Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Downfall of the Pistons: Much Ado About Nothing

Let's all just calm down
about the "Detroit Dynasty"
Tonight the Miami Heat travel to Detroit, looking to close out the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals. To hear the media tell it, this is an upset of epic proportions. A shocking turn of events. A monumental story. To the average pundit, expert, and fan, we are on the verge of seeing the “mighty” Pistons eliminated from the playoffs. Fire up the word processor!

Stories are flying left and right as people scramble for an explanation. Detroit is too reliant on its offense this year. The players are giving up on the coach. Flip Saunders can’t coach in the playoffs. They got too cocky. They are worn out from three years of extended seasons. On and on it goes.

How about this for an explanation: the Detroit Pistons were never as good as you thought they were.

If you take a snapshot of the last three years, “Deeeeeee-troit Bas-ket-ball!” looks pretty good. A title, followed by an NBA Finals appearance, topped off with a franchise record 64 wins in the 2005-2006 regular season and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. It’s not a dynasty or anything, but it is a nice run all the same. It is the type of run that says, “this is a very good, maybe great, team.” Again, that is the snapshot.

A closer look reveals something else entirely. Rather than give you the punch line, let me walk you through all of Detroit’s success from the past three seasons.

2004 – This was the title run. The year of “play the right way” and the midseason acquisition of Rasheed Wallace that somehow gave Joe Dumars a lifetime free pass for taking Darko ahead of Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Bosh. The snapshot reveals a mighty Detroit team that vanquished the Lakers in five games in the NBA Finals. Not so fast. For starters, Detroit reached the Finals by coming out of an Eastern Conference that still had an “L” in its name, for “Leastern.” And winning an inferior conference wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. It took a miraculous block by Tayshaun Prince to beat an arguably superior Indiana team in the semis, and Detroit needed a Jason Kidd knee injury to get past New Jersey in the conference finals. Nobody remembers this now, but New Jersey was up 3-2 in that series and had a close-out game at home, when all of a sudden, Kidd could hardly walk. Detroit moves on. And who do they face? None other than the Kings of Dysfunction, the Los Angeles Lakers. It was a miracle that L.A. even made it to the Finals that year, since both the Spurs and the Wolves were better teams. However, Derek Fisher hit that miraculous bank shot against San Antonio (which led to a complete meltdown by Tim Duncan – a collapse that for some reason is never discussed when people talk about his career) and Sam Cassell got hurt in the Western Conference Finals, so the Lakers prevailed. However, along the way, L.A. lost the heart and soul of that team, Karl Malone. And with him they lost all hope of beating any competent team in the Finals. So Detroit won a championship. Give them credit, because they looked really good doing it, but just know that they had Lady Luck on their side throughout those playoffs.

2005 – Detroit makes it back the Finals, where they lose to the Spurs because of a mental mistake by Rasheed Wallace. This one shouldn’t take as long. Basically, they won the East (and almost a second consecutive title) because Dwayne Wade – who was treating the Pistons like a high school team – suffered a mysterious rib injury. It is as simple as that.

2006 – The Pistons bring in an offensive-minded coach to replace Larry Brown and they rattle off 64 wins. I think this is where things started getting blown out of proportion. The tremendous regular season success, coupled with the postseason success of the past two years, led people to believe that this was some sort of unstoppable force. In reality, it was a collection of hard working players that fit well together and played their best when the chips were down. If anything, the Pistons had overachieved enormously over the past three seasons. If the East was as good as advertised this season, Detroit probably wins 58 games and nobody thinks of them as a “great” team. If even one Piston starter suffers even one minor injury, they probably win 58 games. And we already know how easily things could have turned out differently in the 2004 and 2005 Playoffs.

What I’m saying is that with a few bad bounces (or even just the absence of a few good bounces) here or there, this could be a team that never made it further than the Eastern Conference Finals. And instead of wringing our hands at the downfall of a mini-dynasty, we would just be shrugging our shoulders and saying, “This makes sense, with Wade and Shaq healthy and playing well, Miami is a much better team.”

