Right up there with religion and race, the Detroit Pistons have become a subject no one wants to talk about. Ever since the day that GM Joe Dumars traded the heart of the 2004 NBA Champion team for a bucket of attitude and entitlement — aka Allen Iverson — fans have shunned the new look Pistons like a teal colored horse head.
It’s not like you can blame them. A public mutiny, clueless coaches, bad draft picks, terrible free agent signings, and 30-point blowouts became the mantra of the post “Going to Work” title team — a team which captured the heart of Metro Detroit and Piston fans everywhere. However, it’s creeping up on a decade since 2004 and there’s not much recognizable left from that era in Auburn Hills. An aging, defensive superstar still holding on with all he’s got, the boy wonder who when tasked with being the face of a franchise failed to deliver as hoped and then there’s Dumars himself — from the penthouse to the outhouse in the eyes of the fans — still trying to prove that the championship wasn’t one part fluke and one part lack of competition in a barren Eastern Conference.
For the first time in years, though, the Pistons are finally getting to be fun to watch again. Trust me on this. I’ve become a Piston connoisseur. My disgust of the Allen Iverson era was only matched by my hatred of the team-led mutiny fiasco of former coach John Kuester. Recently the team has been completely and totally unlikeable. But improbably things are getting better now. Granted, they’re still going to lose more games than they win and they’re going to have 4th quarter collapses that seriously expose their lack of depth but they’re not as far off as people think and there’s several reasons why.
For the first time since Larry Brown flirted with the New York Knicks and drew the ire of the late, great Bill Davidson, the Pistons have a legitimate coach. The ghosts of Flip Saunders — who inherited a championship team but failed to deliver — and the completely overmatched Michael Curry and John Kuester are finally being exercised at the Palace. Their record doesn’t show it, but the Pistons are a better team under Lawerence Frank. Frank hasn’t given into pressure to play the mega disappointing Charlie Villanueva, he’s found a niche role for the nearly as disappointing Ben Gordon and has fit several players on the roster into their rightful places. He’s also found the right roles for Jason Maxiel and Jonas Jerebko—who have both become important pieces to the Pistons—and shows a willingness to play the lower paid, harder working players. The Pistons finally have a coach they don’t have to be embarrassed of.
Which gets me to the next reason they’re not that far off — they have youth at the two hardest positions to fill. The Pistons have two good — not yet great — players which can be something to build on. Brandon Knight has had his ups and downs his rookie season, but when he’s on he’s shown flashes that should make us believe that he’s the player to lead this team for at least the next decade. In addition, second year pro Greg Monroe has quietly developed into one of the best centers in the league. He’s about as flashy as a glass of milk, but he’s a fundamentally sound player who just contributes. Monroe is fourth in scoring and fifth in rebounding among NBA centers, with only Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum higher than him in both category. Both Knight and Monroe are quiet, unassuming, team players who fit the mold of the city they play for.
The biggest reason that the Pistons are closer than you think will no doubt spark controversy. Every team needs their superstar and the Pistons amazingly and shockingly might have actually found theirs on their current roster. Rodney Stuckey — a player whose extension this offseason was about as popular as a tax hike — has begun to flourish with the arrival of Knight. Without the need to constantly man the point for the Pistons, Stuckey has been able to do what he does best – score. Not surprisingly, as Stuckey’s play has improved so has the team’s fortunes. He’s averaged nearly 20 points a game in February and March — over 25 the last eight games! — and the Pistons have performed to a respectable 13-10 record since his ascension. Perhaps he’s just on a hot streak or maybe he’s finally developing into the player we all thought he could be after a promising start to his career.
So, laugh if you will — if you actually chose to read an article about the Pistons, that is — but this is a team on the rise in the NBA. Turmoil is down and wins are up, both coinciding with contributions from a few role players, the arrival of two young pieces, a coach who “gets it” and the development of a player everyone wrote off.
Hmm, that’s starting to sound like another Piston team in the not-too-distant past.