500-games later, I’m ready to get evaluatin’.

First, I’ll restate what every Piston fan knows. The trade to send Chauncey Billups in exchange for Allen Iverson and, to a lesser extent, the decision to replace Flip Saunders with Michael Curry, was made with a win-now/win-later mentality. As such, it is appropriate to evaluate the trade in light of both present and future. This post will deal with the former, and I’ll get to the latter next week.

I’ll be blunt. I cannot fathom how, as presently constituted, this team could possibly compete for a championship. The Pistons are 10-11 with AI for a reason, or, rather several reasons. Here are they:

Allen Iverson IS etroit basketball:

At present, the Pistons rank 19th in defensive efficiency. Last year, this was a top five defensive squad. One might be tempted to attribute this to the growing pains associated with a new-look roster. Alas, the Denver Nuggets seem to have dodged that particular bullet. In fact, they are a top five defensive squad (tied with Houston). This after having lost former defensive player of the year Marcus Camby.

This is unsurprising when you consider the degree to which opposing point guards have feasted on Allen Iverson’s defensive shortcomings. Since acquiring Iverson, starting point guards ((In certain cases, when the backup PG played the lion share of minutes, I included his statistics instead of the starters. For some timeshare situations, I included both players. How is that for transparency?)) are averaging 19.1 ppg on 54% shooting, with 5.8 assists, and 4.9 free throw attempts per game. It’s like playing Tony Parker over and over again.

Last year? Opposing PGs averaged 10 ppg and 4.9 apg on 41% shooting, with 2.2 free-throw attempts per game. Only six PGs even scored 19 points in a game. During one seven game stretch, no starting PG hit a single free throw (Rajon Rondo missed his lone attempt). Reread that sentence. Now revisit this.

Simply put, we traded one of the very best defenders at the position for one of the very worst. Just ask Mike Bibby.

Coach Curry is Confused

Wouldn’t you agree?

It is difficult to pin all of our defensive shortcomings on Iverson when our coach is playing Tayshaun Prince, arguably THE best defender at his position, at the four. And that’s just the beginning. Bizarre rotation changes, arbitrary benchings, random post-game callouts … Didn’t Michael Curry anything learn about personnel management when he was getting his MBA?

Normally, teams can succeed in spite of mediocre coaching (see: Celtics, Boston and Cavaliers, Cleveland). In this case, however, coach Curry has replaced a brilliant offensive strategist. Under Saunders’ tutelage, Detroit was one of the most offensively efficient teams in the league. Allen Iverson may have lost a step, but he isn’t far enough behind Chauncey Billups to sink a top five offensive squad all the way to 14th.

In fairness, Curry has a tough challenge. He has a roster full of average to above-average offensive players, and three of his best weapons are guards. Normally, the difficulty in this situation comes from trying to keep everybody happy. But Curry has somehow extracted the lemon from the lemonade, and we’re struggling to win games. Oh, and nobody seems very happy.

Old Age:

Age affects players differently, but there is one consistent trend among players over the age of 29. They tend to get worse over time. The Pistons held off father time’s furtive advances last year, as Hamilton, McDyess and ‘Sheed were able to replicate their previous year’s production.

This year has seen a marked dropoff for all three players. Plus, we traded our most resilient 30-something for the 33 year-old Iverson, whose game has been deteriorating for the last couple of years. The major change in playing style might well be exacerbating the process, but bodies break down at a certain point.

On that note:

The DNPs for Amir and Maxiell are indefensible. Each rates as a very productive player, and Amir in particular has plenty of room to grow. One of the reasons we fired coach Saunders was that the young guys weren’t getting minutes. Flip had an excuse. Last season was arguably the best regular season in Detroit history. Curry? No excuse.

But that’s more for the "future" post.

Opponents are hitting their free throws:

The average team hit 75.5% of their free-throws last year. Pistons opponents are hitting a scorching 77.8% from the stripe this year. Given that opponent free-throw shooting is entirely random, we can expect regression to the mean, giving back about 0.65 points per game. That should be good for an extra win or two. Merry Christmas.

Oh yeah, Chauncey was pretty good on offense, too:

According to John Hollinger, one point of PER equals one win over the course of 2,000 minutes. Since joining Denver, Billups has a PER of 21.0, while Iverson has a mark of 17.7 as a Piston. Given that each will likely play about 3000 minutes this year, this translates to 4-5 wins over the course of the season.

Sunday bloody Sunday:

Remember that whole thing last season about having an "off switch"? To paraphrase Crocodile Dundee, "that’s not an off-switch, THIS is an off-switch". The Pistons are 14-5 (and play like a 50 win team) during the rest of the week, and then become the "Thunder" for one day.

Note to fans. They play Sunday games in the playoffs, too.

Conclusion:

I would love to eat these words on a hamburger, but right now, the "win now" component of Joe Dumars’ vision seems unlikely to materialize. Chauncey Billups is a phenomenal player, and Flip Saunders a phenomenal coach. In my mind, the results here were fairly predictable. The Pistons were never the rag-tag bunch of overachievers the media made them out to be. They were an extremely efficient, defensively oriented squad with a superstar point guard who valued possessions more than anything.

As it stands, this team may be riding its 4-0 start into the playoffs. Of course, teams have started 14-11 and still won the championship, but in those instances, the rough start was due to injury or bad luck. In this case, so many factors are ailing the Pistons that, while it is not unreasonable to assume that some trends will reverse, it is highly unlikely that we will see the kind of reversal that will make this a championship contending team. And what if, instead of a reversal, we suffer a major injury or a bout of 1 point losses?

While the mantra to date has been "wait until the playoffs", it is worth noting that the projected top four seeds in the Eastern Conference has a combined 44-6 record at home. Teams have risen from the deeper seeds in the playoffs before, but never when the competition was this good.

All of this has me feeling rather blue … Or, should I say, teal …