By Kenn Ruby
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
General Manager Joe Dumars said he wanted to clean house this offseason, yet as of this writing, the top seven scorers from the 2007-2008 Pistons were still on the roster, and the only significant addition was Kwame Brown.
Yes, that Kwame Brown.
True, the Pistons hired a new head coach. Gone is Flip Saunders and his 176-70 record in three years with the Pistons. Newly hired is Michael Curry who has all of one year coaching experience - as an assistant with the Pistons. Curry has held important roles in the NBA front office and was president of the NBA Players Association for four years, but that hardly qualifies him to run an NBA team.
Yet Curry brings a history of defensive tenacity and fresh blood to Motown, and perhaps that was what the Pistons have been missing as they've bowed out of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference Finals in each of the last three years.
The Pistons are a bit long in the tooth - the average age of their projected starting lineup is 32 - but their second team of Brown, Jason Maxiell, Amir Johnson, Rodney Stuckey, and Arron Afflalo has an average age of 24. In other words, we may see a youth movement in Detroit even as they're contending for the championship.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
The aforementioned starting lineup may be getting up in years, but it's still one of the best lineups in the NBA. Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, and Tayshaun Prince will start nearly every game this year, logging 30-40 minutes a night easy. Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess may be another matter. While Wallace has avoided some wear and tear by hanging out near the three point line, the decline is coming and may come fast. As recently as 2005-2006, Wallace averaged 35 minutes a game - this season he'll be lucky to average even 30 minutes a night. McDyess, at age 33, averaged 29 minutes/night last year, which is probably about as high as we can expect in the coming season.
Backing up Wallace at center will be Brown, but it's still unknown just how much Curry will want to play him. McDyess or Maxiell can move over to center when necessary, but if it turns out that Brown can't contribute much, the Pistons may need to look for someone else to fill that gap. Cheikh Samb is a thin-as-a-rail 7'1" shotblocker who will probably spend more time in street clothes than in a Pistons uniform this year.
Maxiell is more likely to back up McDyess at the four, though when he slides over to center he could be joined in the frontcourt by Johnson, who can play either forward position. Maxiell is usually the first big man off the bench and could play upwards of 30 minutes/game this year. Walter Herrmann and rookie Walter Sharpe will be able to play either forward position in a pinch, but it's unlikely either will crack the regular rotation this year.
Stuckey averaged about 19 mpg his rookie season, but that number should increase as he's entrusted with leading the second unit. Afflalo, and to a lesser extent, Will Bynum, will also see some time in the Detroit backcourt this season. However, if Billups, Hamilton, Prince, and Stuckey remain healthy, minutes will be hard to come by.
Rasheed Wallace: You always have to take the bad with the good with Wallace, but last year was probably more bad than good. Although he only missed six games all year - none due to anything handed to him by David Stern - he went through prolonged shooting and scoring slumps throughout the season. His virtual disappearance in April could probably be explained away by resting up for the playoffs, but how do you explain a three-week stretch in December in which he averaged just 9.9 ppg and shot just 38% of the field? Wallace will be 34 when the season starts and has been on a steady decline for years. He may get more threes than any other centers out there, but the decline of his rebounding, scoring and field goal percentage make him an iffy fantasy proposition this year.
Kwame Brown: Given that Detroit drafted Darko Milicic while Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade were still on the board, you would think they might know something about great draft busts. Brown was the top draft pick in 2001 but has never lived up to his potential, disappointing the Wizards, Lakers, and Grizzlies faithful. He's still just 26, however, and has shown brief signs of competency in the past. This is really a no-lose situation for Detroit - they get a cheap and experienced (not to mention big) backup. If he doesn't work out, he didn't cost much and the Pistons still have Jason Maxiell and Amir Johnson on the roster just in case.
Tayshaun Prince: Prince is one of the most durable players in the NBA, currently working on a streak of 355 consecutive games started. Over that period, Prince has been good for about 14 points, five rebounds, and three assists a night, adding can't-hurt-you percentages from the field and from the line. For someone with a reputation for being a strong defender, however, he doesn't get many steals or blocks, so there's definitely a ceiling to what Prince can provide fantasy-wise.
