I'm taking a little different take on this Q&A format with Matt Watson from Detroit Bad Boys because he's been following a contending team for years now and he knows the ropes. I think I remember how to root for a winner, but sometimes I need a reminder or pointer here or there, like perhaps playing that rookie at the end of the bench isn't the most important thing in the world.
Here are some questions I gave Matt.
1. OK, on a daily basis, what do you write about when following a winning team? Are you nit-picking the little errors? Are you looking ahead with dread waiting for the fun to end? Or are you just giddy and happy to be where you are?
It's a combination of all of that, mixed in with a dash of impatience waiting for the playoffs to start. But mainly, it's been so easy to pencil this team in for 50-some wins and a trip to the Conference Finals the last several years that it's difficult getting too up or too down for any regular season game.
Instead, when I write about a game I tend to ignore the obvious storylines about how the starters played and focus on the small things, like over-analyzing how many minutes the starters are playing, nit-picking the rotation and cheering on the development of the young players. I'm sure that confuses a lot of casual fans, but it's those little things that will probably be the difference in the playoffs down the road.
2. When should rookies play on a contender? We've been happy with Big Baby so far, but Pruitt obviously has needed more seasoning (which is a shame since we could use a 3rd string guard that can play some point). Between Amir Johnson and the Darko, you've had your share of waiting on rookies. What's the best balance?
I honestly have no idea, and I'm not sure the Pistons know, either. It's one thing to say, "we want to develop our young guys," and it's another to actually be in the middle of a close game and still hand minutes to a green rookie instead of an established veteran. It takes a strong gut and a lot of foresight to risk losing a game in the heat of the battle for the sake of the seemingly intangible goal of development. On a bad team, it's easy, especially given the incentive to lose (ie, more lottery balls). But on a good team where a few wins will likely decide what playoff seed you have? It's tough.
Jason Maxiell has surprised a lot of people this year, but he didn't come out of nowhere. He had success here and there last year but often had a good game followed by a DNP-CD, which was easy for Flip Saunders to do since Maxiell was so low on the totem pole behind Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess and Chris Webber, not to mention Dale Davis and Nazr Mohammed. But this summer Joe Dumars kind of forced Maxiell into the picture by shedding a couple of veteran big men (Webber and Davis) and not replacing them. (I'd still like Amir Johnson to get regular minutes, but I think the Nazr Mohammed trade will help facilitate that.)
3. Bottom line: Are minutes really THAT important?
On a team like the Pistons, I think so. Consider this: since 2003, the Pistons have played 99 postseason games. That's the equivalent of an extra regular season and then some. Eventually it catches up with a player, often in the form of a player not being able to reach that extra gear deep in the playoffs. Given Detroit's depth this year, there's just no reason for any one guy to average 37, 38, 39 minutes a night.
But on a team like the Celtics in which Ray Allen and Paul Pierce haven't touched the playoffs in two years and Kevin Garnett in three, I doubt it's a huge deal. Besides, who would play instead? Depth is clearly not Boston's strength this year.
4. What keeps a team motivated and successful for 82 games plus the playoffs?
I really think teams take pride in winning streaks and staying on top of their game for long stretches. Like this run that Boston is on right now: if they didn't have the best record in the league right now, would they really get up for a game against Milwaukee or really want to put a hurting on the Raptors? I doubt it. But when the only two blemishes on the season are a two-point loss and an overtime loss, it's easier to stay in that top gear and try to blow out everybody. Detroit got into a similar groove a couple of years ago when they started the season 37-5 and finished with 64 wins. Once you get going, it's contagious.
5. What makes the difference in the playoffs between Finals team and just another contender?
The ability to close out a series when a team is on the ropes is huge. The Pistons jumped out to a 3-0 lead on the Bulls in the second-round but then let the series go six games before advancing. Who knows, with a little bit more rest, maybe they wouldn't have faltered the next round against the Cavs.
But on the flip side, I think luck is a huge factor, as well. One turned ankle by a key player can send an entire series into a downward spiral. Plus, you never know how the matchups are going to turn out. The Pistons did everything right by winning the top seed last year, and yet they still had to face the Bulls in the second round. The Cavs, on the other hand, had a much easier path to the Conference Finals by facing a hobbled Wizards team and the feckless Nets. There's nothing you can really do about that.