October 17, 2008
We're about to enter the Michael Curry era of Pistons basketball, Detroit fans should be happy that such a smart, energetic coach is about to take the reins, and that the team's enduring roster seems to be holding up. Sheed's got his furniture figured out, the youngsters are going to get a bit of run, and another Eastern Conference finals appearance should be in the offing.
But that hardly means I'm going to let what will surely be a big batch of revisionist history pass without comment. The thing that has been popping up on message boards and blog comments boards for years. The thing that tells you that Flip Saunders, former Detroit coach, wanted nothing to do with defense. Forgetting, of course, that the only book he's ever written was about ... defense.
It sounds about right, though, doesn't it? Flip encourages the fruity, flowery offense with spacing and passing and jumpers, doesn't give a rip about the defensive end like Larry Brown did, didn't ask the Pistons to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Didn't tell them that guts came before glory. That pain came before gain. That those colors didn't run. That freedom ain't free. And when I stand UP!
It's all bunk, of course, as ham-hock analysis usually is. But because Saunders never made it out of the ECF, and Larry Brown hit the Finals twice, winning once, and taking the Spurs to seven in the other turn, Pistons fans can avoid blaming the real reason behind the meltdown (that whacked-out bunch of players that usually play the big minutes), and put the onus squarely on the guy who isn't there anymore.
Well, here's what nobody likes to talk about:
Detroit Pistons, 2003-04, under Larry Brown: 18th in
offense, 2nd in defense. 54 wins.
Detroit Pistons, 2004-05, under Larry Brown: 17th in offense, 3rd in defense, 54 wins.
Detroit Pistons, 2007-08, under Flip Saunders: 6th in offense, 4th in defense, 59 wins.
In fact, the Pistons finished 5th, 7th, and 4th in defense under Flip, while the offense shot way up to 4th, 6th, and 6th. Seems to me like Flip kick-started the offense while retaining the defense.
But LB brought the Pistons to the Finals!
I know we hate using our memory and logic and all that, but let's be real. In 2004, the Pistons worked their way through a nasty Eastern Conference and met the Lakers in the Finals. The Lakers, still playing with a healthy Karl Malone, had beaten a tough San Antonio squad after Derek Fisher's miraculous shot took the wind out of San Antonio's sails. I'm not going to say that the Spurs were obviously better than Detroit, they split the season series (with the Spurs winning against a Pistons team featuring Rasheed Wallace), but the Spurs were a heck of a lot better than the Lakers team sans Karl Malone that the Pistons eventually saw.
The Lakers also beat the Timberwolves, who were playing without Sam Cassell, an All-Star that year who was having a career year. Minnesota was probably the best of the whole bunch that season, taking in an MVP season from Kevin Garnett, and winning a Western-best 58 games. But losing your second-best player, and having only Darrick Martin as a reserve, will tend to ruin things
And considering how well KG played against Rasheed that season, I don't think Wallace's place on the Pistons would have done much to stop a healthy Timberwolves team in the Finals. Look at the box scores I linked to. He dominated him.
Rife though they may have been with internal conflict, the Lakers were still killing teams when Malone was healthy. I don't think you can overstate how a big a drop off trading 35 minutes of Karl Malone -- even in his last season -- with 35 minutes of Slava Medvedenko is.
So I don't think it's a stretch to consider the Pistons the third or even fourth-best team in the NBA that year, a team that played it's ass off at exactly the right time. They earned their ring, but they had help.
And, yes, Larry Brown took the Pistons to the Finals in 2005. He also had the benefit of playing against an injured Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal in the Eastern Conference finals that year, during Game 7, but that's how it goes.
Meanwhile, the Saunders Pistons were felled by, well, Saunders' Pistons. They refused to run Flip's plays in the second half of this pathetic showing, eschewing all spacing and going to a Brown-style pick-and-roll attack once the pressure got to the players. Of course, the only thing Pistons fans take from that series is that Saunders should have run a play for Ben Wallace, in order not to tick the prima donna off. Yeah, that makes sense. Barely topping 70 points a game? Run a play for Ben Wallace!
In 2006, they were felled by the best player in the universe, no problem with that, and last spring they lost in Boston because they played like a bunch of whimpering ninnies down the stretch. That's on the players.
So I don't want to hear it. This is the players' league, they run the show, and they ran Detroit fans right to an early exit three years in a row. Each of those teams should have been in the Finals, each failed, and watching the game tape, you know why. The players screwed up. You know that, you just would prefer that it be someone else's fault. Someone a little less cool.
You know you know it. It's hard to do it with an official jersey hanging in your closet, and scapegoatin' is fun, but deep in the back of your mind, in a place you don't want to go to, you understand who the real culprits are.