Friday, May 11, 2007

Talking Pistons

I don't if it is possible for a team that is 7-0 in the postseason to be flying below the radar, but the Detroit Pistons seem to be doing just that. In fairness, they have beat up on the worst team in the playoffs (Orlando) and a plucky group of youngsters without a single lowpost options (the Bulls), so there is some reason to hold off on throwing a parade at this point.

But how good are these Pistons? Can they win it all? Should the Spurs and Suns fear them? Is this the best they've ever looked defensively?

My friend and longtime Pistons fan Justin Weiner prompted that last question with something he said in a recent email:

[Detroit's] defense might be better now than in 2004 because (1) we have an effective zone because of Flip and (2) Ben Wallace is an overrated (and often just flat bad) on the ball defender. Well, maybe that’s an outlandish claim, but I hope its true at least.

And I think this is the most intriguing thing to analyze about these Pistons. They swapped out Larry Brown for Flip Saunders, who is an offensive-minded coach and a guy that loves to use zone defenses (hardly synonymous with great playoff defense). They let Ben Wallace walk away and eventually replaced him with Chris Webber, who is another player with a rep for, um, lacking skills on the defensive end. For all that, could they actually be the best they've ever been on D?

I'll start out by saying no. That 2004 Pistons team - and even the 2005 version - was superior to this one, because they had an engaged and active Ben Wallace in the middle (despite the fact that Justin in right in saying that Big Ben has some on-the-ball deficiencies), a younger and more effective Lindsay Hunter coming off the bench, and, most importantly, were able to shut down far superior teams than the ones they've been playing lately. I can safely say that the 2007 Pistons are not as strong defensively as the 2004 version. But the gap isn't as large as I would have thought.

For starters, you can throw out the numbers because Detroit has picked up the pace. They might give up more points and even allow a higher percentage, but that is largely because of an increased emphasis on creating points. Furthermore, they have a couple of very subtle things happening in this playoff run:

1. They have Rasheed Wallace interested. I can't remember Sheed ever playing with this much focus and intensity. He's not taking plays off, he's not getting distracted by bad calls, and he's displaying a passion that he's never really possessed. Maybe he played this well for Portland during that 2000 Western Conference Finals against L.A., or possibly stretches in the 2004 playoff run, but that is all I can come up with. He's a monster right now, especially in the paint.

2. They have defensive weapons on the bench. There aren't many deep teams in the NBA these days and when the scrubs come in, there is usually a big dropoff on the defensive end (see: Giricek, Gordon). Not so with Detroit. McDyess is a defensive upgrade from Webber and an underrated post defender. Delfino is serviceable on the wing. Hunter can still cause mayhem in the backcourt. And Jason Maxiell is a beast when he comes in on the frontline. Foul trouble doesn't really bother this team, which is very important and should carry them against the Cavs when LeBron is going to the line 17 times. (Note: that last comment isn't a knock on the refs, just the reality that James really can't be slowed down unless you foul him a lot, try to get a way with a few, and then send him to the line to make free throws.)

3. Prince is back. I've long felt that Tayshaun is the best wing defender in the NBA as his length, athleticism, and smarts allow him to guard a wide variety of players. He doesn't resort to questionable tactics like Bowen, nor does he get the kind of favorable officiating that many "stoppers" often receive. Tayshaun, like George Costanza's boss Mr. Kruger (while spinning in his chair), can safely say, "It's all me!" But last year his star fell a little bit. LeBron played extremely well against Detroit and Prince took a lot of the blame, and then Wade started his absurd playoff run and did it at Tayshaun's expense. Suddenly, people stopped talking about him being one of the elite defenders. Now he is all the way back, as evidenced by his work on Deng through three games.

4. The zone works. People crushed Flip for playing zone last year, but his 1-2-2 is really giving Chicago trouble. He might not be able to do that against a Cavs team that now has shooting (Sasha) and low post scoring (Z and Gooden) to go with LeBron and their good offensive rebounding, and they will have a really hard time zoning up against a team like the Suns. But it is working now and has the potential to be a nice changeup against the Spurs. I am happy for Flip Saunders. I made the mistake of following the crowd in believing that he was a shaky coach and am happy to see how wrong I was.

For all of those reasons, the Pistons have their swagger back on the defensive end. And when you throw in the acquisition of Webber (basically for free - I find it to be a big problem for the league that experienced veterans like C-Webb and Finley are helping the rich get richer) and safety net of having Mr. Big Shot to close out games, they have to be considered alongside the Suns and Spurs as a top title threat. And once again, we see that the regular season is worthless.


Alex said...

I agree that the Pistons aren't as good defensively as they were on the championship runs, but I do take exception to your claim (and many others said similar things) that they took some of the regular season off, or that it doesn't matter. It happened towards the beginning/middle of the year, but the Pistons actually had some injuries. Look at last year, where the starters all played at least 80 of the games. This year, Chauncey played 70, Rasheed and Rip 75, etc. I'm not saying they go for 65 wins if everyone plays 82 this year, but I think we can agree that another few games with Rip and 5 or 6 more with Chauncey puts them in the upper 50s with the Spurs. It seems like people are counting the Pistons out more than in previous years because their record wasn't so great on top of them coming out of the East, but this is really the first time in the past few years the starting 5 missed some games.

Adam Hoff said...

That's good stuff. And that is what I meant by "regular season is worthless," meaning that records are pretty worthless. You are probably right that if everyone is healthy, they win 5-7 more games. But who in the NBA stayed healthy this year? Phoenix, ironically (considering Amare), and San Antonio did pretty well, which is also ironic, because they haven't been all that healthy in recent years. And, of course, Dallas. In fact, regular season win totals seem to be more about winning the war of attrition than anything.