Will Iverson Provide a Championship Answer for Detroit?Before this season began, did you believe that the Detroit Pistons had a very good chance to win the Eastern Conference? Did you think that the Denver Nuggets could even make the playoffs in the Western Conference, let alone advance past the first round? If you answered "yes" to either of those questions then you are apparently more optimistic than the general managers of those franchises: the 2008-09 season is not even a week old and those teams have agreed to swap All-Star guards, with Detroit sending 2004 NBA Finals MVP Chauncey Billups, Antonio McDyess and Cheikh Samb to Denver for 2001 regular season MVP Allen Iverson.
Iverson and Billups are obviously the headliners in this deal. As for McDyess, he is a former All-Star (2001) and All-NBA Third Team player (1999) but at this stage of his career he is a good but not great player; he was included in the deal primarily to make the financial numbers work (Iverson makes more than $10 million per year more than Billups so by NBA salary cap rules they cannot be traded straight up for each other). The middle portion of McDyess' career was wrecked by injuries but he played in all 82 games in 2006 and 2007 and only missed four games last year. He has developed an effective midrange jumper and is still a solid rebounder. He could potentially provide much needed frontcourt depth for Denver but it has been reported that he only wants to play for Detroit and will be seeking a buyout from the Nuggets; he could very well reach a settlement with Denver and end up right back in Detroit.
The Pistons are trying to squeeze out one more title with their veteran core while still retaining the ability to reload with young players without taking a huge step backwards; the Nuggets have finally realized that their mixture simply is not working and that they have to restructure their roster in order to be a viable Western Conference contender--but it is reasonable to wonder if this particular restructuring really represents a tangible improvement of the team's short term or long term prospects.
Coach Larry Brown led Detroit's core group of Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton to an NBA title in 2004 and an NBA Finals appearance in 2005. Since Brown's departure after the 2005 season, the Pistons have made three straight Eastern Conference Finals appearances but have not returned to the NBA Finals. Ben Wallace signed with the Chicago Bulls after the 2006 campaign, leaving a hole in the middle of Detroit's interior defense that has yet to be filled. This summer, Joe Dumars replaced Coach Flip Saunders with assistant coach Michael Curry, so it is interesting that before Curry even had a chance to try to win a title with the remains of the 2004-05 core Dumars made such a drastic personnel change.
There are two primary reasons that the Pistons have not been back to the Finals:
(1) Flip Saunders is a very knowledgeable and solid NBA coach but he is not of the same caliber as Hall of Famer Larry Brown, who is the only coach to win an NCAA championship (Kansas, 1988) and an NBA title (Detroit, 2004). More importantly, Detroit's players never respected Saunders the way that they respected Brown, so in tight situations each player had a tendency to do what he thought was right instead of the whole group following Saunders' lead. Brown emphasized defense and "playing the right way," while Saunders emphasized his so-called "liberation offense" and did not demand as much from the players as Brown did.
(2) Detroit's defensive dominance depended to a great extent on having Ben Wallace lurking in the paint as a weakside shotblocker. Rasheed Wallace was a secondary shotblocker and having those two players patrolling the lane allowed Prince, Billups and Hamilton to play very aggressive perimeter defense. The absence of Ben Wallace had a chain reaction effect: Rasheed Wallace was now asked to do more defensively and then someone else had to step in to fill his previous role. The problem is that Rasheed Wallace is simply not as good at Ben Wallace's role as Ben Wallace was and none of Rasheed Wallace's replacements could fill his role, so the domino effect was a serious weakening of Detroit's defense. Did this show up in regular season numbers? Not necessarily, because the Pistons can beat a lot of teams in the NBA based on talent alone. However, in the playoffs against elite teams it became obvious that the Pistons were not as good as they had been in 2004 and 2005. LeBron James drove down the lane repeatedly in the 2007 playoffs versus Detroit without Ben Wallace present as a deterrent. The 2008 Boston Celtics dominated the Pistons in the paint in the Eastern Conference Finals. Is Detroit's goal to perform well in the regular season in a bunch of statistical metrics of defense or to be able to consistently get stops against elite teams in the playoffs?
A third, lesser problem for the Pistons is that the decline in their defense placed a bigger strain on their offense. The "liberation offense" was supposed to be the answer for that but throughout Saunders' tenure the Pistons went through key stretches in playoff games when they struggled to score or even get off good shots. Brown's Pistons may not have been an offensive juggernaut but they were a lot better defensively than Saunders' teams and when they really needed a score they could rely on Brown to call one of their precision offensive sets that they would execute very efficiently. Saunders gave his players the freedom to do what they wanted offensively but this just led to lack of discipline and poor execution.
It remains to be seen how much of an upgrade--if any--Coach Curry will be over Coach Saunders. McDyess started 78 games for the Pistons last year, so by shipping him out Dumars is showing great confidence that young big men like Jason Maxiell and Amir Johnson are ready to be significant contributors. It is highly unlikely that the Pistons will be able to replicate the suffocating defense that they played when the two Wallaces guarded the paint.
