One for the Road

Stuckey’s big finish helps Pistons win finale at Philly

TEAM COLORS

The story of the game in Pistons red, white and blue

– Rodney Stuckey finished with a flourish, scoring 29 points and dishing out eight assists.. That gives Stuckey five-game averages of 25.6 points and 9.4 assists to highlight the 4-1 finish the Pistons fashioned. Stuckey did it while making better than half his shots (40 of 77) and getting to the foul line 46 times, making 43. He goes into the off-season as a restricted free agent. With a new collective bargaining agreement to be negotiated, it remains to be seen what the market will bear. But the overwhelming expectation is that the system will make it likely Stuckey remains under the Pistons’ control.

BLUE COLLAR – Greg Monroe wrapped up his rookie season with a free throw with 0.4 seconds left to give him 10 points and his 21st double-double of the season – all coming since Jan. 1 – with 13 rebounds. Monroe continued to show keen passing skills and the basketball IQ that allows him to be in the right position way more than a young big man should be. With expected offensive progress – the ability to hit mid-range jump shots or develop a go-to post move – Monroe could be on track to challenge for All-Star berths in the near future.

RED FLAG – One big reason the Pistons have won just 57 games over the last two seasons – that was a season’s worth for them in the Goin’ to Work heyday that produced six straight trips to the conference finals – is that they never figured out how to exploit the scoring ability of Rip Hamilton and Ben Gordon simultaneously. Only twice in those two years did both players score 20 points or more in the same game and only seven times did they both score 15 or more. The Pistons were 2-0 and 5-2 in such games. In perhaps their last game as teammates, Hamilton scored nine points, Gordon 10.

A season that saw the Pistons find a new owner and a big man to build around but never the chemistry to foster momentum toward a playoff push ended with a modicum of momentum: four wins in five games, highlighted by Rodney Stuckey’s renaissance, including his 29 points to lead the 104-100 win over playoff-bound Philadelphia in the finale.

That left the Pistons at 30-52, a three-win improvement over their injury-scuttled 2009-10 season. It will go down as an eminently disappointing year for the Pistons, one that began with hopes that a deep and versatile roster would compensate well enough for the lack of a certified All-Star to challenge for a bottom-four playoff spot in an Eastern Conference weighted at the top with legitimate NBA title contenders.

The Pistons lost too many winnable games over the first half of the season, dropping their first three games despite holding either last-minute or double-digit leads into the second half. Now their future rests in the hands of Joe Dumars, who must decide if he can trust that what he saw over the final five games from Stuckey can be sustained over 82 games.

The answer won’t necessarily decide whether or not Stuckey returns – as a pending restricted free agent, Stuckey is a player Dumars has consistently included as among the future core – but what other moves Joe D prioritizes on a roster heavy with wing players.

Stuckey’s numbers in those final five games were the stuff of All-Stars, or even MVP candidates: 25.6 points and 9.4 assists on 51.9 percent shooting. He also got to the free-throw line 46 times – nearly 10 trips a game – and knocked them down at a league-leading rate, 93.4 percent. If Stuckey can approach those numbers over 82 games, the playoffs would be well within reach, at minimum.

That five-game stretch came after Stuckey’s two-game benching for refusing to re-enter the April 1 loss to Chicago, the night the Pistons honored Dennis Rodman be retiring his jersey.

“It was my ultimate goal for the end of the season,” Stuckey said of his strong finish. “Being in the doghouse, I just wanted to come back and play hard for my teammates. I just tried to come out and play hard, be aggressive, push the tempo, get a lot of easy baskets and that’s what I did. Good finish, but hopefully next year is a lot better. Change is on the way.”

The three holdover veterans from the 2004 NBA title-winning Pistons – Ben Wallace, Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince – could all be touched by those changes. Prince is set to become an unrestricted free agent and controls his destiny. Hamilton could be traded as the Pistons look for better roster balance. And Wallace will take the next few months to decide whether to retire or not.

“There’s a lot of decisions that have to be made,” John Kuester said. “We all know about those decisions. In Tayshaun’s case, he’s going to have a lot of people … he had a wonderful year. Rip, it’s been well-documented about the things we have gone through. To see him play with the passion I know he’s capable of, I’m very, very proud of him right now.”

The one player most certain to return is Greg Monroe, the jewel plucked with the No. 7 pick in last June’s draft. Monroe moved into the starting lineup in early January and arguably was the team’s best and most consistent player since then. Fittingly, he finished his rookie season – one that surely will find him named to the All-Rookie first team – with his 21st double-double, giving the Pistons 10 points and 13 boards. Since Jan. 1, Monroe is 12th in the NBA in rebounding, fifth in offensive rebounding.

The Pistons will go into the May 17 draft lottery slotted No. 7. Should they stay there and add a player who can contribute similarly to Monroe, their playoff drought in the first season under Tom Gores’ ownership will have a good shot at ending at two years.