Monday, October 26, 2009
It's a new beginning for our Detroit Pistons. Expectations heading into each of the last several seasons have been of trips to the Conference Finals and of possible contention for the NBA championship. We always knew that our core was coming back intact, and that when all was said and done in the East, the Pistons would still probably be right there. Well, times have changed. Chauncey Billups is now leading his team and making big plays...in Denver. Rasheed Wallace is frustrating fans and hoisting up ill-advised threes...in Boston. Antonio McDyess is still desperately battling for that elusive ring...in San Antonio. The pseudo-mini-dynasty is now officially over, and it is time to turn over a new leaf in Detroit. And I can't help but feel a little déjà vu that we've been down this road before. The year was 2000 and the Pistons were preparing to embark on their first season without their leader from the last handful of years in Grant Hill. They had a coaching vagabond in George Irvine (accompanied by his splendidly maintained moustache) taking over the reins on the sidelines. And fans weren't exactly buzzing over the off-season acquisitions of Ben Wallace and Chucky Atkins. Fast forward to now, and not much seems to have changed. Our leader (Chauncey) is gone. Our new coach (John Kuester) is another basketball nomad, having previously spent time as an assistant in all 30 NBA cities. And believe it or not, Ben Wallace and Chucky Atkins are back for a half-compelling, half-depressing farewell tour with the franchise that jumpstarted both of their careers a decade ago. So how did that infamous '00 Stones squad end up doing? They won a paltry 32 games, while featuring the deathly horrifying 7 for 26 free-throw shooting from a Mr. Eric Montross. (I truly hope that 27% still keeps you up at night, sir.) How will this current Pistons outfit compare to their evil twin from nine years ago? Let's dig a little deeper and find out.
(Sidenote: I don't know whether I had some kind of crush on Chucky back in the day or if I just respected his game, but let's just say that for a while, I shot threes with my feet bowlegged facing the other end of the court, I completely shaved my head, and for a period of six months, I actually became black. I know he'll barely see the court this year, but let's just say I'm very happy that Ol' Chucky is back. Very happy.)
One year in the mid-to-late 90's, Grant Hill described him and his merry band of followers as a team of "Clones." Meaning, they pretty much all did the same thing. They had him, Jerry Stackhouse, Malik Sealy, Lindsey Hunter...I'll even throw Charlie O' Bannon in there. For the most part, all of them had the ability to slash and get to the rim. But none of them really specialized in distributing the ball or connecting consistently from the perimeter. Each of the aforementioned guys were pretty good at what they did, but at the end, it was a flawed roster with not enough variety, ultimately leading to Doug Collins' dismissal 45 games in. This year's guard-heavy team will face similar issues, some of which will be problematic, but also some of which history tells us might lead to surprisingly pleasant results down the road.
I'm reminded of an old episode from one of my favorite TV shows of all-time, The King of Queens. Doug and Arthur are both patiently waiting at the table around dinner time. They have their plates and silverware at the ready. It is simply a matter of someone putting the food in front of them, and they could commence eating. Only Carrie is not home yet from work, and thus has not prepared anything for them to consume. Both Doug and Arthur are more than capable of eating whatever is put in front of them. But what they are not able to do, however, is make the food themselves. To complete their task, they need help...they need an assist. The fearsome foursome of Rip Hamilton, Rodney Stuckey, Ben Gordon, and Will Bynum can all put the ball in the hole. There is no debating that. They range in height, weight, and ability, but at the end of the day, each is at heart, a "pure scorer." Rip will occasionally think about dishing in traffic to an open teammate, but unfortunately, in Rip-Speak, that translates to "Turnover leading directly to a layup on the opposite end." Stuckey will be announced as the "point guard" in all of the pre-game introductions, but truth be told, he's about as pure a point guard as Annie Banks, Steve Martin's shoot-first daughter from Father of the Bride. Gordon has talked about his willingness to slide over to the one if necessary, and while I applaud his attitude, guys that average around 22 shot attempts per 48 minutes in their career do not make for the best distributors. Bynum is probably the closest thing to a legitimate NBA point guard in the group, as he is able to get others easy buckets with his penetration while also finding his own offense. But even with me being one of the bigger Will Bynum fans in the country, I will admit that the guy is not exactly the second coming of Doug Gottlieb in terms of his unselfishness. (As a PG at Okie St., you could give Gottlieb an open 8-footer and he would still pass it to the nearest available cheerleader, coach, ref. Didn't matter, the guy wouldn't shoot.) With all of these prolific scoring guards, it begs the question: Who's gonna be collecting all these dimes? Anybody?? Bueller??
