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Monday, June 04, 2007

Deconstructing Detroit's Playoff Demise

The 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


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At Monday, June 04, 2007 10:06:00 PM, Blogger Tom said...

First, game 6 was the ONLY game that didn't come down to the last shot. In games THAT close, the outcome is as much determined by a call or no-call, a lucky bounce, etc. as it is coaching or players. If just one of x-factors outside their control had gone another way, it could have been a 4 game sweep for the Pistons -- or the Cavs.

And even in game 6, it was a 1 point game going into the 4th quarter ... so why was this game different?

In a word: age.

Daniel Gibson is 21 years old. LeBron James is 22. Drew Gooden is 25. By contrast, Billups is 30, Wallace is 32 and Webber is 34.

The Pistons are like a decade older than the Cavs, and simply didn't have enough time to recover from the very intense, double overtime game they'd just played two nights prior.

It wasn't that the Pistons suddenly lost the desire to win, or forgot their Xs and Os, they just couldn't get their dead legs to move.

The statistics bear that out.

Offensively, the Pistons' shooting percentage went from 46% in the first half, to 25% in the second half, and 20% in the 4th quarter.

Defensively, the open looks by Daniels and co. which led to the Pistons demise, were made possible because the Pistons' hammered legs could not overcome the Cavs' excellent spacing.

And in terms of hustle, the Pistons were out rebounded by 29 (when you include team rebounds)!

The post game interviews bear that out as well -- particularly Billups.

To be competitive in the fourth quarter of game 6, the Pistons would have either needed to be younger, or have had a more reliable bench so that the starters could have logged less minutes.

When you think about it, the reason the Pistons lost is more Dumars' department than Saunders.

But then again, it is REALLY hard to know when your players age has caught up with them. Look at Shaq. Buss dumped him because he thought Shaq was too old, but there was another championship in those bones.

Pistons need to both acquire and develop younger talent, then they'll be fine.

At Tuesday, June 05, 2007 2:54:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

You have an interesting take on the series--but I don't buy the theory that age had much to do with the outcome. I am generally hesitant to embrace reasoning that can stretch enough to explain any result; in other words, if Detroit had won several close games, then the argument would be that veteran savvy won out over inexperience.

I don't see how anyone could have watched those six games and felt like a Detroit sweep could have been a possible outcome in any scenario. As Charles Barkley and many others have noted, Cleveland outplayed Detroit in every game. Detroit's win over the Lakers in 2004 was called a "five game sweep" because the Lakers needed a great effort by Kobe to just win one game. Well, this was a "six game sweep"--if Marshall makes his Game One three pointer and if just one of Cleveland's late shots in Game Two fell then Cleveland would have won every game.

Detroit has been moving backwards--in terms of playoff success, not regular season record--ever since Larry Brown left. This is the second year in a row that the Pistons were the number one seed in the East but did not advance to the Finals. Some people say of Phil Jackson or Pat Riley that anyone could coach talented teams to championships but Flip Saunders is proving that this is not the case. Even talented teams need the right guidance to fully reach their potential.

The fact that most of the games were close (and low scoring) only heightens the importance of coaching. If every game were a blowout, then it would be easy to conclude that one team is simply much more talented--but in close games every possession counts and strategic missteps (like sitting out Billups and Hamilton at the start of the fourth quarter) can be disastrous. If Billups and Hamilton needed rest, then Saunders should have taken them out just before the end of the third, so that they could rest during the timeout between quarters.

Gibson was open not because the Pistons were tired but because they made a conscious decision to triple team LeBron and hope for the best. As Fred Carter would say, ball is faster than man; LeBron passes when he is trapped and no rotating defense is going to be faster than those passes. The necessity to triple team LeBron resulted from his Game Five heroics and from the fact that Ben Wallace was not there to deter anyone from driving to the hoop. You can blame Dumars for Wallace not being there but part of the reason Dumars let him go is that Wallace questioned Saunders' strategies (sooner or later it all comes back to that).

