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Detroit Pistons Preview - Empty The Bench

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det.gifDetroit Pistons - Empty The Bench
2006/07 Record: 53-29, 1st in Central Division, 1st in Eastern Conference
Key Losses: Carlos Delfino, Chris Webber (for now), Dale Davis
Key Additions: Jarvis Hayes, Rodney Stuckey, Arron Afflalo

What significant moves were made during the offseason?
For a team that’s laden with so much veteran talent and possesses an NBA Championship caliber core of All-Star starters, less is more. Despite the disappointing losses in the Eastern Conference Finals the last two seasons, the entire nucleus remains from a team that was one game from a title in 2005, made it to the East Finals in 2003 and won the title in 2004. Still, there are several reasons for increased optimism.

The team has decided to get into shape. According to MLive, Rasheed Wallace, Nazr Mohammad, and Flip Murray all dedicated their offseasons to improved conditioning. ‘Sheed lost 25 lbs. and is in the best shape of his Pistons tenure. Backup combo guard Flip Murray also lost 20 lbs. and could contribute the quick scoring punch off the bench he’s capable of that wasn’t always there last year. Nazr has taken to pilates, and the team can only hope that’ll help him be more dynamic and quick around the basket.

The most significant change, though, may be incorporating the explosive games of "veteran" youngsters Amir Johnson and Jason Maxiell. Both have the look of future stars in this league. Maxiell is an absolute bull who should figure prominently into the rotation after a strong showing last season. The third-year forward is capable of dominating backup power forwards and can throw down on anybody, any time–posterizing opponents is the name of his game. He was fantastic in summer league play, will sport an improved jumper, and already throws down the rock as hard as anybody in the NBA. Johnson is lanky and unproven, but he was the best player in the NBADL last season and has grown from 6′9″ on draft day to 6′11 1/2″ today. With his silky skill set and size, Johnson would likely have been a top-5 pick in the draft this year if he had gone to college.

Though Jarvis Hayes will also add much-needed depth at small forward, the only other true "new" addition that will pay immediate dividends this season is 15th overall pick Rodney Stuckey, who’s looked dominant in summer league and preseason play. He’s an NBA-ready guard who should provide an offensive spark off the bench. Stuckey is strong and excels at creating his own shot and taking the ball to the basket. He’s also a great passer with good size who can play both guard positions for the Pistons on both ends of the floor.

What are the Pistons’ biggest strengths?

Without question, Detroit’s greatest strength is their wealth of experience and veteran leaders. That goes for playoff experience as well as the familiarity the core has with one another. Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince have all been there, together, and know what it takes to win. There are few players in the NBA more collected and clutch than Billups and Wallace in crunch time. The Pistons also play fantastic team defense as a result of their familiarity. There is an absolute sense of selflessness among these veteran leaders on both ends of the floor. Over the years, Billups has developed into one of the best pure points in the NBA and manages the game extremely well while hitting huge shots and always knocking down his free throws. And you had better believe these guys are motivated after last season’s crushing defeat.

What are the Pistons’ biggest weaknesses?

When this franchise shocked everyone outside of the Metro Detroit back in ‘04 by crushing the favored LA Lakers to win the NBA Title, most league observers commended them for their hardworking, generally humble persona. The phrase "play the right way" was drilled into our collective heads ad nausea. Since then, however, general public opinion has slowly changed, and now the Pistons are often criticized for their arrogance and flip-the-switch mentality, a bad habit the team insisted would be vanquished last season but that reared its ugly head in the embarassing ECF loss to the Cavs.

Now three years removed from that title, one would think the "been there, done that" attitude should be well dissipated, but it still pops up here and there. While there’s nothing wrong with a strong sense of confidence in yourself and your teammates, this team needs to temper that attitude and carry themselves with an increased sense of humility, as well as respect their opponents’ ability more than they sometimes do.

Outside of what’s in their heads, the Pistons lack a reliable, go-to scorer in the post that they can feed when the going gets tough. Wallace will never be a consistent low-post banger, McDyess is very solid but streaky and prone to foul trouble, and Maxiell too inexperienced. They’re also not as strong in the middle defensively as they were in the past; no one is going to mistake Nazr Mohammed for Ben Wallace. Flip Saunders’ jump-shot oriented offense (below) can also be a detriment when the shots aren’t falling. There’s apparently been an increased focus during training camp on being in "attack mode" more often to help address the problem.

What are the Pistons’ team goals?
When it comes to the elite teams of the NBA, sizing up their season-end goals is about as easy as convicting Tom Donaghy: win the division, secure the #1 seed, win the conference, win the title. To get there, the Pistons should have two main sub-goals in mind this season:

1) Develop the Bench, Settle on a Rotation, and Allow for Wiggle Room

Tne consistent criticism of Flip Saunders has been his inconsistency when it comes to substitution patterns and player minutes. Too often since taking over in Detroit, Saunders has waffled on which bench guys to play, and when, and in what situations, and this shortcoming has manifested itself in up-and-down performances from guys who might feel like they’ve been jerked around. Carlos Delfino, traded in the offseason to Toronto, and Dale Davis, a free agent, are prime examples from last year’s team. Being forthright with his complimentary players takes on added significance this season with so many young guys likely playing key roles.