(Sidenote: An underrated quality when assessing the skills of a baller is that of vision. Does he see the floor like Ray Williams or Ray Charles? There are millions of guys who can physically pass the basketball to another player on the court. But it takes a true gift to be able to recognize this fact in the flow of the game and make the necessary read and dish. Seeing as how the Pistons don't exactly employ anybody with this unique ability, I would have to put out a semi-serious suggestion that the front office go out and take a look at my man J-Brown, a guy I've played with throughout my life, and whose vision rivals that of most NBA floor generals. Don't get me wrong. J-Brown has a broken jump shot, and a free-throw stroke that'll make children cry. But the boy can pass. You'll be running the baseline, not even thinking you are open, and BANG!, the ball is suddenly whizzed in from the top of the key. Before you even start bringing your hands up for the catch, the orange rock is smacking against the side of your dome and careening off the bleachers. Now that's vision. Sure, many of his passes were ill-advised, and some could even be considered life-threatening, but you could never dispute JB's ability to find the open man. If you had a little daylight in a position where you can score, he was going to get you the pill. Who knows? If the Pistons get desperate enough 20-25 games in, where the point guards just aren't hacking it, J-Brown might be getting a call...as long as his teammates would be permitted to wear helmets while he is on the floor.)
Now to the positive side of having a quartet of extremely explosive guards on one team. If done correctly, you can use said group to your advantage by forcing the other team to adapt to your frenetic style and eventually run them into the ground with a barrage of fast breaks and three-pointers. Since this article seems to be filled with flashbacks and references to NBA squads of the past, let's take one more trip down memory lane, this time to the desert, for a look at one of my favorite teams of all-time, the 1996-97 Suns. Like these Pistons, they had a first-year boss in Danny Ainge. (He actually took over for Cotton Fitzsimmons eight games in.) And like these Pistons, they were basically devoid of big guys. The frontcourt was filled with people like Hot Rod Williams, Danny Manning, and Wayman Tisdale (Alav Ha-Shalom). With their season going nowhere and Ainge continuing to get little to no production from his bigs, he finally said, "Screw conventional wisdom. I'm playin' my guards. All of 'em." That Suns team had a young Jason Kidd manning the point. They had an aging, but still highly potent Kevin Johnson pouring in over 20 a game. Sharpshooters Rex Chapman and Wesley Person would spend the majority of the game spotting up outside the arc and just bombing away from downtown. It was entertaining as hell, but they weren't just some kind of sideshow. They were good. The four-guard lineup produced an 11-game winning streak towards the end of the year, leading to a playoff berth after starting the year 0 and 13! They eventually got bounced in an unforgettable five-game classic with the defending conference champion Supersonics, (which contained one of the best shots, period, in NBA history) but the Suns' season was the feel-good story of the year. Was that team ever a real candidate to win the NBA title? No, probably not. So instead of simply falling in line with everybody else and floundering to a sub-.500 record, they decided to play to their strengths, and wound up having a wildly gratifying campaign. (Seriously...ask a Suns fan whether they had more fun making it to the Finals and losing to the Bulls...or the '97 season with the four-guard madness. You'd be surprised at the responses.)
So that's where I think the Pistons need to go this year. Don't try and force Kwame Brown down our throats. Don't play Ben Wallace 30-plus minutes. Relax a little bit on the "Dajuan Summers-Jonas Jerebko" Hall-of-Fame tour. You have four electric guards on your roster, all capable of going off for 30 on any given night. So play 'em together. See what happens. There will be mismatches on defense, to be sure...but you can be just as sure that the other team will be having no fun trying to figure out what to do on their end. John Kuester is the man in charge for the first time in his NBA career, but he could turn a lot of heads early on by not falling victim to the generally accepted 'Two guards, two forwards, and a center' group that has been the preferred crunch-time setup since the beginning of time. This is a unique team. The stable of big men are uninspiring and forgettable. The guards are deep and explosive. There might not be a true point guard in the bunch, and it might be chaotic and confusing at times, but when the game is tied with a half-dozen minutes showing on the clock, it would do Coach Kuester a lot of good to just throw his four guards out on the floor, and let the Piston trees fight to the death for the last spot. The year probably won't be ending with any kind of big parade or ring ceremony, but as we saw with Danny Ainge and his scramblin' Suns, that doesn't mean you still can't have plenty of fun along the way.
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