Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Pistons 2010: Where Even the Wins Feel like Losses

The clock ticked under four minutes to play. The Pistons were leading the perennial Western powerhouse Spurs by 11 points. Tim Duncan wiggled free for a layup and the lead was cut to nine.

At that moment, Gregg Popovich had a revelation.

"Hey, this team we're playing has the worst free throw shooter in NBA history on their team. And he is on the court right now. GO FOUL HIM!!!"

And so they did. Again, and again, and again, and again.

In the span of just one minute and twenty seconds, Ben Wallace was ordered to the line a staggering ten times.

His shots were flying every which way. Some clanged off the side of the rim, some boomeranged off the backboard, and a few even managed to find their way through the hoop (four to be exact).

And throughout the whole ordeal, John Kuester did nothing. Sat on the bench, folded his arms, and watched.

Finally, with 2:05 on the clock and fearing the Spurs would get one more hack in before the rules would prohibit them from doing so (under 2 minutes), Kuester summoned Wallace to the bench.

The big fella angrily made his way to the sideline, took a seat, and fired his headband halfway to Livonia. This was clearly a very unhappy man. But who were his frustrations directed towards??

Sifting through Wallace's post game comments, that's pretty tough to judge.

A reporter asked Ben what he thought of the Hack-a-Ben strategy.
---"It's garbage."

Another reporter asked how he felt about Kuester showing confidence in him by leaving him in the game and not pulling him when the shenanigans started.
---"That's garbage, too."

Good luck figuring that one out.

But I will never understand why the frustration in this type of situation is always directed at the team enacting the strategy. Why is Ben not looking inward and putting the responsibility on his own shoulders, where it belongs?

Competition in any sport essentially comes down to this.

1. Search for your opponent's weakness.
2. Once identified, exploit that weakness as early and often as possible in order to emerge victorious.

It's as simple as that.

Gregg Popovich saw a glaring weakness on the other side of the court, and decided, understandably, to take advantage of it. And remember, it is not as if we are just talking about any old struggling charity tosser here.

Ben Wallace is literally the worst free throw shooter in NBA history.

Of the fourteen-hundred and six ballplayers that qualify (min. 500 career attempts), Ben Wallace ranks dead last in terms of free throw accuracy. And it's not even close.

1404. Eric Montross (.478)
1405. Chris Dudley (.458)
1406. Ben Wallace (.419)

(Sidenote: #33 on that list is Jason Maxiell at 56%. #47 is Kwame Brown at just under 58%. That's right...the Pistons currently suit up 3 of the worst 47 free-throwers in the history of the NBA. Don't let anyone tell you this isn't the most depressing season in franchise history.)

Richard Hamilton talked after the game how the Hack-a-Ben routine "was not basketball," and pondered possible rule changes in the future.

Gimme a break.

How is this any different than a football team continually attacking a weak cornerback by throwing in his direction on every play?

Or a team in the Little League World Series drag bunting down the first base line in every at-bat because the hefty 11-year-old hurler for the Venezuelan squad is easily pushing three bills ,and seems to have some kind of salsa dripping from the brim of his hat??

That's the way sports work. Do whatever it takes to win the game. This is multiplied by a million when you are talking about games at the professional level, when too many digits in the loss column typically end up costing you your paycheck.

And by the way, this thing could have ended in the blink of an eye...if Ben were able to MAKE A FREE THROW.

But what was John Kuester thinking throughout all of this?? He had the key to the castle the whole time, and chose to keep it hidden in his back pocket.

After the very first hack, he should have screamed for Charlie Villanueva and physically escorted him onto the court to replace Ben.

Now, I know that Villanueva has been living comfortably in Kuester's doghouse the last couple weeks, and that you'd be losing a lot on D by making the switch, but this was absolutely a move that had to be made. You put Charlie in for Ben, and now the Spurs have to D up for 15-20 seconds each time down. With a nine point lead and just a few minutes to play, every second becomes precious. That's what made their fouling strategy so valuable.

It's not just that they were forcing Ben to the line, where the Pistons would likely score 0 or 1 point. It's the fact that no time was elapsing in between their offensive possessions.

It's like one of those old bonus rounds on Super Mario Bros. where you could just go collect a million coins, but you had no risk of losing a life in the process. You're basically playing with house money.

Same thing here. For that 80 seconds, the Spurs had a chance to score as many points as they could knowing the number on the other side of the scoreboard would remain virtually the same. And most importantly, really no time was coming off the clock in the process.

For that minute and twenty seconds where they were hacking Ben, Tim Duncan and Co. went on offense a whopping six times. Remember, an NBA shot clock is 24 ticks. So typically, in 80 seconds of game time, each team will get two possessions, maybe three if the pace is really quick. They got SIX.

(Showing an immense amount of personal restraint, I did not fire a single projectile in the direction of the TV during these proceedings.)

Just to make sure the final outcome of the game does not get lost in the shuffle completely, I will point out that the Pistons did battle hard in overtime to come away with the mildly impressive home W over a Tony Parker-less Spurs squad. But to me, the story was that minute and twenty seconds where Wallace and Kuester both embarrassed themselves, each in their own unique way.

To me, Kuester is starting to look more and more like Michael Curry every day. Towards the end of Curry's reign, I realized that even though he had no chance to win with the roster he inherited, his clock management and in-game strategy were simply not good enough to be running a team at the highest level. He lacked certain essentials like how to handle timeouts at the end of games and which players to insert at critical moments. And maybe most importantly, he failed to assert himself as someone the players had to respect. He would rather be their buddy than their boss. Ultimately, it led to his dismissal after just one season at the helm.

I'm beginning to have these same feelings about "Kue." He was presented with a decision on Sunday night.

He could remove Ben after that first foul. This was certainly the right choice and the one that would have served the team best in securing the win with ease in regulation. But, this option might have also resulted in Diva Wallace turning against him and pouting his way through the rest of the season, like he has done to other coaches (Carlisle, Saunders) before.

Sadly, Kuester went the other way. He chose to play it safe. Or, as some like to say, "show confidence in his player." It's one thing for football coaches to punt late in a game to put the onus on their stout defense to finish things off. That confidence comes with reason. This particular form of confidence is, as Ben would like to say, "garbage." There was no mystery with this result. Ben was going to miss free throws. Many of them. But Kuester went the Mike Curry route, and turned catatonic.

As for Ben, it's the same old story, and one that I've rehashed several times on this site. Free throw shooting was his bugaboo entering the league, and he has not improved even the slightest in this department during his 14 years of service. I don't discount the fact that he has devoted huge chunks of time in the weight room throughout his career. It is admirable, and his work ethic in that regard is one to be replicated. But that does not take away from the giant elephant in the room; Ben has not done anything to improve his one major weakness, free throw shooting.

He has always loved to cry to the media and demand more touches on offense, but he never accompanies the words with the actions. Going to the gym in the summer and shooting 1,000 free throws might not be as glamorous or exhilarating as lifting 500+ pounds of metal with music blaring all around you. But the great ones fight through the boredom and do whatever it takes to change. But Ben just returns to training camp each year with that same ridiculous, fading away, high-arcing stroke that's about as graceful as a Tim Tebow spiral. And there is no excuse for it.

Go figure that on a night the Pistons win, I still find myself highly frustrated, writing this short novel at 1:47 AM more than 24 hours after the game ended.

It's been a long 55 games, but I think I can stick it out for the final 27.

Just please don't put Ben on that line anymore.

I can't take much more of that...

Share your thoughts on Hack-a-Ben, or shoot me an E-mail at highsockslegend@gmail.com

Back to the HSL main page

No comments: