Friday, December 11, 2009

The Hardest Working Team in the NBA

The effort from the boys in red, white, and blue is almost unrecognizable. For the last couple of years, our once-powerful Pistons had grown to be complacent. They would struggle with teams they should dominate. They would get pasted on the road and blame it on the whistles. They would eventually bow out in the playoffs and you weren't really sure if it truly bothered any of the players to have their season end early (excluding Antonio McDyess). Don't get me wrong...the mini-dynasty the Pistons had throughout this decade produced some very memorable basketball. But it was all too clear at the end of the run that the will to win just wasn't the same.

Enter this year's squad. They are woefully thin in the frontcourt. Heavily banged-up in the backcourt. And they have a first time NBA head coach. Heading into the season, most people had the Stones pegged for the lottery. After all, Joe D was merely using this year as a way to set up for the big free-agent class of 2010, right? Not so fast. We learned towards the end of that Pistons run that talent and experience were essentially useless if they were not combined with effort. You can't just go out and get have to want it.

Well, this current squad is doing all the things that team stopped doing. They're flying after loose balls. They're cheering each other on wildly from the bench. And they are out there competing from the opening tip to the final horn. They aren't the best team in the league...but I dare you to find one that works harder.

The home win over the Nuggets tonight is one that symbolizes the perseverance and intestinal fortitude that this Pistons team is becoming known for. To say they were short-handed is putting it lightly. They were without Rip Hamilton, who has officially been on the shelf longer than anyone in NBA history with a "sprained ankle." They were without Tayshaun Prince, the iron-man small forward who before this year only sat out games when Rick Carlisle was the coach, since he preferred a washed-up Mike Curry to an energetic youngster like Tay to defend elite NBA swingmen. (Seriously, if Carlisle would have had one more year as the Pistons head coach, I might have had to just move somewhere else. I couldn't be in the same city with that man any longer.) Tonight's Pistons squad was also without their high-scoring guard duo off the bench in Ben Gordon and Will Bynum. Facing an angry Nuggets team coming off a sloppy loss to the Bobcats, it didn't appear to be a real recipe for success tonight at the Palace. But you just can't underestimate this Pistons team.

After every big moment in tonight's game, the camera would inevitably pan towards the Pistons bench. One guy was always on his feet, cupping his hands over his mouth, and barking encouragement to his on-court brothers. That man was Chris Wilcox. You heard me right. The only healthy Piston that didn't see the hardwood tonight was the loudest and most passionate member of the sideline cheering party.

Here's a guy that's been in the league a number of years. He's paid his dues, played on some truly horrific teams, and when he signed with Detroit this summer, he fully expected to be the starting center. It didn't quite work out like that. Ben Wallace came aboard and somehow took about ten years off his odometer. Jonas Jerebko arrived and began stealing minutes by the boatload with his intensity and defensive ability. Kwame Brown and Jason Maxiell filled in the blanks. That left Wilcox with...nothing.

A longtime vet on a struggling club and he couldn't get a sniff. Some guys woulda gone in the tank. Just went through the motions and called it a day. But Wilcox has been the polar opposite. He hasn't sulked, he hasn't gone to the press, he hasn't demanded a trade. He simply takes his seat on the Pistons bench and spends the next two and a half hours screaming his head off like he's a 12-year old in the upper deck with a foam finger and a stack of Twizzlers. In a sports world filled with me-first players and personal agendas, a guy like this is downright refreshing. There's no better way to put it.

And what about the peerless leader at the point, Chucky Atkins? This Pistons turnaround has been linked in large part to Kuester's altered starting lineup, which now includes Maxiell, and more importantly, the cagey as can be Chuckster. Obviously, little fella isn't the same guy he used to be. The once semi-prolific shooter and scorer is now basically a game manager.

He brings the ball past halfcourt, he points and shouts for a few seconds, and then dishes off to Rodney Stuckey before setting up shop in a deep corner. You might recognize this form of point guard play from the "Lindsey Hunter Handbook for Aging Point Guards." He can still knock down the occasional jumper, but he's not bombing away for 5-6 treys in a night as was the norm in the 2000-03 years. But one play tonight just put a big ole' smile on your face if you are a Chucky fan.

The Nuggets were running a little two-man game with Ty Lawson handling the rock. Lawson got a pick, and tried squeezing through the two Piston defenders to split the double team. Sorry Rook, but this ain't Chucky's first rodeo. Number 17 reached around, poked the ball away from Lawson, and went "speeding" back the other way. I put that word in quotes because what looked to be a clear breakaway for our man turned into a dead heat after about 2.5 strides. Lawson immediately caught up and was now on the verge of passing Chucky to prevent any kind of easy bucket coming off his silly turnover. But Chucky isn't about the quicks anymore...he's about the tricks.

Maintaining his dribble with the right, Chucky threw a little chicken wing elbow/forearm with the left to fend off Lawson. He even darted a couple steps in Lawson's direction to cut him off, a classic slow guy move, which also now allowed him a little room to possibly finish at the rim in what was very slowly becoming a career-defining play for Chucky. Sure enough, he took a couple of long Ginobili skips through the paint, went up with the right hand, and finished for a hard-earned two with the fleet-footed Lawson staring in disbelief from below.

He huffed and puffed his way back to the defensive end, but after the play he just made, you could tell he was in no shape whatsoever to play for one second longer. Our man was gassed. Thankfully, the bucket had gotten the crowd going, and was enough of a momentum-builder that it forced George Karl out of his seat to call for a timeout. Maybe my favorite sequence of the whole season thus far.

Basketball fans in the city of Detroit will sleep well tonight. Because they have a team that cares again. They lost seven in a row at the end of November, culminating in a depressing home defeat at the hands of the Clippers. But this team just sucks it up, and keeps playing. And now they've won four straight. A win at the Palace on Saturday night over the hapless Warriors will make it five. You won't find many All-Stars or award winners on this club like the team that came before it, but that doesn't matter right now. Because this team cares about winning, and cares about each other. Just ask Chris Wilcox...

The HSL is attending his first Pistons' game of the season on Saturday, so you know who to blame if the streak ends there. Leave a comment below or feel free to send me a thought by E-mail at

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