Posted Sep 25 2010 2:59PM - Updated Oct 1 2010 2:36PM
The Pistons were thought to be an escape from the urban blight and staggering auto industry that sent body blows to Detroit. Then came last season, when they dealt with their own hardships.
For a franchise with three NBA titles and two-plus straight decades of mostly living the good life, the collapse was startling both in severity and quickness. The Pistons became a doormat. They won 27 games, lowest in 16 years. They missed the playoffs. Nightly attendance was smaller than a support group for disgraced mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. And following the death of owner Bill Davidson, the beloved and masterful Mr. D, the direction of the club became transitional.
Perhaps more discouraging: Their big free-agent signings from the previous summer, Ben Gordon (13.8 points on a bad ankle) and Charlie Villanueva (only 23 minutes a night), gave mixed results, certainly not what you expect initially from a $90 million investment.
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"It was challenging," said John Kuester, the first-year coach who certainly was overwhelmed by the enormity of the experience.
Was such a reversal of fortune a complete surprise, or was this event years in the making? Depends on your view. Seven years ago the Pistons got away with the Darko Decision (passing on Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh for a raw 7-footer) initially because they were already built to win, claiming the 2004 title and a string of conference championships. But when the cast of characters from those teams got old or were traded or simply maxed out, the Pistons could've used a savior from that stacked draft to rebuild around.
Then, when the Allen Iverson experiment failed and the money saved by trading Chauncey Billups was spent on Gordon and Charlie V., the Pistons didn't progress. Actually, regression was almost assured when Tayshaun Prince (49 games) and Rip Hamilton (46) struggled with injuries.
So here we are, on the cusp of 2010-11, the Pistons searching for good health, better results from the core group and hoping for an immediate impact from a rookie big man. Can all that happen as suddenly as the collapse? Or will change come gradually?
"I'm excited," said Kuester, "because I feel we have a lot to prove. A lot of guys who went through that experience have a bad taste. A lot of them are looking to bounce back, and I believe we will."
Well. For starters, the Pistons had better find ways to score, because they were inept offensively last season, next to last in the league. Some of that was due to injuries, certainly, but even now they lack a true go-to player. And that sums up the Pistons. They have a few former stars (Tracy McGrady, Hamilton, Ben Wallace) who may have a throwback moment or two, but no solid player in his prime who makes the other team shiver.
If such a player is on the roster, then he must be among the unprovens: Austin Daye, Jonas Jerebko and particularly 6-foot-11 Greg Monroe, the top pick from Georgetown. Like all GMs, Joe Dumars has had his share of hits (Tayshaun, Rodney Stuckey) and misses (Darko Milicic, Rodney White) in the Draft, and the organization suspects Monroe will be one of Dumars' better decisions in some time. He's more of finesse big man, especially when compared to Wallace, but Monroe seems willing to learn from the veteran big man, who signed for two more years. Monroe knows his way around the basket and at age 20, should only get better.
Kuester is already big on Monroe, whom he calls a "quiet assassin" because his demeanor masks the toughness underneath (Big Ben will find a way to flush it out of the kid). For sure, the Pistons are hoping Monroe does for them what Milicic didn't.
"I can't say enough about how optimistic I feel," said Kuester. "He has a very good feel for the game and works hard. He's not coming in here raw. He learned a lot in college, and I think the transition will be easier for him because of that. To see him and to know him is to realize he's just a well-rounded kid."
The Pistons can't possibly sink any lower than they did last season, if only because they should be healthy. The real question is, how much better can they expect to be? They could swap Prince, who's in the final year of his deal, before the deadline. Even if they stand pat, which they did this summer, a marginal leap at the very least would be reasonable. Given the overall weakness of the conference, a best-case scenario has the Pistons confining their lottery status to one season.
And that would come as a relief to Kuester, among others.
"I spent the last 11 years in the playoffs before this past year," said Kuester, a Larry Brown disciple who bounced around as an assistant coach. "I know what that's like. And now I know what this is like."
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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