By Kenn Ruby
RotoWire Staff Writer
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
After flirting with 70 victories for most of last season, the Pistons finished with an NBA best 64-18 record. Championships aren't won in the regular season, however, as Detroit lost to Miami in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals. This past summer the team's heart-and-soul, Ben Wallace, bolted for Chicago and their four-year, $60 million contract. His replacement, Nazr Mohammed, does not exactly overwhelm the Detroit faithful. Still, there is reason for optimism. First of all, while no one will be comparing Mohammed to Wallace any time soon, he joins the best starting lineup in the NBA, teaming up with point guard Chauncey Billups, shooting guard Richard Hamilton, small forward Tayshaun Prince, and power forward Rasheed Wallace. Secondly, coach Flip Saunders may open up the offensive playbook now that the offensively challenged Big Ben is gone. That could mean more opportunities for everyone, especially Prince. Ronald Murray was imported from Cleveland to beef up the bench, and Antonio McDyess is another year removed from the injuries that almost ended his career. Sixty wins could be within reach, but there seems to be a sense that Detroit has dropped back to the pack, and with Chicago, Cleveland, Indiana and Milwaukee all improving over the offseason, Detroit will be hard-pressed to win the Central Division for the third straight season.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
The Pistons had the most stable starting lineup the league last season, but with Ben Wallace now in Chicago, Detroit may rely more heavily on their bench than they have the last few seasons. The four returning starters all averaged around 35 minutes per game last season, but they all have a lot of mileage on them from deep playoff runs the last three years. The Pistons expect to employ a very strong eight-man rotation, with McDyess in his customary sixth man role. Murray will provide the offensive punch off the bench and back up both Billups and Hamilton. Carlos Delfino should see more time this season and play the two or the three with the second unit. Jason Maxiell, who shined in limited appearances last season, may crack the rotation with a strong October. He'll be battling with Dale Davis for the scraps behind Rasheed Wallace, Mohammed, and McDyess. Lindsey Hunter is basically on board to provide a veteran presence until he's moved into the front office. He'll mentor rookie Will Blalock, but neither will get off the bench much this season. Second-year forward Amir Johnson and old friend Ronald Dupree round out the roster, but if either sees significant time this season, it probably won't be in a Detroit uniform.
Nazr Mohammed: Mohammed leaves one championship contender in San Antonio and moves to another in Detroit. He's athletic and can run the floor, but is still developing an offensive game. He's a reliable rebounder, especially on the offensive boards, but not the way Ben Wallace can, so he needs to deliver in more than one category.
Dale Davis: If this season is like the last one, there will be long stretches of time where Davis doesn't even get off the bench -- he didn't score his first field goal until February -- and he only played more than ten minutes in a game three times all season. Still, he's a tough veteran who can always provide a big body in the paint.
Rasheed Wallace: Wallace has consistently been an all-around fantasy producer for several years, but the Pistons hiring of Flip Saunders last season helped amplify one of the dimensions of Wallace's game and raise his fantasy stock. Wallace's quality mid-range/deep jumper combined with the Flip Saunders offense, which is built around wide-open jump shots, led to Wallace knocking down a career-high 1.9 three-pointers per game. When combined with his other numbers, those three-pointers take Wallace from a middle-round pick to someone that could easily be considered in the first three rounds. And while the loss of Ben Wallace might hurt the Pistons as a team, his absence both opens up the offense further and also leaves more rebounds available for Rasheed this season.
Tayshaun Prince: After a promising 2005 season, Prince took a step back in 2006, seeing his averages in points, rebounds, assists and field goal percentage decrease. He did average 14.1 points and 4.2 rebounds last year, but only shot 45.6% from field after averaging 14.7 points on 48.7% shooting in 2006. Prince is a solid one-on-one defender, but he averaged only 0.8 steals and 0.5 blocks last year, making him a two-dimensional fantasy player (points and boards). Prince does see a lot of minutes (average of 35.3 last year), but with the Pistons' core offensive players intact, his role won't change much in 2007.
