I hate to be the bearer of bad news but to quote the great teller of the future Kirk Herbstreit; the Pistons have “no chance” of winning game six in Miami. I suspect that most of you know this already. I don’t expect the “pie in the sky”-diehards to admit this nor do I want them to. Those are the people that make you think that anything is possible and I like knowing that “those people” are out there. However, this series is over. There are a lot of people in the Detroit area that are trying to figure out what went wrong with the Pistons. The novice fan may think that the Pistons are just in a “funk”. The reality of the situation is that the Pistons are only a shell of the 2004 and 2005 teams for various reasons.
The Pistons could not reach their potential under Rick Carlisle because of Carlisle’s inability to bring offense to a defensive-minded team. Likewise, even though the Pistons won the NBA title under Larry Brown, the Pistons could not reach their potential under Brown because Brown saddled the team offensively. Under both Carlisle and Brown, the Pistons were ferocious defensive teams. The hiring of Flip Saunders was supposed to signal an infusion of offense to a team that primarily focused on defense. The regular season proved that the Pistons could be so much better on offense with the right coaching. The results were a franchise best win total of 64 and the number one seed in the NBA Playoffs. What couldn’t be seen at the time was that the Pistons were actually worse off for the playoffs than in previous seasons. The defensive-expertise that the Pistons had become synonymous with was put on the back burner. Since the offense was so efficient during the regular season, it didn’t seem to matter.
The first round of the playoffs gave Pistons fans exactly what they thought they would see. The Pistons were like a well-oiled machine on offense just like the regular season. However, what came in the next two rounds was a shock to just about everyone in Detroit. The Pistons have struggled mightily against Cleveland and Miami. The real problem, however, isn’t that the Pistons had difficulty with Cleveland and Miami. The problem is that the Pistons have made no noticeable adjustments. It’s as if they don’t look at game film at all. Every game is a repeat of the previous. The Pistons make the same mistakes. The Heat use the same game plan. It all just seems like a waste of everyone’s time. Most fans probably end their criticism at, “the Pistons are getting killed and aren’t doing anything about it.” In layman terms, that’s exactly what’s happening. However, there is a reason why this is happening and I’ll take you through how the Pistons have just about played themselves out of the 2006 Playoffs.
First, let’s end any speculation that this team has passed its prime or just isn’t good enough to beat a team like Miami. This is the same team that annihilated the Lakers in ‘04 and almost repeated last year against the Spurs. This team is fully capable of dominating any team in the NBA. The cause for the Pistons dreadful performances over the past three weeks has been entirely self-inflicted.
Here are the problems that they have failed to address and the solution for each:
1). Chauncey Billups has been the catalyst for the Pistons offense ever since he arrived in Detroit in 2002. Billups can penetrate the paint at will. I have yet to see a player that has been able to keep Billups from driving to the basket with efficiency. The only thing keeping Billups out of the paint is Billups himself. He is bigger and stronger than Jason Williams. Williams has no chance at guarding him one on one at the top of the key or in the post. Billups’ unwillingness to create off the dribble has stifled the Pistons offense.
2). Rasheed Wallace has turned into a soft post player right in front of our eyes. In fact, I use the term “post player” lightly because Rasheed has hardly been a post player over the past three weeks. His affection for the three-point shot during the regular season was fine since he hit over 40% from behind the arc. However, his three-point shot has disappeared in the playoffs. He just keeps shooting and missing. If this was Wallace’s only negative during the playoffs, the Pistons wouldn’t be in such bad shape. The problem is that Wallace has been even more ineffective in the paint. In fact, he refuses to even enter the paint with the ball in his hand. Wallace has always been a dangerous player because of his ability to get to the basket on anyone. Instead of taking the high percentage shot two or three feet from the rim, Wallace has fallen in love with the fade-away. Rasheed’s unwillingness to take a high percentage shot by taking Udonis Haslem or Antoine Walker to task in the post has led to a 37% field goal percentage and a deplorable 23% mark from three-point range. Sheed is unstoppable in the post when he displays an array of post moves. He becomes as worthless as Chris Dudley in the post when he refuses to shoot nothing but off balanced fade-aways. As if the love affair with the fade-away isn’t bad enough, he takes himself out of the play for an offensive-rebound and causes unnecessary congestion for Billups, Prince and Rip behind the three-point line.
