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John Schuhmann

Numbers Game

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After years of cruising ahead, Pistons going backward fast

By John Schuhmann,
Posted Feb 25 2009 2:29PM

The Pistons' run at the top of the Eastern Conference wasn't going to last forever.

We knew that.

We just didn't know that it was going to have such an ugly ending.

With Tuesday's loss in Miami, Detroit has lost seven straight and 16 of their last 21 games. They're under .500 this late in the season for the first time in eight years. Their seven-year run with at least 50 wins and their run of six straight Eastern Conference Finals will both likely end . Heck, at the rate they're dropping down the standings, they might miss the playoffs altogether.

You could blame it on the trade that sent Chauncey Billups to Denver for Allen Iverson. You could blame it on the coaching change (from Flip Saunders to Michael Curry) they made this summer. Or you could blame it on the combination of the two. Perhaps there would have been more stability and less of a dropoff in Detroit if only one of those two moves were made.

Maybe retaining Saunders and/or keeping Billups would have just been delaying the inevitable. With the trade, Pistons president Joe Dumars saved his team some long-term money, which will allow him to retool sooner rather than later. But you would think that there wouldn't have been much of a dropoff had he not made such drastic changes. After all, Detroit won 59 games last season; only the Celtics won more.

Here's a look at the Pistons' numbers over the last nine seasons, starting with 2000-01, the season before they became a perennial 50-game winner.

Pistons Record Since 2000-01
Year Coach Record Pace Rank Offensive Rating Rank Defensive Rating Rank
2000-01 Irvine 32-50 93.6 1 101.3 25 103.0 8
2001-02 Carlisle 50-32 88.7 21 106.3 12 103.9 8
2002-03 Carlisle 50-32 85.5 29 105.6 14 101.3 4
2003-04* Brown 54-28 86.9 23 103.1 18 96.5 2
2004-05** Brown 54-28 86.2 29 106.7 18 102.3 3
2005-06 Saunders 64-18 85.7 29 112.1 4 104.4 5
2006-07 Saunders 53-29 86.1 30 110.3 6 105.6 6
2007-08 Saunders 59-23 86.3 30 112.7 8 104.1 4
2008-09 Curry 27-28 85.9 29 107.5 23 108.9 13
* = Won NBA title
** = Reached NBA Finals
PACE = Possessions per 48 minutes
OFF RAT = Points scored per 100 possessions
DEF RAT = Points allowed per 100 possessions

We have to acknowledge that the Pistons' run over the last seven seasons, particularly on defense, has been impressive ... even more so when you consider the coaching changes that they've gone through. Even after they lost Ben Wallace to free agency in the summer of 2006 (after he won his second straight Defensive Player of the Year award), their defense didn't fall off.

The defense has been so good over the years that the offense hasn't needed to be at an elite level in order for the Pistons to succeed. When they won the championship in 2004, they were the 18th-ranked offensive team in the regular season (though their efficiency was slightly higher after they acquired Rasheed Wallace at the trading deadline).

Playoff wins since 2002
Team Wins
San Antonio 74
Detroit 73
L.A. Lakers 52
New Jersey 43
Dallas 38

You also have to wonder why Saunders was fired and which team will be smart enough to hire him this summer. Detroit's offense improved dramatically when he took over and the defense barely fell off. Of course, the slightly diminished defense made them an easier out in the playoffs.

No team has fallen off more offensively or defensively since last season than the Pistons. They're a worse offensive team than the Timberwolves and a worse defensive team than the Bobcats. Their defensive rating over the last 21 games (112.4) is at the level the Clippers have been this season.

That they've deteriorated so much on both ends of the floor jibes with the idea that this team is in a general malaise, suffering from a lack of chemistry and fire.

Clearly though, the presence of Iverson changed the Pistons' offensive dynamics. They went from a balanced offensive team to one with a guy that dominates the ball as much as any player in the league. That makes them easier to defend.

Their assist-to-field goal ratio is down from 61.1 percent last season (ninth in the league) to 56.3 percent this season (18th). And while Iverson was supposed to help them get to the line more often, they're actually attempting fewer free throws per possession this season than they were last season.

Although Iverson has nearly 2,000 career steals, the Pistons are forcing fewer turnovers than last season. They're also blocking fewer shots and allowing their opponents to get to the line more often.

There probably aren't many teams around the league crying over the demise of the Pistons. They've eliminated 10 different teams over the last seven postseasons, making plenty of enemies along the way.

Teams defeated in playoffs by Detroit since 2002
Three times Orlando, Philadelphia
Twice Indiana, Milwaukee
Once Chicago, Cleveland, L.A. Lakers, Miami, New Jersey, Toronto

Still, no one could have expected such a precipitous fall after such a long period of sustained excellence. This team is going down in flames and Dumars will likely have more retooling to do this summer than previously expected.

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