I’m sure the rest of the league has noticed that the Pistons have put together a 10-game winning streak but I’m not sure if people are noticing the manner in which they have done it. The starters are playing fewer minutes than ever thus they are more productive than ever thus the team is better than ever (sans 2004). Fewer starter minutes=better team? Who would’ve thought? Those of you who had little-to-no hope of Pistons glory for 2007-08 (like me) will no doubt be shocked by a totally unexpected development. The Pistons have the most important bench in the NBA. In fact, it is so good that it not only extends leads but has done the unthinkable: inspire the starters! Flip Saunders need to continue to play the bench in the same capacity throughout the playoffs to have a shot at the NBA Title. My concern is that Saunders might not be able to bring himself to do such a thing.
During the ten game-winning streak, the bench has averaged 95 minutes per game. That is close to 20 minutes more than what it was averaging before the streak. The bench has provided a number of important advantages that have allowed the team to gel and work at—what I believe to be—its optimum level. Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton have seen their shooting percentages sky-rocket to career-bests this season. There is every reason to think that is due to being more rested when they’re on the court or, put another way, firing up fewer shots when they’re fatigued.
This Pistons bench isn’t your average NBA bench. This bench speeds up the game offensively and defensively which contrasts the methodical style of the starters. Billups has nicknamed them the “Zoo Crew” because they are like caged Lions when they hit the floor. The bench wears out the opposition and does it while playing very good basketball. Over the ten-game winning streak, the bench has outscored the opposition by 115 points. With their bench in the game, the Pistons have extended leads by an average of 12 points per game. That is a luxury that few teams, if any, have in the NBA right now. Amazingly, the average age of the primary contributors off the bench is 22.6. That means two very important things and one not-so-good thing. 1). These guys have plenty of “legs” to burn. 2). They will surely develop into even better players. 3). And, of course, other teams will overpay for them in free agency.
Those of you who have watched the Pistons throughout the winning streak know that the starters have played at a more efficient level. They "drop the hammer" from the opening tip. They rarely look sloppy. There is no question that with fewer minutes, they aren’t as bored and, probably more importantly, are well rested. The massive increase in minutes for the bench has also had a little-noticed but possibly very important additional effect. The starters have been matched up with different combinations of bench players and it appears that they are inspired by playing with these new groups or configurations. I don’t think the importance of motivation or enthusiasm on this team can be properly underscored. Anything that gets the starters out of their comfort or boredom zone is crucial.
I’m reserved to the likely fact that Saunders will revert to form come playoff time by stapling Jason Maxiell, Rodney Stuckey, and Co. to the bench. I’m sure the words “youth” and “playoffs” make Saunders uncomfortable. However, I am imploring Saunders to reconsider. Anything short of sticking with what the Pistons are doing right now will result in another LeBron-style exit from the playoffs. This team can win a championship but it cannot do it without the bench playing big-time minutes. If he realizes this team plays at its optimum level when the bench is getting 90+ minutes a game, then look out come June.