I’m not here to write the Pistons off as nothing but a lucky team, nor am I trying to downplay the egregious way that many Detroit players are handling themselves right now (these guys are acting like participants on “The Apprentice” – busy pointing crooked fingers and laying blame in the event of a loss, rather than putting all their effort into winning). What I am saying is that we might have a “much ado about nothing” situation on our hands. Because when you look at the big picture, here is what you get:

An overachieving team that usually plays well in big moments isn’t playing very well this time around, and for the first time in the last three years, they are playing a healthy team in the Eastern Conference Finals. It isn’t going well.

This is a huge story? If you say so.


Josh Stump said...

Good work. I agree. People also forget, what an enormous upset thier first title was. No one gave them any chance against the Lakers and if Kobe and Shaq hadn't been at each other's throats, they would have been swept (not to discount Karl's injury which I agree was bigger than his missing stats). My point is just that Detroit wasn't even thought to be a good team when the won the championship, and I think we were all more right then than we are now.

Something else jumped off the page in your story. The "luck" of the Pistons the last 3 years comes down to health. They were and others weren't. Look how many other teams had a legit shot to win a title, just from your story, if they hadn't suffered a significant injury. I had forgotten about those, but it makes it clear that great teams are usually the good teams that stay healthy.

I know, it's not exactly the topic, but I have to addd this about last night's game:

Everyone's been talking about how great Diaw has been, but frankly, he deserves even more praise. The dunk over Dirk? Siiiiick!! This makes me wonder, can we get D'Antoni to spend a year with every team to juvinate their underperforming players?

Think about it. What if everyteam's stiff made the leap that Bell, Thomas and Diaw have. Suddenly, Stromile Swift is the second coming of Marcus Camby. Kareem Rush morphs into Ray Allen. Wouldn't the league be better? I'm telling you, that guy has some kind of magic potion, because every player that goes to play for him looks like an allstar.

Or maybe you could just releive every player of the obligation to play defense. That might, in fact, be the exact same thing.

Still, I'm excited that when the Blazers get their D'Antoni year, all those guys that just got Nash canned might finally be worth the money and draft picks the Blazers have spent on them over the years.

Adam Hoff said...

As Vince Vaughn said to Brad Pitt in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, "I like where your head's at." (That was me making a blatant attempt at garnering the "most random movie quote" award at this year's Fantasy Sports Writers Association banquet.)

This entry was actually posted on another site as well and a few people made the same comment. I guess it does just boil down to health. One reader said, "It isn't so much that Detroit's success should be discounted, but rather the focus should be on the obvious fact that they are finally playing a team that is as good as them and is also healthy."

I guess it is actually the second time, because the Spurs were as good and also healthy last year and they beat Detroit, but I get the picture. I think your extension of that point is very interesting, that "great" teams are just good teams that stay healthy. Interesting.

I'm glad to see I wasn't completely off base here though. Today on ESPN they had five of their NBA writers weighing on on whether the Pistons were "done" and nobody made the simple statement that maybe they were never "great" to begin with. I've seen probably 85% of Detroit's playoff basketball the past three years and I can honestly say that I've thought of them as being a "great" team about twice. Which makes it all the more amazing (and impressive) that they've done so well for this three year run. It is incredible, really, that this twM probably should have two titles under their belt, because if Wallace uses his pea-brain in Game Six of the Finals, Detroit wins it all.

I suppose that is what has the experts proclaiming an end of a would-be dynasty, when in reality it feels more like the Little Engine That Could But No Longer Can.

(By the way, poor Flip Saunders. As the only new component on this team, you know he is taking all the blame. Not to mention that this is what always happens when people can't pinpoint exactly what has gone wrong - they blame the coach.)

(Final point ... how bad has Joe "Thou Must Never Criticize the Almighty Joe" Dumars botched this whole thing? He took Darko over a trio of elite players (particularly Wade), watched him sit on the bench for 2 and half seasons, and then gave him away to Orlando (basically) in an attempt to get cap space to resign Ben Wallace ... who now seems like he's running out gas and may have a bit of an attitude problem and who certainly doesn't seem like a guy you want to give a max deal to. Not only could Darko be helping them right now - because boy do they need some weakside shot blocking now that Rasheed Wallace has decided to never play defense again - but they could just start him at center next year, reload with a few mid-range free agents to give them more depth and athleticism, and let someone like the Bulls overpay for Wallace. Instead, Dumars is now sort of stuck re-signing him, or he looks like a moron for trading Darko for a protected lottery pick. It's all very interesting.)