The best way to avoid this pitfall is by ironing out a loose rotation early in the season, communicating said expectations to the players–including a rough guess at minutes for the near future–and sticking to it as much as possible. As the season goes, needs and situations will obviously change, and when they do it’s on Saunders to continue the lines of open communication and award performance, effort, and production with consistent minutes. If Amir Johnson is making the absolute most of his 10 minutes night in night out, find a way to reward him and up his floor time to 15 minutes.

That’s where the wiggle room is key. One could argue that part of Jason Maxiell’s inconsistency last season, for example, was never knowing how many minutes he’d get on a given night. In Game 2 of the ECF against the Cavs, Maxiell logged 22 minutes and posted a solid 15 points, 6 boards, 1 steal, and 2 blocks. The very next game, he played just 2:35. The point is, if a player emerges and starts coming up big–whether it be rookie Sammy Meija or vagabond vets Ronald Dupree and Nazr Mohammed–Saunders must be willing to adjust his rotation based on player development and performance. It’s a common theme in our Pistons preview.

2) Limit the Starters Minutes (Especially Tayshaun Prince)

This goes hand in hand with Goal #1. As good as they are, the Pistons’ starting unit is only human and cannot continue logging the kinds of minutes they have been for the past two or three seasons. Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace, and Antonio McDyess are all on the wrong side of 30 and need their rest, especially in the early going, for this team to have a shot at a sixth straight trip to the ECF. While he’s probably the best-conditioned athlete in the league, Rip Hamilton seemed worn down towards the end of last year’s playoff run and should benefit from a slimmed-down Murray and energetic rookie in Stuckey backing him up. The Ripper is a guy that heavily relies on his jump shot falling, so keeping those skinny legs of his fresh is key.

Perhaps most importantly, however, is giving Tayshaun Prince a break. Coming into the league, many questioned whether his slight frame could hold up to the pounding of 82+ games a season. He’s answered that skepticism by playing in every single game all four years of being a starter while logging about 36 minutes/per. That’s an incredible feat, but you can’t rely on that every year. As the defensive stopper assigned to check the Lebrons of the world, Prince is the glue of this team and needs to see his average minutes per game come down to around 30-32. The addition of Jarvis Hayes could finally make that a reality after a few consecutive years of the team’s empty promises to limit Prince’s burn.

If the Pistons can address both of the above goals with satisfactory results, they’ll be well on their way to the other, easy-to-predict season goals.

Can Flip Saunders take this team to the NBA Finals… and win it?

There’s very little to criticize about Philip’s regular season career. He’s a fantastic coach during the daily grind when teams don’t have much time to prepare for one another, posting a very strong .586 winning percentage (528-373) in the regular season over his career. For what it’s worth, he was the best coach in Minnesota Timberwolves history over his nine-plus seasons there and led them to a 58-24 record in 2003-04, tops in the Western Conference. After replacing Larry Brown in Detroit for the 2005-06 season, he then spurred the Pistons on to a franchise-best 64-18 record.

Unfortunately, when the the playoffs hit and the games slow down he’s only managed a .457 winning percentage, going 37-44. Saunders was at the helm for the Wolves NBA-record seven consecutive losses in the first round of the playoffs and developed a nasty reputation as a choke artist. There has been some improvement in that regard, however, as he’s recorded 30 of those 37 wins over the last three playoff appearances, and 20 of them in his two seasons in Detroit. He still hasn’t brought the once-dominant Pistons to the NBA Finals though, losing in the ECFs to Miami two seasons ago (after being pushed to seven games by an inferior Cleveland squad in the semis) and getting embarrassed by LeBron James and the Cavs in last year’s ECFs. The Pistons had Cleveland down 2-0 last May, but as is so often the case with Saunders’ teams, they lacked the killer instinct and neglected to make the strategic adjustments necessary to put it away.

Flip SaundersThe fact of the matter is that Saunders has been roundly out-coached in the playoffs every year. In 2004 he was sailing along and his Wolves were the clear Western Conference favorites. Then he ran into Phil Jackson. Jackson came into Minneota and stole Game 1 by shredding Flip’s zone all game, disrupting KG on the post, and going to Derek Fisher late in the game over and over. Like the previous seven playoff exits, Flip just watched it all happen, seemingly helpless to adjust. It was an ugly series where Jackson was always two steps ahead of Saunders, and it was then that it became obvious to a national audience that Flip was almost incapable of making in-game adjustments and poor at making them between games.