3). Rip Hamilton is not a good ball handler. I repeat; Rip Hamilton is not a good ball handler. He cannot create off the dribble and he cannot lead a fast break. Anybody who has watched Hamilton during any of his seasons with the Pistons knows this already. This is not a recent development. Hamilton is also among the worst players in the league at shooting the ball in end-of-game situations. He often fails to get a shot off at all. Hamilton is a good player when he’s used correctly. Hamilton is virtually unstoppable coming off screens. Even if Dwyane Wade is seemingly shutting Rip down defensively, the fact that Rip is running him around the court is a plus for the Pistons. Wade loves seeing Hamilton with the ball in his hands at the top of the key. He would gladly welcome that all game. The Pistons need to do themselves a favor by making Rip more efficient. As it stands now, Rip is a mess. His shooting percentage is dreadful. His turnovers are plaguing the team. Rip has more turnovers than anyone on the team and it’s not even close. Rip has had a role on this team for the last four years. When he plays his role, he’s exceptional. When he tries to be a different player, he is awful and that’s putting it nicely.
4). The free-throw shooting has been ridiculous. Granted, Miami took bad free-throw shooting to new level in game five. However, entering game five the Pistons had shot a paltry 71% from the free-throw in the playoffs. In fact, if it weren’t for Billups, the Pistons would be shooting 66%. Ben Wallace has killed the Pistons by shooting 13 for 58. Wallace is a liability. Pat Riley should employ the hack-a-Ben strategy to start every game. He should start Michael Doleac, Wayne Simien, Derek Anderson, Dwyane Wade and Shaq. He should allow Doleac, Simien, and Anderson to foul Wallace on every possession. The Pistons would be lucky to score 8-10 points per quarter. I don’t understand why Riley hasn’t done this yet. It’s almost as if he feels bad. Regardless of feeling bad or not, there would be a 100% chance of success if Riley employed that strategy. It has worked every time thus far. It’s easy to dismiss Ben’s lousy free-throw shooting as a necessary evil for having the best defensive player in the league. However, his inability to make anything at the line has cost the Pistons multiple games in the playoffs. Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess have also choked at the line in the playoffs. While McDyess’ funk has hurt, Rasheed’s struggles have hurt the Pistons even more. He gets to the line more often than McDyess and thus has a bigger impact from the line.
5). Most people don’t realize this yet, but Dwyane Wade is better than LeBron James. In fact, Wade is probably the best player in the league. Wade is unstoppable when he wants to get to the basket. His mid-range jumper is the best in the league. His athletic ability is freakish. If you could build a perfect guard, Wade would be what you would build. I hate admitting this because Wade is a complainer. I can’t stand complainers (yes, even the Pistons get on my nerves). But, the fact remains that Wade is virtually unstoppable when left one on one. The Pistons won an NBA Championship by letting Kobe Bryant and Shaq shoot as many difficult shots as they wanted. The Pistons are now getting slaughtered by the Heat because they are allowing Wade to waltz into the lane where he seemingly shoots 90%. The Pistons need to force Wade to give up the ball and then double Shaq. It sounds difficult but it can be done. I’d rather Gary Payton, Antoine Walker or Jason Williams shoot a three than have Wade drive to the basket without help. However, the key is to double Wade before he gets to the paint. Once he’s in the paint, it’s over. The Pistons learned to force LeBron to make a decision out at the top of the key. They must do the same with Wade. When they do that, they are usually successful. They often go long stretches where they don’t do this which is equal parts maddening and equal parts stupid. Also, game five showed just how ineffective Shaq can be when he’s constantly double-teamed. There is a correct way to defend the Heat and the Pistons have failed to do this 90% of the time. They finally had the right game-plan for game five and the results were fantastic. It is almost inconceivable that a team could ignore the obvious for so long but the Pistons have done just that. If they don’t continue what they did in game five as far as their defensive strategy for Shaq and Wade, it will get ugly in a hurry.
