Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Pistons rediscover winning formula minus the 'Answer'


These are the Detroit Pistons we know, the group of players we'd grown accustomed to watching win 50-plus games a season.

Yeah, Chauncey Billups made sure to play one of his best games on Tuesday in his return to The Palace of Auburn Hills as a Denver Nugget — a "You shouldn't have let me go" performance.

But his team lost the game, 100-95. And it was Detroit's third straight victory, getting it back to above .500 at 30-29.

In the grand scheme of the past several years, of successful regular seasons piled on top of each other, three straight wins should be nothing to this franchise.

But not these three. By beating Orlando and Boston on the road and the Nuggets at home, the Pistons proved that they're still a team to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference.

As long as they're aligned right, that is.

Because what the trio of W's has made crystal clear, more than anything else, is that Detroit is at its best not like, well, it was previously constructed (if that makes any sense).

During the franchise's darkest days since the early '90s, which culminated last week with an eighth consecutive loss, rookie head coach Michael Curry made the grand error of starting future Hall-of-Famer Allen Iverson.

Seems like a smart move, right? Putting the four-time NBA scoring champion in the lineup couldn't hurt, right?

Very, very wrong.

Because, for one, that meant sending Richard "Rip" Hamilton to the bench for the first time, probably, since he was a skinny kid hoopin' in Coatesville, Pa.

On the surface, Curry's move is mildly understandable. Iverson is, after all, the more explosive player, the guy who can do more things. To simplify, the better overall player.

But what Curry didn't realize in making the move is what the effect on the team's synergy would be. And that, folks, was his big mistake.

As good as Iverson is, he doesn't fit with the Pistons' other starters. Too often in games, Iverson would be on the perimeter dribbling the ball through his legs 1,097 times while the other four guys watched. There'd be no on-court chemistry, a lack of movement and team basketball.

In L.A. that might work, but not in Detroit. The Pistons have always won with team basketball.

Which brings me back to Hamilton, who knows the tendencies of starters Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess like he knows the roads of Coatesville. They've been winning, after all, for several seasons together.

Rip is not as familiar with the bench players he often took the court with during his stint as a bench player — youngsters like Arron Afflalo and Amir Johnson.

So what the move did was weaken the Pistons' starting lineup and their bench rotation.

The losses followed.

And they might have saved a going-nowhere-fast season.

Last week, with the L's mounting — and some critics already calling for Curry's ouster — Iverson made the coach's decision easy by hurting his back in Detroit's 90-87 loss at New Orleans.

And, just like that, Hamilton was back where he belonged.

Of course, Curry hasn't actually done anything yet, because Iverson is still hurting. But it's clear that when he returns, he'll be coming off the bench. Rip is back in the starting lineup for good.

And if A.I. accepts his role, he has a chance to become the most dynamic sixth man in the league. No other team has any player close to Iverson's caliber starting games sitting.

That's what could make Detroit dangerous. It's already proven during this three-game stretch how good it can be sans Iverson. It could cause some serious havoc if Iverson embraces running with the second-tier guys, acting as their leader.

No, I don't see the Pistons getting by both Cleveland and Boston to the Finals. But compared to the destination I had them pegged for just a week ago, their prospects are now rosy.

Iverson has said repeatedly the past few years that all he's missing is an NBA championship. He also knows that he'll be gone after this season, dumped into the free agency market when teams are stuffing their pockets for 2010.

So there is plenty of incentive for him, just like Stephon Marbury, to make the most of his new niche on a team capable of doing some pretty big things.

And even if the end of the season is another disappointing playoff exit, these Pistons should be able to look forward and feel confident with the future's pillars — Hamilton, Prince and point guard Rodney Stuckey — in the starting five and playing well together.

Trading Billups still might have been a mistake. The past week hasn't completely erased the trade's effect.

But it's shown that maybe, just maybe, these Pistons — present and future — will by successful without their former Mr. Big Shot.

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