Deconstructing Detroit's Playoff DemiseThe NBA Finals do not begin until Thursday, so before turning our attention completely to the Spurs-Cavs matchup--which will be a better, more closely contested series than some might think--let's take a look at what happened to the Detroit Pistons, who were the fashionable pick to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals this year. Regular visitors to this site know that I never bought into that. This is what I wrote about the Pistons in my 2006-07 Eastern Conference Preview:
Reasons for hope: Detroit has All-Stars Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace, plus Tayshaun Prince, who certainly can play at an All-Star level. This team has won a championship and advanced to the NBA Finals, so they know what it takes to win playoff series. Reasons to mope: Ben Wallace was the heart and soul of this team and personified the team’s identity as a hardworking group that focused on defense and played with a chip on its shoulder because so many players on the roster had been let go by other teams. Supposedly, the absence of Wallace will allow Flip Saunders’ “liberation offense” to reach new heights of efficiency. We heard that same story all throughout last season—how much better off Detroit was with Saunders at the helm instead of Larry Brown—but the “liberation offense” was less than impressive during the postseason. Critics say that Wallace can be easily replaced on offense but that ignores the extra possessions he created with his offensive rebounding. Bottom line: That crashing sound you just heard was Detroit’s window of opportunity to win a championship slamming shut.
People who picked Detroit to win the Eastern Conference fell for the same smoke and mirrors that fooled observers into believing that Muhammad Ali did not have a chance against George Foreman in the fight that became known as "The Rumble in the Jungle." Supposedly, Foreman was an unbeatable giant while Ali was a smaller, aging underdog. Look at the "tale of the tape": Foreman checked in at 6-3, 217 and Ali measured 6-3, 210--they were basically the same size. Now look at the "tale of the tape" for Detroit and Cleveland. Strip away talk of Detroit's championship pedigree (how long can you live off of the 2004 championship?) and championship swagger and you have a 53 win Detroit team facing a 50 win Cleveland team that extended the Pistons to seven games in last year's playoffs. Sure enough, the teams proved to be as evenly matched as their records suggested, with the first five games going down to the wire; in that type of series, one would expect that the team that has the single biggest star would have a greater opportunity to win--and that is exactly what happened, as LeBron James either made the shots or created open opportunities for his teammates by drawing double-teams.
The Detroit Pistons never backed up their sense of championship entitlement by actually playing championship level basketball for a sustained period of time in the 2007 playoffs. As Mitch Albom wrote after the Cavaliers eliminated the Pistons, "There is no royal cloak on this team. They weren't robbed. They weren't exiled. They lost four straight to a young, hungry franchise and left the arena as second runner-up in the NBA playoffs. So long, swagger. By the time the Pistons boarded the bus, the shadow they thought they cast had disappeared permanently into the dark sky of another unhappy ending." In another article, he delivered some pointed criticism toward the Pistons:
Either Flip Saunders or the players. Somebody is going to go. Joe Dumars is rightfully proud of the team he has assembled, and he has bucked the NBA trend of "superstar first," but results are results, and Dumars isn't in this to keep watching the Finals on TV...Either these Pistons, as a unit, can no longer deliver the big victories, or Saunders was simply ineffective in making adjustments and rallying their talent. Either way, standing pat is not an option. Remember, hunger was what got the Pistons their one championship this era: the hunger of players discarded from other teams, the hunger of a coach (Larry Brown) who'd never won the big crown.
Hunger roared the Pistons past a supposedly unbeatable team -- the star-studded L.A. Lakers -- in just five games in the 2004 Finals.
But since that championship year, hunger has been replaced by hubris, an attitude that nobody beats the Pistons, they just, on occasion, beat themselves. Instead of surprising teams, they get surprised. They struggle where they shouldn't. And near the end of the rainbow, they fall off.
Honestly, since the Lakers went down, can you remember any series -- beyond the perfunctory first rounds -- that wasn't a struggle for these Pistons? They let weaker teams get off the mat. They give back most early advantages they have. Doing things the hard way became their mantra.
Flip Saunders knows a lot about basketball. He can design a million beautiful inbounds plays and he loves to tinker with various wrinkles in his zone defenses--but what he has shown that he cannot do is lead a very talented team in a manner that helps it to maximize its potential at the highest levels of postseason play. In 2006, the Pistons had four All-Stars and made a run at 70 wins but they didn't even make it to the Finals, let alone win a title. This year, Saunders supposedly flipped the script (pardon the pun), using the regular season to develop his bench and not worrying about chasing 65-70 wins. His team responded by sleepwalking through most of the playoffs, only playing hard or with focus for short stretches, before losing four straight to a Cavaliers team that has little overall playoff experience and exactly one All-Star. Not only is Saunders not the right coach to lead Detroit but--and this is just as important--his players don't think that he is the right coach. That is why at every step of the way when things get tough they start talking back to him and questioning his strategies. We saw that last year with Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace and it has been well documented that there was a lot of dissension in the ranks during the Cleveland series this year.
Saunders does not deserve all of the blame, of course. The players must be held responsible for not performing at their usual levels. Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Chris Webber did not distinguish themselves against Cleveland. Richard Hamilton had his moments--and seemed like the only Piston who showed up from beginning to end in Game Six--but also went through some bad stretches. The elephant in the room, though, is Ben Wallace, the four-time Defensive Player of the Year who the Pistons did not re-sign. The Pistons can say that they intentionally sacrificed regular season wins this year in order to be better prepared for the playoffs but the bottom line is (1) that did not work, because they went out in the same round that they did last year and (2) there is no getting around the reality that Wallace's new team, the Chicago Bulls, won more games than they did in 2006 and advanced a round further in the playoffs while his old team won fewer games than they did in 2006 and did not do any better in the postseason. Wallace's first replacement, Nazr Mohammed, sank so far on the Pistons' bench that he collected barnacles and his second replacement, Webber--who was not part of the Pistons' original 2007 plans and simply fell into Detroit's hands by a stroke of good fortune--helped to salvage the regular season but did not have a big impact in the playoffs. TNT's microphones captured a very telling sequence during a Cleveland timeout in Game Six. James implored his teammates to "lock down" on defense because they could then go to the other end of the court and "get whatever we want." Kenny Smith noted the significance of that statement: who would have ever thought that the Pistons' defense would fall to a level where their opponent would have such confidence playing against them? Look at how many highlight reel dunks James had in this series. Look at how many defenders Detroit had to shadow him with to slow him down, which enabled Daniel Gibson to shoot wide open jumpers or blow by rotating defenders to get into the lane. Those things did not happen to the Pistons when Ben Wallace was patrolling the paint. Contrast last year's dominant Game Seven performance by Detroit with any game from this year's series and the difference is clear and striking.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:46 PM