The Detroit Pistons.
It may come as a shock to most but the Detroit Pistons are a mere 2.5 games out of the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference. With the team coming along well lately it isn't irresponsible for Pistons fans to start getting excited about a playoff push during the second half of the season. Let's take a look at the five people who have helped the Pistons get to where they are now.
Ben Wallace blocking the shot of NBA Champion Kobe Bryant.
At 36, 'Big' Ben Wallace is not the same player he once was. No longer averaging double-digit rebounds or three blocks night in and night out, he's on his last legs as an NBA player.
But no matter now long Wallace remains on a Pistons roster he will always be its leader. Still averaging a steal and a block each game Wallace continues to give everything he has whenever healthy. As an ideal mentor to young post players Greg Monroe and Jonas Jerebko his value can never be understated. With the recent production from rookie Monroe one can attribute much of his increase in drive to the teachings of the NBA's defensive mastermind.
Greg Monroe getting physical with Pau Gasol of the Lakers.
The Georgetown rookie has completely turned things around in the past few weeks. In the past seven games Monroe has scored double digit points each time, with four double-doubles, and 18 steals. With four steals while guarding MVP candidate Dirk Nowitzki the Pistons center is starting to look like a real defensive option.
When Jonas Jerebko returns from his foot injury the Pistons will have a great pair of athletic engines under the basket.
Tayshaun Prince attacking the rim against the Atlanta Hawks.
As the only Piston who has started every game this season Tayshaun is continuing to be the most reliable figure in the organization. On both sides of the ball Prince continues to perform at a level sure to hook him a healthy paycheck after his contract is up at season's end.
At 50% Tayshaun leads the team in shooting, and he is the second-leading scorer. Though his stats have never been gaudy Tayshaun's value has always been in his all-around play. As a distributor, defender, and occasional point guard his versatility continues to be of great use to Detroit. While Ben Gordon is still finding his identity within the Pistons organization whenever a game is on the line you can bet the ball is in the hands of Tayshaun.
Tracy McGrady giving Kobe Bryant all he can handle on the defensive end.
The Pistons are 6-4 during games in which McGrady starts at the point guard position. When Rodney Stuckey had his early-season tirade Tracy was the one who stepped in to the run the offense. With his veteran savvy on display he has been able to wrangle the abilities of this offense and move them around effectively.
In the narrow loss to Western powerhouse Utah, McGrady posted a near triple-double and really took hold as the team's new primary point guard. As a consistent additional option at the point guard spot Rodney Stuckey is now free to work as the off-guard throughout much of the game.
Since his move from Houston to Detroit Tracy McGrady has managed to transform his game from a shot-heavy primary option to the background facilitator he has become. His recent connection with big man Greg Monroe has really provided Detroit with a good inside-outside combo in recent weeks. If Tracy can remain healthy his game will be aided by the addition of Jonas Jerebko, and the Pistons may well have a realistic shot at the playoffs.
John Keuster dialing up the offense.
It may be a little bold to label a coach as the team's most valuable player when the Pistons record is a porous 15-26, but Keuster's recent moves have really added credibility to his short career.
With mega-diva Richard Hamilton auditioning for his own episode of True Life "I'm Addicted to Drama" Keuster had the integrity to put Rip where he belongs, on the bench. With four straight DNP-CD in his game logs Rip is no longer a distraction for the players who still care about winning, and the value of his absence is showing. The Pistons are 3-1 since Hamilton's benching and are playing much better basketball. With consecutive wins over Dallas, Sacramento, and Toronto, all while managing triple-digit points in each victory, the Pistons offense seems to finally resemble that of a legitimate NBA team.
With Hamilton out of the equation the back court logjam is one piece lighter. As Tracy McGrady and Rodney Stuckey get the majority of starts at the guard positions Ben Gordon is free to come off the bench for 30+ minutes each night as he was accustomed to doing in Chicago. By giving more freedom to Tracy McGrady in the offensive scheme the Pistons are presenting opposing teams with more troubling match-ups. Now, McGrady and Stuckey have a height and strength advantage over most back courts in the Eastern Conference, and Ben Gordon, with his defensive deficiencies, is not forced to guard other legitimate scorers.
With the anticipated return of Jonas Jerebko after the All-Star break Keuster will be given another important piece to push for a playoff spot.
If the trade rumors involving Rip Hamilton come to fruition, and the Pistons receive power forward Tory Murphy in return, the Pistons will finally have depth in the front court. With Monroe, Wallace, Murphy, and Charlie V, Keuster will really be able to get creative.
Regardless of the team's record, Keuster's recent actions have earned him a lot of respect around Detroit. With the imminent sale of the team Joe Dumars and Keuster have been handcuffed in their attempts to add and drop certain pieces. But as more pieces return from injury, and others arrive via future, potential trades, Keuster will have a golden chance to prove that he is the right man for this job.