The View from Miami
Native son Battier sees a vastly improved Pistons team forming
When Joe Dumars took over the Pistons 13 years ago, the Los Angeles Lakers were the reigning NBA superpower, having lured Shaquille O’Neal as a free agent to join a precocious hot-shot named Kobe Bryant. While every other team in the league searched for a superstar duo to match the Lakers strength for strength, Joe D was busy mining the draft, trade and free agency routes to put together a team that within four years of his ascension to Pistons president would beat those Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals.
His thinking: Unless I find two better than Shaq and Kobe, that’s not a realistic formula.
The NBA is a copycat league, always has been. Today’s reigning power is the Miami Heat, who came to The Palace this week as two-time defending NBA champions, a team assembled in one day three years ago when Pat Riley signed LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in free agency.
What works for the Heat is surrounding those three with shooting, placing an ever greater premium on 3-point marksmen. Good luck to the franchise building off of that model, though, unless it starts the construction with someone in James’ stratosphere at the core of it.
The contrast in styles between the Pistons and Miami was best expressed in Thursday’s power forward matchup, where Greg Monroe was paired with Shane Battier, who grew up a short commute from The Palace and carried Detroit Country Day to three state championships before joining Duke, where he became one of three players ever to be named three-time national defensive player of the year and won a national championship.
“It’s about your strengths,” Battier said. “Your strength better be better than the opponent’s strength. For us, it’s spreading the floor and giving our creators space. Their strength is size and their ability to rebound and play big. There’s a lot of ways to slice it up, but whoever you are you better be really good at it.”
The Pistons didn’t pound the ball into Monroe relentlessly against Miami, but as the game wore on they increasingly looked to exploit Monroe’s significant size advantage. Battier’s savvy enough to make bigger players uncomfortable with the way he uses leverage and positioning. It likely will take Monroe some time to adjust to the way smaller players are going to defend him after banging exclusively against centers for his first three NBA seasons. He shot just 2 of 11 against Miami, but wound up making 9 of 12 free throws.
“He’s going to end up guarding some small four guys and they shouldn’t be able to guard him down low,” Maurice Cheeks said. “I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. It should be to our advantage in the half-court set. Now, it’s going to be a little challenging in the full-court set where he has to get back in transition. More than anything, I think that should play to our advantage with Greg down low because he’s a pretty good post player and a pretty good rebounder.”
Battier sees the Pistons as significantly improved after an off-season in which Dumars signed Josh Smith as a free agent and traded for Brandon Jennings.
“They obviously got big across the frontcourt,” he said. “They present some interesting matchups along the frontcourt. The trade for Jennings, I think they’re in a much more win-now attitude. Brandon will be a good player. Their talent level has been raised, no question.”
Battier has frequently played against Smith over the years. When the Pistons play Miami, Smith gives the Pistons a defender with a better chance to hold his own against James than most teams possess.
“He brings athleticism,” Battier said. “Maybe that was the knock on the Pistons the last couple of years. ‘They’re not the most athletic team.’ Josh is a super athlete. He can play multiple positions, underrated passer – really a gifted passer for his size. He brings a dimension the Pistons haven’t had in a while.”
And perhaps the single biggest reason the Pistons are poised to make a run at the playoffs is Andre Drummond, who flashed dominance against the Heat with 21 points and 11 rebounds in 28 minutes.
“He’s really intriguing,” Battier said. “Physically, not too many guys can match up with him at his size. He’s really agile at his size. As his skill develops and his knowledge of the game, I think he’s going to be a force.”
Battier takes a special interest in another Pistons player, fellow Duke alumni Kyle Singler. Their similarities extend beyond their shared college roots and playing for Mike Krzyzewski. Both are high IQ players with a knack for assimilating seamlessly with the players around them.
“Kyle’s smart enough to know what he needs to do to keep him on the floor and that takes a lot of different iterations, a lot of different forms,” Battier said. “That’s part of playing under Coach K. Coach K says, ‘Figure it out. Be a basketball player.’ The main thing Coach K taught us is, be a basketball player. Don’t get caught up in labels, caught up in narrative. Be a basketball player.”
“Kyle has a promising future in this league. He knows how to play. You look back at all the stuff that was said about him during the draft process and people missed the main point. Can the guy play? If you put him in an NBA game, will he be productive? And the answer is yes.”