There are no back to backs or four game in five night situations in the playoffs, so the scheduling actually favors the veteran teams, which is why veteran teams often succeed against younger teams in the playoffs. I can assure you that before the series plenty of people thought that Detroit's experience would be a decisive advantage and no one expressed the theory that Cleveland's youth and energy would be a decisive factor (I picked Cleveland to win the East before the playoffs began but not for those reasons).

As for acquiring/developing talent, sometimes that is easier said than done. Also, the Pistons could have had Bosh instead of the since traded Milicic and could have retained Okur, who became an All-Star in Utah. Dumars got a pass for those moves because they won a title in '04 but it looks more and more like a team that might have won several championships is going to have to content itself with one title and start the rebuilding process. Cleveland and Chicago are on the rise and this Detroit team as presently constituted is not going to win the Eastern Conference Championship again.

At Tuesday, June 05, 2007 2:58:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that the Piston's age caught up with them - I guess we all saw that the longer the series, the bigger chances Cleveland had, but I don't think that the outcome of close games is determined by random or almost-random events.

I think that close games get decided by execution. Give me three good executions in a row, be it two defenses around one offense or the other way around, and the game is mine.

I did not like Lebron's execution in the last second plays of the first two games (it's amazing how clever I get on hindsight): it's not that the plays were themselves bad or wrong, it's that he did not execute them with authority. He was brimming with confidence and authority in the next four games, he was determined to get the W and had the ability to do so.

The Pistons had to either disrupt his execution or match it with their own execution, and they did neither. They executed poorly on defense and they were not better than average on offense in the clutch.

I am sure that age was a factor in their lack of execution, but I would say that not so much as a poor execution (relatively poor, of course, you don't make it to the conf. finals on poor execution) by the coach and the main players.

At Tuesday, June 05, 2007 3:10:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I don't understand how age can be considered a factor in Detroit's lack of execution. The Pistons are a veteran team, so why should their age be a detriment from an execution standpoint?

I also disagree that LeBron did not play with "authority" in Games One and Two. In Game One he drove straight to the hoop, drew a defender and passed to a wide open three point shooter. Rip Hamilton admitted after the game that Sheed was not supposed to leave Marshall alone in the corner, so I think that it is funny that LeBron is criticized for his decision making on a play when the Pistons actually blew the coverage. The fact that Marshall missed the shot does not reflect on LeBron's decision making or the "authority" with which he played. He was asked prior to Game Six about his alleged "growth" during this series but he insisted that given the same circumstances in the future he would make the exact same play that he did at the end of Game One. As for Game Two, he drove hard to the hoop and took a shot in the paint. Again, this was a sound play, but he simply missed the shot (and seemed to have been fouled, though nothing was called).

When Larry Brown coached the Pistons they were a man to man, physical and hardnosed defensive-oriented team, anchored by Ben Wallace in the paint. Saunders likes to use gimmicky zones on defense and focuses a lot of attention on his pet offensive plays--but those plays seem to work a lot better in December against bad teams than they do in May and June against good teams. Detroit needed to either focus on shutting down LeBron or else play him one on one with Prince and not give up open looks to anyone else; that is how the Spurs defend Amare, who scored a ton of points in '05 and '07 as the Spurs beat the Suns. The Pistons got the worst of both worlds as LeBron led the Cavs in scoring and assists in the series. Even in Game Six he scored 20 points because they could not defend him without fouling.

At Tuesday, June 05, 2007 3:28:00 AM, Anonymous jn said...

Sorry about the anonymous bit, blogger seems to hate this computer with a passion.

Age may disrupt execution, clearly: we have all seen players and teams who knew what they were supposed to do to get the win but no longer could because their bodies would not follow. Also, losing stamina over age means you are more tired at the end of hard games, decreasing your performance and clouding your intellect. Getting old is a mare.

