By Pardeep Toor
As we get closer to this year's disastrous Detroit Piston's team, it's becoming more difficult to evaluate a year independently without peeking at the destruction that rests ahead. We all know how it ends and it raises questions about the importance of the journey when you know the end result ... kind of like existence itself. We know how it ends but we still have to derive meaning and purpose from today ... err ... last season.
For the first time in many years, this Pistons team had all the pressure taken off them. They weren't supposed to do anything. The media (and I'd say even the fans) had given up on the core based on historical fails in the previous conference finals and people nationally were enamored with the newly constructed Boston Celtics fantasy team.
Dwyane Wade and Miami completely collapsed. The Chicago Bulls took a ginormous step back, Danny Ferry had constructed an embarrassing supporting cast around LeBron (although nicely setting up this year by acquiring Ben Wallace and Delonte West) and a Pistons/Celtics conference finals was inevitable and we weren't supposed to win.
Sidenote Sometimes I dream that the Hawks drafted Thaddeus Young over Acie Law - constructing a starting five of Horford/Young/Williams/Smith/Johnson - all combo guards/forwards unleashing a reign of terror on the NBA. If I could make my e-mail inbox public, all you would see is praise for my boy Thad.
In the next round the Cetlics again struggled with LeBron, rightfully so, escaping with a game seven home victory that required heroics from Paul Pierce and P.J. Brown (not a typo).
By the conference finals, I began believing again that the Pistons were the perfect team to beat a battered and at that point, flawed, Celtics team. The Pistons had the experience the Hawks lacked, the depth the Cavs sorely missed ... things were coming together. We believed.
But the reality was, at that point the Celtics had been through so much together and were playing so well with each other by the time the Pistons got them, they were pretty much unbeatable. Never in my life have I seen a team come together like the Celtics did during last year's playoff run - they got stronger as the playoffs went on and looked more and more vulnerable to the casual observer. They decimated doubt to the point that the Pistons never had a chance by the time it was their turn to take a crack at the future champs.
Remember me? Juan Dixon. Acquired in a mid-season trade with the Toronto Raptors (for Primo Brezec who was acquired for Nazr Mohammed) for unexplainable reasons, Flip Saunders felt compelled to play Dixon, taking minutes away minutes from freshly drafted rookies in Rodney Stuckey and Arron Afflalo.
Nothing frustrates me more about the NBA than veteran coaches wasting minutes on players who have peaked as basketball players rather than letting youth prevail. Two years into his career, I'm still not sure if Afflalo is an NBA player but I'll never find out unless somebody decides to play him consistently. Counter to that is Rodney Stuckey playing way too much and being anointed the title of "next" on the Pistons despite being unable to put together ten good games in a row.
Sidenote: This year's Juan Dixon was Kwame Brown. I have nothing against Kwame but he is what he is, you have to play the young guys.
That was too easy.
Awards: Billups, Hamilton and Sheed were All-Stars; Tayshaun Prince, All-Defense Second Team; Rodney Stuckey, All-Rookie Second Team.
The Drama: It was obvious throughout the year that Flip Saunders was coaching to keep his job and in some ways that impacted the Pistons ability to maximize the talent on the team. Walter Herrmann barely played even though I'm convinced that he could have agitated Pierce and Garnett in short bursts during the playoffs, Amir never played despite being extended to a wealthy contract in the off-season, and not enough Billups in the post against Rondo.
On the plus side, Flip was smart enough to full court press every time the Celtics put in Eddie House at point guard causing numerous turnovers and keeping his team in games. I think House is still having nightmares of Lindsey Hunter picking his pocket in the back court.
Sidenote: After a couple beers, that last Eddie House joke is Patrick Hayes' go to punch line. He loves bringing that one out and I'm convinced that he's tried to pick-up girls with that at a bar. I haven't had the courage to ask him his success rate with Eddie House jokes but I'm guessing it's pretty good. It's way more than I got. Ask him about it.
In the end, Flip didn't keep his job and the team lost in the conference finals again (not their fault, see above) but it felt different. Maybe I had become accustomed to losing or had lowered my expectations but for whatever reason, I was alright with how things played out.
Best Boxscore: Just like Boobie Gibson the year before, another role-player killed the Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals this year - Kendrick Perkins (before he turned into a dick) In the critical game five, Perkins had 18 points, 16 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 steals while going 8-11 from the field and 2-2 from the free throw line. The Pistons lost the game 106-102. Perkins was a beast - magnifying his season averages of 7.0 points and 6.1 rebounds a game on the year. He killed the Pistons for no reason. It was uncalled for and I will never forget it.
Results: The Pistons finshed second in the Eastern Conference with a 59-23 record. They beat the Philadelphia 76ers in six games in round one, beat the Orlando Magic (again) in round two in five games and lost the Boston Celtics in six games in the Eastern Conference finals.
Lasting Memories: Even though the Pistons lost to the Celtics and Saunders was fired after the season, I remember feeling good last off-season. The transition from the core of the championship team to the next generation of Pistons was underway with Stuckey and Maxiell leading the way and cap relief ahead with Rip Hamilton and Sheed's expiring contracts.
There was not only optimism about the next ten years but there was new excitement, new potential and new blood with the younger players who may not immediately carry the Pistons to a championship but would certainly keep them competitive and fresh.
Things were looking good.
Up Next: Things were not good.