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Shaun Powell

New coach John Kuester, with clipboard, has the Pistons at .500 through 10 games.
Allen Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Once-dominant Pistons lurch toward an uncertain future

Posted Nov 17 2009 10:27AM

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Seven weeks from now, when we usher out the old, the Pistons will have mixed feelings as the big ball finally drops. The last decade was very, very satisfying for the franchise. But what do they do now for an encore?

The Pistons qualify as the team of the decade ... in the East, anyway. Look at what the 2000s wrought. They won a championship. They took six straight trips to the conference finals. They won 50-plus games seven times. Larry Brown stopped by for a quick bite. Tickets came tough at the Palace. Unlike the local economy, basketball flourished, proof that not everything in Detroit teetered on disaster.

"Man," said Rip Hamilton, along for the entire ride. "Time flies fast."

The decade began when the Pistons pulled off a sign-and-trade of Grant Hill and got somebody named Ben Wallace in return from the Magic. Folks thought they were nuts for doing that. And the decade ends with the Pistons shelling out $90 million combined for Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. Folks thought they were nuts for doing that, too.

What the Pistons and their fans want to know is whether Gordon and Charlie V. will help stimulate the franchise back to good health or if there's a lengthy stretch of stagnation ahead. The Pistons are still trying to figure that out as they mix new blood with the old and deal with a rookie head coach. It makes for a strange brew and, right now, they can go in either direction.

There was a hunch that general manager Joe Dumars spent the team's money in the wrong offseason. While the rest of the league decided to save for the 2010 free agent class, Dumars gave $55 million to a sixth man and $35 million to a quirky forward with an unconventional game. Neither is blessed with enough talent to turn a team around, meaning, they're not LeBron James or Dwyane Wade, the franchise-changing free agents come next July.

Well, the Pistons are getting an immediate return on their investment. Nothing massive, but good enough. Gordon and Villanueva are getting big minutes because of injuries to Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince and making the most of it. They're playing at or near the best ball of their careers. Villanueva had big games against Charlotte (30 points) and Orlando (28) and is averaging roughly 17 points and six rebounds. Aside from his 1-for-16 shooting last Sunday against Dallas, Gordon has looked comfortable as a go-to scorer, averaging 22 points.

"They've come in and done everything we've asked them to do," said Hamilton, "and more."

Neither may start once the Pistons get fully healthy, but that's not the point. When it matters most, Prince, Gordon, Hamilton and Villanueva will be on the floor, possibly along with Wallace. And a word about Wallace. He's not quite the Ben Wallace of the championship run, but then he's not the Ben Wallace of the Bulls and Cavs, either. He's not overpaid and underwhelming. Here in his twilight, he's healthy and "back home," according to Hamilton, and finally back to doing what he does best: rebounding (over nine per game) and supplying help defense (nearly two blocks per game).

"Pleasant surprise," said John Kuester, the first-year coach. "Not only has he been able to play a large number of minutes, but also because of his passion, he has led by example."

If the Pistons don't reach the postseason, it'll likely be because of a couple of shortcomings. There's no true point guard, at least of top-shelf quality; Will Bynum could eventually supplant Rodney Stuckey. And there's no true small forward, either, which hurts the Pistons in certain defensive matchups.

Also, for those who still remember the Pistons of the earlier decade, the Palace seems ... different. The building is barely three-quarters full most nights. The team isn't peeling off six-game win streaks anymore. Clearly, the Pistons are in transition, stuck in the middle of the pack in the East.

"We used to do things that other teams never saw before," said Hamilton. "We held them under 70 points some games. Beat people by 30. We'd come to the game knowing that the other team already packed it in."

Then the core of the Pistons began to gray. Wallace wanted more money then the Pistons wanted to give. Brown left in a huff. Dumars drafted Darko Milicic (instead of Wade, Chris Bosh or Carmelo Anthony). The Allen Iverson experiment was a massive failure last season, costing the Pistons their certified leader, Chauncey Billups. That forced Dumars to spend money right away.

They could use a superstar, but didn't feel confident enough in getting LeBron or Wade next summer. Now, they could use a trade. With an abundance of guard-types, Hamilton would seem likely bait, and if the Pistons can get a small forward in return, a swap may be possible before the trade deadline. Or they could trade Prince, who would benefit a playoff team.

One way or another, the Pistons are poised to make a break from their past this season. They'll fight for one of the last few playoff spots, then hope Dumars can pull something off next summer to jump start a new era.

"It's a new chapter," said Hamilton. "It's going to take time to get where we want to go. But I like our chances."

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here.

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