Said that, I do not think that age was a major factor for the Pistons. The just could not execute well enough to impact the games, and it all depended on Lebron and the Cavs executing. When they did, they won; when they did not, they lost.

You don't make it to the finals by depending on whether the other team executes or not. You have to make things happen for yourself and dare the opposition to make things happen as well, just like the Cavs did. They did their moves and put pressure on the Pistons to come through or fade out.

I said that I did not like Lebron's execution on the first two games, and I did not - not just in the final plays but overall. Focusing on the "infamous" last plays, I did not think that decision-making was at fault. Both were solid plays which came mimimetres away from falling in. I just did not see the will to command the game as I later saw it in Lebron. I did not like the fact that he never looked at the basket during the play in the 1st game and the fact that he allowed physical defense to take him out of his path in the 2nd game.

It's no big deal but tiny details, things that could happen to anybody. But that's what decides such close games. That's the kind of plays he just nailed in the last four games: when he passed, it was because he saw a great pass, not because it had been drawn so during timeout; when he took it to the basket, he could not be stopped short of attempted manslaughter.

I am not saying his last plays in the first two games were bad at all: they were all-star caliber, to give it a name. It's just that for the last four games, he moved into MVP territory.

At Tuesday, June 05, 2007 4:19:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous 2

I think the pistons is an older team but dont think age was the whole factor though they just got beat by a team that wanted it a little bit more than they did as barkley and david said this was a 6 game sweep they were outplayed every game so i donbt think the pistons were too old either.

lebron exploded games 3-6 the first two games he didnt play as well I thought he tried to assert hiself but the shots just wasnt falling once he got on it was over the piston interior d was weak they didnt help tayshaun enough and he got exploited unlike kobe he doesnt drive nearly as much lebron and not nearly as strong. all prince has to do was stay with kobe and hope the shot doesnt go in where with lebron he had a qucikness advantage and a strength and muscled prince and went right around him and even if prince stayed with him he was strong enough to go through him consistently a whole diffrenet beast than wade or kobe.

they could of let him score 40 and try to keep everybody else down but they didnt he was still getting 7 or 8 asists a game as well as have big scoring games he was the diffrence not the pistons age. lebron james and his great ability to get his teamates involved and get himself involved as well, and the piston stook them for granted early thinking they werent as good as they were and they were wron and therefore there at home and the cavs will play the spurs

At Tuesday, June 05, 2007 5:42:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I never had a problem with the Game One play but I also would not have had a problem if he would have shot it. If he shoots and scores, then you have an overtime that either team may have won. LeBron is a pass first player, so he elected to pass, which also had the added potential advantage of providing a lead instead of a tie. I think that MJ or Kobe probably would have shot in that situation but that either decision was valid in that instance.

I had a slight problem with the Game Two play and I mentioned it in my post after that game: LeBron had one-on-one coverage, so taking the shot was a good play, but he should have gone up with two hands instead of one (Hubie Brown always talks about this). That way he would not have been so easily knocked off balance and he could have had a potential three point play.

I think that LeBron's decision making is very good for the most part. The only thing that he does that I am not crazy about is shooting those fadeaway jumpers from 20-23 feet when there is still enough time on the shot clock to pump fake and get a closer, more on balance shot. Of course, he does make a fair share of those shots, as evidenced by his field goal percentage, but he'd shoot an even better percentage if he took that shot out of his repertoire; MJ and Kobe's fadeaways come from about five to eight feet closer to the hoop and they are more on balance--upper body square to the hoop--on the release. I can't ever remember seeing MJ shoot a fadeaway three pointer and Kobe generally only does that in a last second (of the shot clock or the game) situation.

At Tuesday, June 05, 2007 2:47:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous 2

yeah your right those fadeaways from 25 feet are not good shots kobe and jordan are closer to the basket when they shoot there lebon comfortable with that shot agianst the spurs in a crucial situation he should do what he did in game 5 agianst the piston s drive to the basket not take fadeawys.


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