Friday, December 5, 2008

Now is the time for Curry to tinker


Relax, Pistons fans. Yes, your team isn't exactly putting together winning streaks. Yes, the 11-6 record isn't up to the standard of the past six seasons. And yes, those stinking Cleveland Cavaliers and their New York-loving superstar are up three and a half games on your team in the Central Division...

Relax. Because every fact from the above paragraph has almost no meaning.

Here's what does matter: The Pistons will be back in the playoffs come springtime. I'd bet this nice laptop plus my car on that.

Here's what else is important: First-year coach Michael Curry knows what he's doing. He's performing admirably at focusing on the regular season, but simultaneously keeping his eyes on the only objective that really matters for this recently underachieving franchise: making it back to the NBA Finals and winning a championship.

Curry knew what he was getting into when he accepted Joe Dumars' blessing. A 60-22 regular season might be nice for a day, but coupled with another exit from the Eastern Conference finals, it would mean nothing and impress no one. The same can be said of winning another division title or even finishing with the conference's and/or league's best record.

Who cares?

Curry knows all this, and that's why — even here in early December, when the playoffs seem decades away — he is thinking ahead with each game. He won't admit that, but he's simply doing his job.

And that entails establishing a rotation of players he can trust come mid-April. Not just five starters and maybe a sixth man, but a larger group of players who have all played substantially and will have the ability to play big minutes — if needed — when the games count most.

The plebe coach showed off his willingness to play anyone in a loss the other night to the Portland Trail Blazers. When a lineup that included reserves Amir Johnson, Rodney Stuckey and Arron Afflalo made a run to give the Pistons a brief fourth-quarter lead, Curry stuck with his backups and left starting small forward Tayshaun Prince on the bench the entire final quarter.

Detroit went on to lose, and Prince didn't understand why he hadn't been reinserted, but Curry backed up his decision by saying Prince hadn't played well. And the numbers verify his impact on the game: Detroit was outscored by 23 points while he was on the floor.

This doesn't mean, of course, that Prince is less talented than Johnson or couldn't have helped lead Detroit to victory. But Curry went with the players who had gotten their team back in the game. And despite the loss, the trio had to gain confidence from knowing that their coach believed in them to make plays during crunch time. (And, again, the outcomes at this point don't matter so much.)

The move to go with his reserves wasn't isolated, either — although I wouldn't expect starters to sit out too many more entire fourth quarters of close games. Curry said earlier in the week that he expects to continue to cut his starters' playing time at least a little bit. This is a smart move in two respects.

One, it keeps the older starting lineup more fresh. Allen Iverson said recently that he can't find his rhythm playing fewer minutes than he's averaged during his career. Well, the 33-year-old has 65 games to figure out how to find it. That's the benefit of the Pistons' trade for the superstar happening so early in the season.

Rasheed Wallace and Richard Hamilton need to be ready to play their best basketball, not to mention be healthy as can be, come playoff time. It's no secret that the Pistons go as Wallace goes. If he's playing well and finds the range from behind the 3-point arc, Detroit is a very dangerous team.

The Pistons are even more potent when they're getting consistent production from their bench. As we saw in last year's playoffs, Stuckey can play with and against the top dogs and isn't afraid of big-time situations. With the benefit of more minutes under his belt, he'll only become better. Afflalo has shown he can not only lock down on defense, but he can shoot the ball too. He just needs the minutes in real-game situations to become more confident in that part of his game.

Detroit will surely benefit from the return of Antonio McDyess — and his mid-range shooting ability — when he returns off waivers probably next week, but it would be smart to bring him off the bench. By inserting him into the lineup instead of current starter Kwame Brown, Curry would effectively have his five best offensive players beginning the game on the court.

I don't like it. At least one forward and one guard who can score need to be stashed on the bench so that when games start out poorly for the starting five, they can be inserted to provide a "spark," an offensive shot to the arm. When McDyess returns, he'll be Detroit's lone reliable scorer at the forward position off the pine (if, indeed, that's where he begins games).

Of course, there remain 65 games for Johnson, Brown and Jason Maxiell to get valuable experience and gain confidence for the postseason. And with the way Curry's coaching this team, I expect to see some positive gains from them. If nothing else, he'll determine who he can trust in tight spots.

So, relax, Pistons fans. A loss in December means close to nothing.

Unless, of course, it puts the Lions closer to 0-16.

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