Nazr Mohammed will be the man in the spotlight for the Pistons on Wednesday night when they open their season against the new-look Milwaukee Bucks in a rematch of a first-round playoff series from last season.
Wallace anchored the Pistons’ defense during his six seasons with the club and his blue-collar, no-nonsense style made him a fan favorite in Detroit. However, a clash with coach Flip Saunders and the lure of a four-year, $60 million contract from Chicago caused the four-time Defensive Player of the Year to bolt for the Bulls—possibly the Pistons’ biggest rival in the Central Division.
Needing a center, Detroit signed Mohammed the day after Wallace officially left and the eight-year veteran has some big shoes to fill.
“You can’t ever look at yourself as replacing a guy,” Mohammed said. “Each person’s game is different and I can’t go out and try to do the things he did. I’m nowhere the shot blocker he is, so I’m not going to try to be a shot-blocker and get a bunch of fouls.
“But I’m going to contest shots, play good position defense and I’m going to rebound and score when given the opportunity.”
Mohammed was the starting center for San Antonio when it beat Detroit in the 2005 NBA finals.
Detroit reached the Eastern Conference finals each of the last four years with Wallace, winning the title in 2004 and losing to San Antonio in seven games the next year. The Pistons won a league-high and franchise-record 64 games last season in Saunders’ first with the club before falling in six games to Miami.
Wallace criticized Saunders during the series with the Heat, claiming that the coach didn’t focus on defense. Each has exchanged pointed comments about the other in the preseason.
“It was always talked about, ‘This is not a superstar team,’ then all the sudden, we lose Ben and people think it’s a jolt,” Saunders said. “The guys take that personally.”
Saunders still has three other All-Stars at his disposal in Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace. Hamilton averaged a career-high 20.1 points and Billups also thrived under Saunders’ system, averaging career highs of 18.5 points and 8.6 assists.
“We’re a whole lot more comfortable,” Hamilton said. “Every time you have a new coach come in, he has to learn about you and you have to learn about him. You have to learn a whole different system and sometimes they don’t know what you like best and you don’t know what they like best.”
Both players struggled with their shooting in the Miami series as Hamilton shot 38 percent and Billups was only slightly better at 39 percent.
Before that, the backcourt played well in Detroit’s five-game series victory over the Bucks in the first round. Billups averaged 22.2 points on 46 percent shooting and Hamilton averaged 21.4 points.
Milwaukee barely sneaked into the playoffs with a 40-42 record as the eighth seed, marking its third straight non-winning season.
The Bucks made major changes in the offseason, acquiring promising second-year forward Charlie Villanueva from Toronto and point guard Steve Blake from Portland. Gone are guard T.J. Ford and veteran frontcourt players Joe Smith and Jamaal Magloire.
Villanueva averaged 13.0 points as a rookie, but has struggled to adapt to his new team.
“I feel like I’m a rookie again,” he said. “Toronto was a good experience for me, but just the mentality these guys have, they’ve been here before, they had a little taste of the playoffs and I haven’t.”
The longest tenured Buck remains leading scorer Michael Redd, who joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players in franchise history to score 2,000 points in a season with 2,028 in 2005-06. Redd, entering his seventh season, was terrific in the playoffs against Detroit, shooting over 52 percent and averaging 27.2 points.
“We’re just young,” Redd said. “It’s a fresh team, it’s new. On the court, I challenge them. I go at them every day. I don’t try to hurt them, but you go at them, pushing them.”
Milwaukee has been hampered in the preseason by injuries to starters Andrew Bogut and Bobby Simmons. Bogut, who has been bothered by a lower left leg sprain, has been out since Oct. 7 but has been cleared to play in the opener.
Including playoffs, Milwaukee has lost its last eight trips to The Palace of Auburn Hills.
Saunders is 9-1 in his career in season openers.