By Alan Paul
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Every game of the last year’s Eastern Finals was televised in China. I thought this was good news for me, an ardent Pistons fans. Then I watched the games. What dreck. What an implosion. What a frustrating, disturbing, odd display of ineptitude at the worst moment. I can’t believe anyone was surprised by what transpired in the Finals because it was painfully obvious watching the Eastern Finals that the Cavs were just not that good. There’s nothing worse than a losing team saying the best team didn’t win but in this case, it seemed patently obvious. But what does that say about the team that tossed a series out the window? And, more to the point, what does it mean for this year?
Flip Saunders has coached the Pistons for two seasons and both have ended the same way, so it’s no surprise that the mulleted man is coming under fire and is a regular punchline amongst NBA fans. But I’m not quite ready to throw flip under the wheels. No Pistons coach has started a third season in 10 years, when Doug Collins did so; they’re not shy about making changes at the top, so Joe D’s confidence has to mean something. Further, a lot of attention was paid to Sheed losing it on court, supposedly because he and Flip were clashing. But I think it was more complicated than that.
It’s never a comforting to have your team’s fate riding on Sheed’s back, but he was an animal throughout the playoffs, until midway through those Conference Finals. It seemed to me that he finally grew frustrated and started tuning out – and that his frustration had less to do with the bench leader than the floor leader. That is, Chauncey Billups, who was downright awful. His horrendous play was baffling and alarming. Resigning him was a no-brainer, given his recent history and the available options, but his performance was enough to give any Pistons fan pause.
I also had a persistent, nagging feeling that Webber was somehow hurting the team, as much as he was helping. As strong as he was just after his signing – and he definitely played a huge role in the Pistons regular season success – he seemed to be slowing down big time in the Playoffs and clogging up the offensive flow. No way to prove it, but I had a sense that running much of the offense through the high post threw Chauncey off his game somewhat and it also seemed to tame Rip too much.
With Cwebb gone, there would appear to be a big hole in the Pistons frontcourt, but Jason Maxiell was showing every sign of developing into a major beast last year. Given consistent minutes – I’m guessing at 25 mpg – he should help revitalize the frontline. McDyess is hot and cold, but was at times the Pistons’ best frontcourt player last year. Having him start should work well. When he’s cold or slow, Maxiell should come off the bench to provide a spark. The team has to hope that Amir Johnson can do the same in his first full year in the League after dominating the D League off and on the last two years.
The backcourt/wing bench is looking much strengthened, with Jarvis Hayes an improvement over the frustrating Carlos Delfino. Hopefully Hayes will be able to fill it up off the bench, giving whippet Tay Prince some needed breathing time. He looked positively whupped in the Cavs series and that was before balling for the National team. He has become the Pistons’ indispensable cog so they need to keep him fresher. Rookie Rodney Stuckey looks ready to bring some heat right away; a playmaking, penetrating guard off the bench is always a good thing. Flip Murray has supposedly dropped the famous 15 pounds, as well. Aaron Afflalo is being groomed by Lindsey Hunter to fill the defensive stopper/energy guy off the bench role.
The Pistons are counting on a strange mix of their old guys holding up physically and otherwise and their young guys developing quickly. But I think they’ll pull it off. I’m feeling like the C’s aren’t quite going to be as good as anticipated – partly because of the thinness of their roster, mostly because I can’t bear the thought of all three major Boston sports teams being great at once. The Cavs are going to struggle to match last year’s success – they’re counting on too many marginal players to contribute significantly. I don’t see anyone else in the East who will be a major threat. So I’m penciling the Pistons in for another trip to the Finals, though with less confidence than I’ve felt in five years. And if they fall apart in the playoffs again, I’ll be leaping right onto that anti-Flip bandwagon.