Antonio McDyess: On the surface, McDyess' stat line from last year doesn't look very interesting. He averaged just 8.8 ppg and 8.5 rpg. One number that stands out, however, is the 29.3 minutes per game mark, his highest total since his All-Star days in Denver nearly a decade ago. Dice was the leading rebounder for the Pistons last year and figures to be again this season, but the continued growth of Jason Maxiell and Amir Johnson will make him less fantasy-worthy this year.
Jason Maxiell: Did Maxiell take the step up that many were forecasting last year? Yes and no. While he played in all 82 games and established career highs in nearly every significant statistical category, he still only played 22 minutes a game, limiting his overall value. With Wallace and McDyess not getting any younger, Maxiell could get quite a few double-doubles this year (he only had four last year), adding some blocks and an excellent field goal percentage.
Amir Johnson: After two cups of coffee with the Pistons in his first two years in the league, Johnson finally got a chance to show what he could do with extended playing time last season, and he did not disappoint. He'll never be a scorer, but he already appears to be an elite shot blocker and a decent rebounder. He'll likely be a regular part of the rotation this season.
Chauncey Billups: For a guy who came into the season at 31 and averaging about 100 games a year over the last four years, Billups did a nice job of slowing his decline. Despite averaging about four minutes fewer per game, he more or less matched his 2006-2007 totals last year, and even set personal bests in steals and free throw percentage (no mean feat for a player with Billups' talent from the stripe). The Pistons may rest Billups even more this season, as Rodney Stuckey looks ready to play heavy minutes at the point.
Richard Hamilton: Hamilton is one of the steadiest players in the NBA. In his last eight years, he's averaged between 3.1 and 3.9 rpg, 17.3 and 20.1 ppg, 2.5 and 4.9 apg, 44 and 49% from the field and 83 and 89% from the line. Despite the consistency, there might be cracks in the armor. That 17.3 ppg mark came last year, a year in which he missed 10 games and suffered through a sore hip through much of the spring. A declining scoring average (including under 15 ppg after the All-Star Break) is not what you want from the guy who is supposed to lead you in scoring every night.
Rodney Stuckey: When Stuckey was drafted in 2007, he was trumpeted as the best Pistons draft pick since Darko Milicic. We all now how that turned out. Seriously though, Stuckey was expected to contribute immediately, and he might have done just that if he hadn't broken his hand a week before the opener. Stuckey missed the first 25 games of the season. Although he struggled his first few months in the league, he stepped his game up in the final two months, averaging 10.0 ppg, 3.0 apg, and shooting 44% from the field and 85% from the line. He's the heir apparent to Billups, who, it should be said, had similar numbers his first year in the pros.
Arron Afflalo: Afflalo was the less-heralded rookie in Detroit's backcourt last season, but he made his mark far earlier, starting in the regular-season opener and in eight other games. Although he's a good rebounder given his size and relative lack of minutes, he's not much of an assist guy. However, with Flip Murray, Juan Dixon, Jarvis Hayes, and Lindsey Hunter all out of the picture, the path to playing time for Afflalo is a little easier.
Will Bynum: Bynum spent the last two years playing for the highly-touted Maccabi Tel Aviv team in Israel before signing a multi-year deal with Detroit in July. He's expected to be the third point guard, occupying the same role the departing Lindsey Hunter filled for the Pistons the last several years.
Rodney Stuckey: Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups are not getting any younger. Stuckey, who will be the first guard off the bench, is just 22 and has already shown he can put the ball in the hoop at the NBA level. If he can work on his passing, he may be able to fill the box scores on a consistent basis, even as a backup. Certainly points, assists, steals, and free throw percentage are categories in which he will be able to contribute as early as this season.
Amir Johnson: You're looking at those 82 blocks and 235 rebounds in 764 minutes and extrapolating to starter's minutes aren't you? Hmm…let's see, if he plays three times as many minutes, he's averaging…4.0 blocks and 11.4 rebounds a game!!! I must have him on my team!!! Other than excessive use of exclamation points, there are flaws in your thinking. While there's no doubting his raw talent, Johnson got a lot of those blocks and rebounds during garbage time last season. He should get a bump in his playing time as he regularly plays in the rotation, and he'll still be a good source of blocks, but don't expect him to keep up his pace while he's playing against real starting power forwards in December and January.
Article first appeared on 9/10/08