I seldom remember such a disheartening loss for the Detroit Pistons. Chauncey, Rip, Sheed, and Tay all cared at the end…when it was too late…when missed opportunities had squandered their quest for legitimacy.
Amidst one of the finest streaks of playoff consistency ever, the Pistons are now very far away from securing the coveted second NBA championship that could secure their place in history.
Instead, they will probably be remembered for their startling inconsistency, one game seemingly unflappable and unbeatable, and the next disinterested and entirely fallible.
The Pistons are now laden with veterans who are past their prime. Joe Dumars must make the decisions that should lead to a major shakeup in the organization.
Only twice during their impressive playoff run has this team proven that it is any better than the fourth-best team in the league.
And the defeated look on the faces of the Pistons as they handed the Eastern Conference Championship to the Boston Celtics in Game Six told the story.
Defeated By Ego
At some point during the last six years, the Pistons decided that they were the best basketball team ever to walk the face of the planet.
I don’t think it happened immediately after their win over the Lakers in the 2004 championship (though that helped), because that was so wholly unexpected and new.
I also don’t think it was the following season, when they barely lost the championship to a San Antonio squad in its prime.
No, it was the year after that, the 2005-06 season when they posted the league’s best overall record. By the end of the regular season they were habitually getting down by double digits only to come roaring back.
They bought into themselves as a score first team and let off on the defense and rebounding that made them unstoppable. Now we only saw desire in spurts.
Sheed was shooting more and more three’s, Chauncey was “Mr. Big Shot” and quiet self-composed Tayshaun was “The Prince.” The system was often abandoned in favor of one-on-one ball, and they were predictably bounced by Miami after struggling with baby Bron’s Cavaliers in the NBA playoffs.
We heard things like, “no big deal,” “we still think we’re the better club,” and “we’re not going anywhere.” And they were right.
They didn’t go anywhere. They stayed at the exact same place, continually losing the Eastern Conference Finals. So why was 2005-2006 any different?
Well, that takes me to my next point.
Defeated By Coaching
Now when I say coaching I don’t mean coaching in the traditional sense. Flip Saunders probably runs a good practice, knows his playbook, offers strategic gametime advice, and gives his team the mechanical tools to win.
But he doesn’t offer leadership, which is what this team so desperately needs.
It needs somebody to tell Sheed to get his ass on the low block and STAY THERE. It needs somebody to tell Chauncey to get him the freaking ball when he’s down there. It needs somebody who sits them both on the bench if they don’t.
What’s different about the 2005-06 season? Larry Brown is different. Accountability is different.
The Pistons don’t have a superstar, and from a basketball skills point of view that isn’t a problem. They make up for that with All-Star caliber starters at every position.
The problem is they don’t have that super-driven perfectionist on the floor (i.e. Kobe, Garnett, Jordan) that is going to DEMAND that they play the right way all the time.
Larry Brown was the demand. Gregg Popovich is the demand for the San Antonio Spurs, whom I also feel lack that on-floor quality.
Sadly, though he's a great guy and a good coach, Flip never held the respect of his starters and didn’t have the nerve to challenge his stars when they were struggling.
These Pistons needed a jockey with a heavy hand, and the styles of Brown and Saunders were mimicked in the on-floor product.
And as that product is now beyond its best playing days, we come to our last point.
Defeated By Age.
They aren’t as quick as they used to be. I can’t remember the last time Billups took somebody off the dribble. Sheed drifts to the outside because he can’t battle down low like he used to.
Though we have young athletic bench players capable of those things (Stuckey and Maxiell), they were not adequately deployed. See Coaching above.
Rip played very well throughout the playoffs and seems to still have some quicks, but he was never the most athletic player in the first place.
So maybe I should have called this section “Defeated By Time” because each of the Pistons' starters would still be a valuable addition to most of the teams in the league. It’s only together that they are old.
Their window has closed. Remaining unchanged, this team may reach the Eastern Conference finals again in the weakened East, but don’t expect them to bring home the NBA title.
The “what-if’s” will be their legacy and the title a nice afterthought.
I should point out that I am a lifelong fan of the Detroit Pistons and have love for Flip, and Chauncey, and Sheed, and Tay, and Dice, and Ben, and all the other players who have made the last few years so entertaining.
I should also point out that the future of Detroit basketball seems bright. The young kids show promise and the trade possibilities seem endless.
But I think this is the last we’ve seen of this team as it is. If Joe Dumars does his job, some of the celebrated starting five will be gone. So I’d like the opportunity to say goodbye and good luck to those who are moving on.
There is wisdom to be had in defeat, if only you’re humble enough to find it.