6). The coaching staff has failed to make any significant adjustments with the exception of game five. Problems 1-5 are the faults of the players and the coaching staff equally. As the coach of the Pistons, Flip Saunders has to understand how important it is for Billups to drive the lane. When Billups drives past his primary defender, it elicits the aid of the help defender leaving holes in Miami’s defense. Without Billups penetration, the holes are not there. Saunders is getting paid millions of dollars to figure this out. It is unacceptable that this problem has not been addressed for three weeks running.
It is also intolerable that Saunders has not forced Rasheed Wallace to play more in the post. How can the Pistons get the Heat into foul trouble if their primary post player doesn’t take the ball into the lane? Also by being a force in the post, Rasheed creates double teams which inevitably create open looks from behind the three-point line. Miami is imploring Rasheed to take his fall-away jumper. They love the fact that he hovers around the three-point line. Wallace has been a non-factor and Saunders deserves to be chastised for letting this go on. I can’t imagine that a coach could be paid so much money to miss such obvious errors in strategy.
I also blame Saunders for allowing Hamilton to play the role of “turnover machine” rather than his normal role of “unstoppable, coming off screen guy.” Any play that calls for Hamilton to create off the dribble should be immediately discarded from the play book. Hamilton can shoot. He can even shoot three-points now. He can’t dribble or drive. Saunders has gaffed big-time on the use of Hamilton.
The failure to employ the correct game-plan defensively is almost entirely on the coaching staff. Shaq struggles when he’s double-teamed. Wade struggles when he’s double teamed or trapped at the top of the key. The Pistons rarely do either. Go figure! Saunders adjusted for game five and the results speak for themselves. However, why on Earth did it take four games for Saunders to realize this? They just had a case study on how to guard a seemingly unstoppable perimeter player against LeBron James in the second round. It took them six games to figure out how to do that. By the way they’ve played Wade defensively thus far you would think they learned nothing from that seven-game series against Cleveland. What a waste.
While I blame Saunders for the reprehensible use of Billups, R. Wallace, and Rip Hamilton as well as his inability to even come close to employing the right defense in games 1-4, he can’t be held accountable for the poor free-throw shooting. Ben Wallace has been playing basketball for no less than 18 years. To be an NBA player and shoot 23% from the free-throw line is unacceptable. Most big-men that have problems shooting free throws cite “big hands” as a factor. From all accounts, Big Ben has small hands which makes his trouble at the line even more infuriating. How hard is it to shoot 50% from the line? Shaq shoots double Ben’s percentage!
A common saying in the NBA among analysts, players and coaches is that this is a player’s league. This series is highlighting just how wrong that statement is. The Pistons have the exact same team that dominated the playoffs in 2004 and almost won it again in 2005. Yet, they aren’t even close to achieving the same results. The only change has been the coaching staff. Coaches have more influence in the NBA than most people could possibly imagine. The only other sport that even comes close to a coach’s influence is the NFL. The NBA is about match-ups and adjustments. The players do not make the adjustments. Coaches do. The Pistons can be extremely efficient on offense when everyone does what they do best. When everyone does what they don’t do best, we get what we’ve seen these past three weeks. Considering that Saunders hasn’t changed anything over the last three weeks despite multiple telling losses, I do not expect things to magically change for game six in Miami. As a result, there is no way the Pistons will beat Miami in Miami on Friday.
For those of you that don't remember, Herbstreit said before the Michigan St./Ohio St. football game in ’98 that MSU had “no chance” of winning the game. Just a few hours later, OSU was knocked from the ranks of the unbeaten and had its National Championship hopes ruined. I would love to be wrong. I would love to be ridiculed for being a know-nothing ninny with a blog or better yet, Herbstreit-esque. However, the facts speak for themselves. The Pistons haven’t played a complete game (including games two and five) in this series. They were torched both games in Miami. I fully expect to see an array of fade-away misses from Sheed, Billups deferring to a teammate rather than taking J. Williams off dribble, Hamilton trying to create off dribble, and Wade penetrating at will. If you find yourself seeing this stuff in game six, then you can turn the TV off and save yourself the trouble and heartache. In fact, the owner of the Miami Heat would probably pay $10 million out of his own pocket if it guaranteed that those things would happen. He would essentially be buying a spot in the NBA Finals. If these things continue to happen in game six, you can file Flip Saunders’ 2006 salary as the biggest waste of money ever spent in professional sports.