So, what all of this means is that the Pistons are hoping that their defense will not slip any further and that Iverson's ability to create shots for himself and for his teammates will result in fewer offensive droughts come playoff time. Billups earned the nickname "Mr. Big Shot" during the Pistons' glory years but he seems to have slowed down a bit in recent seasons. He is a solid playmaker but not really someone who breaks down defenders off of the dribble. In contrast, Iverson is a dynamic offensive player who has not only averaged at least 26 ppg for the past 10 seasons but has also averaged 6.3 apg during his career, nearly a full assist per game more than Billups has averaged. Iverson is perceived as a ball hog but he is a skilled, creative passer and he has proven that he is willing to give up the ball--for example, in game seven of the 2001 Eastern Conference semifinals versus Toronto, Iverson had a playoff career-high 16 assists in an 88-87 Philadelphia victory. Earlier in that series, Iverson had several huge scoring games--including a pair of 50-plus point outbursts--but that game seven passing display showed that he is willing and able to make teams pay for double-teaming him. The Pistons have several players who are capable of making open shots, so down the stretch in games opposing teams will now have to choose between guarding Iverson one on one or trapping him and hoping that Iverson's teammates do not convert their open opportunities. Billups has never really been a player who has to be double-teamed--except maybe on the post in certain matchups--and that is one reason that the Pistons' offense has bogged down in crucial late moments of playoff games.
Iverson is more than a year older than Billups but Iverson "seems" younger and fresher. I have repeatedly said that Iverson is the most amazing athlete that I have ever seen in person--he is not the greatest basketball player I have ever seen but for someone who is very charitably listed at 6-0, 165 to be as productive as he has in the NBA is truly amazing. Iverson has led the NBA in mpg seven times, including a 41.8 mpg average last year. Only Wilt Chamberlain (nine times) has led the NBA in mpg more often than Iverson and Chamberlain was more than a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier than Iverson. Iverson's shot selection and shooting percentages offend both fans and "stat gurus" but he is durable, he is a productive scorer and passer and in 2001 he proved that he can be the best player on an NBA Finalist.
Chemistry and complacency are also factors here. In recent years, the Pistons have played as though they think that they are entitled to receiving a free pass back to the NBA Finals. Say what you will about Iverson but he competes and plays hard every night. Perhaps this shakeup will help the Pistons to regain the edge--and edginess--that they have been missing.
OK, you are thinking, that all sounds good but what if this doesn't work? What if the Pistons again fail to make it to the NBA Finals? Any time a trade is made it is important to consider the financial ramifications. Iverson is in the final year of his contract. That means that the Pistons will try to make one title run with this group but if this does not work out for whatever reason then they can let Iverson walk and thus gain a lot of salary cap flexibility; the Pistons could therefore potentially make a run at signing LeBron James and/or other free agents. The funny thing is that it seems like half the teams in the league are dreaming that they can make a run at LeBron James but Dumars understands that even if he cannot sign James he could still use the salary cap space to add a legitimate franchise player to build around.
I know that the "stat gurus" will love this deal for Denver; they consider Iverson to be vastly overrated and therefore will say that the Nuggets won this trade from a talent standpoint even if McDyess is cut loose. I admire and respect Billups' game and what he has accomplished in the NBA. He is a better one on one defender than Iverson and by virtue of his body type Billups can play a more physical game than Iverson--but Iverson is a more dynamic and explosive player and therefore a more difficult challenge for opposing teams to guard. While it is true that Iverson's departure will give Carmelo Anthony and other players more opportunities to shoot, it is not clear exactly how this will make Denver a significantly better team. Denver's problems largely reside at the defensive end of the court. Simply replacing Iverson with Billups will not make that much difference defensively, especially since the Nuggets previously lost the services of Marcus Camby. If Anthony can now challenge LeBron James for the scoring title and J.R. Smith increases his scoring average to 20 ppg will Denver be markedly improved?
It is not clear what exactly Denver's plan is. If the Nuggets had retained Iverson's services for one more year then they could have let him walk and received the same salary cap benefit that the Pistons now have the opportunity to get next summer. The Nuggets certainly are not going to win a title with Billups this year and they probably will not even make the playoffs. So what is the point of giving the Pistons the chance to acquire more salary cap space in exchange for receiving Billups' contract, which runs through 2011 with a team option for 2012? I don't understand how this trade either helps the Nuggets win now nor how it will help them build a team that can win in the future. Even if the Nuggets far exceed any reasonable expectations and win one playoff series this year, is that worth losing the salary cap flexibility that Iverson's expiring contract provided? The Nuggets need a bona fide young star to pair with Anthony and they need to develop a team-wide understanding of the importance of defense.
Both teams are taking a risk but that is true of any deal: players can always get hurt, lose motivation or not mesh with their new teammates. The upside for Detroit is the possibility that Iverson will add a new dynamic offensively that will enable the Pistons to return to the Finals; failing that, the team will now have the salary cap flexibility to add a young star. The risk/reward balance for Detroit is pretty good. The upside for Denver is the possbility that Billups' better man to man defense against point guards is worth a few wins and that the other players will be happier and more productive because they will inherit Iverson's shot attempts but even in the best case scenario it is hard to picture Denver advancing past the first round. So what happens after this year? The downside for Denver is that it is entirely possible that the team will not perform better at all or will not improve enough to even make the playoffs. The risk/reward balance for Denver is not very good at all.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:52 PM