It’s become a theme over the years, resurfacing in 2006 when the Pistons cruised out to a 2-0 lead over the Cavs and then were unable to overcome Mike Brown’s defensive changes for three games before eeking out a 4-3 series win. They then lost to an undermanned Miami squad led by playoff guru Pat Riley in six games the next series. It was a series which became Dwyane Wade’s coming out party. Last season, they cruised into the Eastern Finals, only to be shown up by Mike Brown and LeBron James again, and this time it could be argued that the Cavs put a superior product on the floor each game of the series despite the Pistons’ obvious superiority of depth, experience and talent.

In both of their last two playoff exits, the Pistons have gone down at the hands of a slashing superstar who took over games at the line. Flip’s never had one of those. He has an extremely complicated, deliberate offense that’s designed to get open mid-range jumpers. It’s an odd tactic, and one that doesn’t translate well to low-scoring games or late-game situations. It isn’t designed to get open threes, and it isn’t designed to free up players to cut to the hoop. In fact, wing players almost never end up in isolations on the perimeter, post players frequently end up in them too far from the basket, and nobody is encouraged to attack the rim with any regularity.

The refusal to aggressively take the ball to the basket kills his teams in the playoffs. That’s where you get star treatment for your vets and get them to the foul line. Saunders’ teams are almost always in the bottom third of the NBA in free throws attempted, and in the slowed playoff atmosphere free throws become an absolutely essential form of scoring. The offense also means that Flip’s squads don’t wear down opposing defenses in terms of personal fouls. Opposing centers and power forwards don’t get in foul trouble, aren’t forced to play tentative defense, and rarely foul out. That comes back to haunt them time and time again.

It’s strange, because the criticisms of Flip are roughly equivalent to those of Kevin Garnett, and Flip has been the formative basketball influence in KG’s life. You have to wonder: how much of KG’s failures and shortcomings are KG, and how much are a product of Flip’s influence?

Aside from his playoff shortcomings, first and foremost this season Flip must prove that he can have a professional and productive understanding with franchise cornerstone Rasheed Wallace. Their relationship last year was strained, to say the least, and ‘Sheed’s early exists from Saunders’ huddles were well documented (though all parties involved will say the huddle thing was never a huge deal). It got so bad that Wallace lobbied for his teammates to ignore Flip’s instructions, especially on defense, late in Game 5 against the Cavs last year. They obviously have extremely different personalities, Flip being a bit of a nervous square and Wallace a split personality: an eccentric hothead one minute, one of the most entertaining and affable guys in the league the next.

They both know they need to get along though, and according to GM Joe Dumars, who actively worked to reconcile the two, they’ve both done what’s necessary to reach a truce, "They have spent some good time together. Flip reached out to ‘Sheed and spoke at his camp (at the Joe Dumars Fieldhouse in July). They spoke again at Chauncey’s (Billups) golf outing. Sheed’s been in working out the last two weeks. He and Flip have been great. I am seeing a level of respect and cooperation between them this summer that I haven’t seen the last two years. That is imperative for us to move forward." Good. Now let’s see it in action, in a heated playoff series.

The Pistons’ enter the season with four rookies on the roster. How much impact will they have?
We’re not thrilled about the prospect of Flip Saunders stamping his b-ball imprint on so many young guys, per our KG/Flip Theory. The team’s 2007 first-round draft picks–Stuckey and UCLA’s Arron Afflalo–figure to get the most burn out of this crop of rookie talent. Second-rounder Sammy Meija could be fighting to keep his roster spot all season long (though the team loves his upside), while the Senegalese Seven Footer, Cheikh Samb, is mostly on the roster so Pistons’ brass can have stricter control on his conditioning, weight-room activity, and overall development. He’ll likely spend most of his time with the team’s D-League affiliate in Fort Wayne, and is likely at least two years away from being ready to contribute.

Stuckey has shown in the early going of training camp and preseason that he’s a slasher in the mold of pre-injury Dwayne Wade that can create his own shot, get to the hole, and get to the foul line. That last ability should be particularly helpful, as he’ll shoot between 80 - 85% from the charity stripe and be a nice change-of-pace for the more deliberate Billups and spot-up-shooting Hamilton. For now he’s battling with Flip Murray for the honor of being the first guard off the bench, but either way he’ll make his presence felt early and will be one of the top rookies to watch all season. There’s a lot of buzz/hype surrounding this kid–if he does what everyone thinks he will, pencil him in on the First-Team All-NBA Rookie Team.

Afflalo is expected to split time backing up Hamilton and Prince, though it remains to be seen how many minutes he gets and with what degree of consistency. He has a long history of balling with Billups, Prince, Baron Davis, and other upper-echelon NBA players during the summer dating back to his days at UCLA, and Billups for one has consistently vouched for Afflalo as a tireless worker who won’t back down to anybody. If he brings that to the table, he’ll quickly endear himself to Pistons fans and cement himself between 8 - 10 minutes/per.

For more on the Pistons’ "youth movement," please see Rebuilding (and Still Winning) a Luxury of Prolonged Success for Detroit Pistons.

Predicted Record: 51 - 31, 1st in the Central Division, 2nd in the Eastern Conference.