Well, the first half the Pistons played last night nearly brought a tear to my eye. I haven’t seen efficiency in the post like that from the Pistons in a long, long time. I can honestly say that I had gotten used to the fact that the Pistons were just going to be a marginal team for the foreseeable future. Joe Dumars had made two good moves (drafting Jason Maxiell and letting Ben Wallace leave) in three years. Rasheed Wallace hasn’t played in the post in two years. None of the Pistons youngsters were improving even the slightest bit. That was the reality of Pistons basketball two months ago.
Thankfully, that isn’t the reality today. The best way to turn around the fortunes of a professional sports franchise is, and always will be, to get something for nothing. The Pistons got Rasheed Wallace for nothing and road him to the NBA Championship. Now, two years later, they have inexplicably added Chris Webber for nothing. The Pistons have used up enough good fortune to last a Detroit Lions playoff drought or 100 years—whichever comes first.
There are only six players in the history of the NBA that have averaged 20+ points 10+ rebound and 4+ assists over an entire career. Webber is one of those six. When Wallace came to Detroit, he stopped playing the way he had played for his first eight years. He became a role player. He didn’t need to be the old Rasheed for the Pistons to win. He just needed to fill in where the Pistons needed him. Webber will do the just the same. He won’t average 20 and 10 with Detroit but his passing skills and his ability to demand a double-team will bring everything the Pistons could ask for and more. Remember those unbelievably mind-numbing, soul-sucking, scoring droughts that the Pistons have gone on over the last few years? Well, those are a thing of the past.
Now, this would have been a whole lot more fun to write about had the Pistons actually won last night. With Billups back in the lineup and Webber making his debut, this had all the makings of a Pistons coming out party. A one-point loss to one of the best teams in the NBA is hardly a cause for concern. Webber and the rest of the Pistons will need to get comfortable before everything clicks. I’m guessing that’ll be sooner than later. My biggest concern is an injury. If everyone is healthy, the Pistons are as good as anyone. If any of the starting five is out, it’s all over. I am definitely worried about the brittle bones and tender ligaments in the legs of C-Webb, ‘Sheed, and Chauncey.
Although the C-Webb addition is certainly the big news, what might be equally important are the developments of Carlos Delfino and Jason Maxiell, and the re-emergence of Antonio McDyess, Lindsey Hunter, and Dale Davis. Delfino and Maxiell are quickly becoming two of my favorite players. Whereas last season I hated it when Delfino had the ball, I actually like it when he is involved in a play. He hustles as much as any player on the team. He has become a much better shooter. He actually looks comfortable out there which is an amazing development from last season. Maxiell is a slightly less talented Barkley (OK, maybe a little more than “slightly”). His jump shot is lethal. His athleticism and hops are phenomenal for a man as big as he is. There is no question that Webber’s arrival will stunt Maxiell’s basketball growth but that is a necessary evil. McDyess, Hunter and Davis are providing a huge lift off the bench. I think the Pistons bench is at least on par with the 2004 bench (Corliss Williamson, Mehmet Okur, Mike James, Elden Campbell, and Lindsey Hunter). Davis is a solid rebounder and a decent defensive presence. Hunter is still amazingly quick as he approaches 60 years of age. McDyess is about as good as a bench player can be. Everybody brings something crucial to the equation. The only thing missing, really, is a legitimate and consistent three-point threat.
One name that I haven’t mentioned is Nazr Mohammed. When I had resigned to the fact that the Pistons were just going to be a slightly above average team this season, I was happy with the way Mohammed was playing. He does everything that you could ask for out of a $5 million/year big-man. In fact, he might actually be a bargain at that price compared to some of the other big-man salaries out there. The problem with Mohammed is that he has convinced himself that getting more minutes on a weak team is more important than playing a back-up role on a great team. Does Mohammed have any idea how many players in the league would love to be making $5 million a year without any pressure on a team with a legitimate chance at winning an NBA Championship? Maybe he’s happy with the ring that he won with San Antonio. Whatever it is, he needs to go. Webber’s presence makes Mohammed expendable. There is no question that Mohammed would provide depth for the inevitable playoff match-up against Shaq and Miami. The good news is that since adding Webber cost virtually nothing, the Pistons can trade Mohammed for a pretty good perimeter player. The Pistons are rumored to be interested in Bonzi Wells, Morris Peterson, and Marko Jaric. I would hope that Jaric would be a distant third on that list. Wells or Peterson would be a huge lift off of the bench. Despite the depth that the Pistons have right now and the improved offensive dynamic, the team could always use scoring and ball-handling.
It never crossed my mind that the Pistons would have a better team this season than last season. Letting Ben Wallace chase faux happiness was absolutely the right move to make but I thought the run of being a legitimate Championship contender ended last season. The addition of Webber makes the Pistons more dangerous than they ever were under Wallace. Even for great defensive teams, it is nearly impossible to win an NBA Championship playing four on five on offense. Webber’s addition changes so many things. Now, the fact that Rasheed Wallace thinks he’s a shooting guard isn’t such a big deal. Webber is more than capable of being the Pistons post-presence when Rasheed forgets that he is 6’11. Webber also makes teams have to play honest defense against Billups, Hamilton, and Prince. Defenses will no longer be able to completely ignore one player (i.e. Ben Wallace and even Nazr Mohammed to some extent). That will create so many more easy buckets which will be a godsend for a team that has struggled to get easy baskets. The Pistons may not be as good defensively as they were with Ben but the increase in offensive prowess will more than offset the slight drop defensively. Plus, Prince and ‘Sheed are two of the better defenders in the league. Webber is a defensive liability when he has to be the primary post defender. That isn’t something he’ll face with the Pistons.
Not only are the Pistons a contender for the Championship now, but they also have a bright future. With Maxiell, Delfino, and Amir Johnson in the fold, the Pistons know they will have three productive young players in the future. Just two years ago, the Pistons had one of the least promising rosters in the NBA in terms of young talent. The Pistons will also have two first round draft picks this June in one of the deepest drafts the league has ever seen. It would be nice to see Orlando finish the season around .500 so at least one of those picks will be in the top 15. With a draft as deep as this one, there are a lot of things that a team can do with two first round picks. Hopefully Dumars can get on another run like he had a few years back. Two first round drafts picks and a young up-and-comer (Amir Johnson, Maxiell, etc.) can go a long way in trade talks. Maybe the Pistons could work their way into a top five draft pick (and make amends for the Darko debacle) or maybe they could trade for someone like Rashard Lewis. The Pistons aren’t going to have the roster room to hold on to the two draft picks so a trade seems likely.
I’m not sure how much Flip Saunders will affect things in the playoffs. In my opinion, the Pistons won the NBA Championship in 2004 in spite of Larry Brown. There will never be a worse offensive team to win an NBA Championship. Still, the Pistons were talented enough to win. That makes me think that whatever deficiencies Saunders has, the Pistons can overcome them. I’m not even certain that Saunders isn’t capable of leading a team to a Championship. I just haven’t seen too much since he’s been here. His biggest chores are to figure out the best rotation and make sure the team peaks in the playoffs. There are a lot of non-starters that will be very important come playoff time. Saunders will need to use them the right way. I can guarantee that Saunders is much happier with Webber and this year’s bench than he was with Ben Wallace and the no-bench from last season. Maybe C-Webb’s arrival will allow Saunders to flourish, or maybe the Pistons can win another Championship in spite of their coach. Either way, the odds of Detroit beating Miami when they meet in the playoffs just went from 1% (basically a Wade or Shaq injury) to about 50%. I’ll take those odds.