Antonio McDyess: No one will ever confuse the current McDyess with the McDyess of 1998-2001, but he has quietly become one of the best reserve big men in the league. Playing behind the Wallaces the last two seasons, McDyess has averaged 8.7 points per game and 5.8 rebounds per game in 22.2 minutes. The Pistons plan on resting Rasheed a little more this year, and there's no way Mohammed will play as many minutes as Ben Wallace did. In other words, McDyess could be pushing 30 minutes per game for the first time since he was an all-star.
Jason Maxiell: Antonio McDyess will back up Rasheed Wallace and Nazr Mohammed, but the next big man off the bench will be Maxiell. The second-year forward didn't get off the bench much last year, but in the last two games of the season he had 19 points and 16 rebounds in 49 minutes. With Dale Davis getting very long in the tooth, the Pistons hope Maxiell can give them a solid 15-20 minutes a game.
Chauncey Billups: The transition from Larry Brown's system to Flip Saunders' netted big dividends for Billups - in the 2005-06 season, Billups posted major increases in points per game (18.5, up from 16.5 in '04-'05) and assists (from 5.8 to 8.6 per game) while keeping his stellar three-point and free-throw percentages intact. The loss of Ben Wallace shouldn't impact Billups' numbers all that much. Even with Big Ben manning the middle, Billups didn't gamble for a lot of steals (0.9 per game last year). What could make a difference, though, is the presence of a bench scoring option. Last year Detroit's bench was among the thinnest in the league. This year, Flip Murray and the improving Carlos Delfino might take some of the scoring load from the first unit.
Richard Hamilton: Hamilton had a career-year in some areas while regressing in others due to Flip Saunders' offensive scheme. The offense is predicated on the point guard handling the ball almost exclusively, with intricate passing schemes that lead to wide-open mid-range jumpers. Hamilton has an excellent mid-range game, so this offense fit him like a glove, as he set a career-high with 20.1 ppg and shattered his previous FG shooting record by making 49.1% of his 16.5 attempts per game (his previous high was 45.5%). On the other hand, because he handled the ball much less, Hamilton's assists reached a four-year low (3.4), and defensively his production also waned with five-year lows in rebounds (3.2) and steals (0.7). As the Pistons will likely run a very similar scheme this season, look for Hamilton to continue to be more of an impact in offensive and shooting percentage categories rather than the all-around contributor that he had flirted with becoming in 2004-05 under Larry Brown.
Ronald Murray: Murray averaged 11.2 ppg last season, but he really turned it on after joining Cleveland in February. In 28 games as a Cav - 25 as a starter - he shot 45% from the field and averaged 13.5 ppg. The Pistons expect Flip to be the offensive punch off the bench that they've lacked in previous years. He'll be the primary backup to both Billups and Hamilton.
Carlos Delfino: In the past, there had been a lot of grumbling from the Delfino camp that he hasn't gotten enough playing time in Detroit. Until last April, Delfino had given no indication that he deserves the extra time. In the final two games of the regular season, however, Delfino came off the bench to score 35 points and add 13 rebounds and five steals in 56 minutes. Currently he's in Detroit's plans to be a regular part of the rotation, and a strong October could put him in line to play significant minutes backing up Prince and Hamilton.
Jason Maxiell: With the starting five playing heavy minutes, there aren't a whole lot of sleeper candidates in Detroit. Maxiell was a beast while at Cincinnati, and could easily emerge as the second big man off the bench behind Antonio McDyess. The Pistons will be looking to spread Ben Wallace's minutes around, and Maxiell should grab his fair share of those minutes. He's a tenacious rebounder, and could help open things up offensively in the paint for Detroit.
Nazr Mohammed: As mentioned above, Mohammed is a strong rebounder, but anyone who expects him to replace Ben Wallace's production is going to be disappointed. Aside from the fact that he can't fill the boxscore like Big Ben, he's never averaged more than 28 minutes per game and it's unknown if he can handle the rigors of playing any more than that. He played just 17.4 mpg last year, and will need to do better than that in Detroit.
Article first appeared on 10/6/06