Can the Detroit Pistons Roar Back Into the Eastern Conference Elite?

Naim KalajiContributor IIJune 13, 2010

Defense wins championships.

Never has such a statement been so true than when the Detroit Pistons won the NBA championship in 2004. In a 4-1 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, Detroit gave up only 90.8 PPG on average in the five games played.

In the 2003-2004 regular season, the Pistons were ranked as the second best defensive team in the league, giving up just 84.3 PPG, while holding opponents to an average of 41.3 percent from the field.

The 2007-2008 season marked the last time that Detroit was among the Eastern Conference's top four teams. They made the playoffs that year as the second seed, losing to the eventual champion Boston Celtics in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals.

After that year, the Pistons traded star player Chauncey Billups, as well as Antonio McDyess, in a trade with Denver for Allen Iverson. Detroit signed two additional players in Will Bynum and Kwame Brown.

The result? An eighth seed in the 2008-2009 campaign, and a first-round battering at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

This last season (2009-2010), they did even worse.

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Detroit failed to reach the playoffs with a dismal 27-55 record, despite the signings of Ben Gordon from Chicago and Charlie Villanueva from the Bucks. The Pistons also traded defensive specialist Arron Afflalo to Denver, and saw Rasheed Wallace leave to the Celtics.

For Detroit, their engine is in need of serious repair, and fast.

While everything is running smoothly on the offensive end, the Pistons have significantly regressed defensively, a far cry from the 2003-2004 defensive stalwarts. The Pistons this year were one of the worst defensive teams.

Although they gave up under 100 PPG, they allowed teams to shoot 48 percent from the field, fifth worst in the NBA.

So, after so many years of success, how can the Pistons reach those standards after two years of failure? Quite simply: defense. While becoming a better defensive team won't win them the championship straight away, the Pistons are well capable of establishing themselves as an elite team in the Eastern Conference. They also have to look for a big man who can score in the low-post area.

Detroit must seek a trade in order to find a defensive wing and/or a scorer in the post. This means trading one or more of the over $10 million contracts.

At the moment, Detroit's starting lineup looks like this:

PG: Rodney Stuckey                                                                                        

SG: Richard Hamilton                                                                                       

SF: Tayshaun Prince                                                                                        

PF: Jonas Jerebko                                                                                            

C: Ben Wallace

Rodney Stuckey is highly admired by Joe Dumars, president of basketball operations for the Detroit Pistons. The team wanted to build around him for a few years now, ever since they traded away Billups. While Stuckey has shown some potential, he hasn't yet proved to be a franchise player who provides the foundation for a team to be built around him.

However, Detroit shouldn't think about letting him go.

Tayshaun Prince is one of three players from Detroit's starting lineup who was a starter in the championship season. He defends well, has a high basketball IQ, can score well, and thus has proven that when healthy, he is a very valuable player to the team.

The two Detroit big men, though, have deficiencies. Jerebko is a rookie who has shown plenty of promise in his first NBA season. However, he is undersized to play that position and lacks the physical body strength.

Ben Wallace is as good a player defensively as there ever has been in the NBA. However, he has never had an offensive arsenal that is worth sweating about.

The Pistons also have a lot of talent on the bench. Charlie Villanueva, Ben Gordon, and Will Bynum have all shown what they can bring to the table. In fact, Detroit's roster on paper is much better than what they have to show for it.

So, who could be traded in an attempt to upgrade Detroit's roster?

Rip Hamilton.

Hamilton is making $11.375 million with three years left on his contract. Although it isn't a horrible contract, it certainly is the best one to get rid of if the Pistons are to get someone valuable in return.

There are many teams that would be interested in Rip Hamilton. He is an excellent shooter of the basketball. He seldom creates his own shot, but is able to move exceptionally without the ball through a maze of screens and picks. Teams that execute systematically on offense would benefit from a pure scorer like Rip.

One of the trade rumours going around last year was the Hamilton-Boozer trade. Both are on similar salaries. For the Jazz, they would receive a potent scorer at the SG position, something they lack with their current team.

In addition, Paul Millsap's development means that Boozer might not be as important to the Jazz as initially thought. For Detroit, they get a low-post scorer and a great rebounder, as well as a fairly decent defender.

Despite the trade seemingly appearing beneficial to both teams, one questions whether Boozer, a highly desired free agent come July 1, would choose Detroit over a number of attractive NBA teams.

An alternative to a Hamilton-Boozer trade is a Hamilton-Jefferson trade. By Jefferson, I mean Al Jefferson, star big man of the Minnesota Timberwolves. At full fitness, Jefferson is a 20-10 man every night. That is a rarity in this league. With Minnesota requiring a wing scorer, Richard Hamilton fits the bill.

Furthermore, the Timberwolves can focus on further developing Kevin Love, who didn't enjoy a successful partnership with Jefferson. 

Jefferson himself can help the Pistons in terms of post scoring, possessing a deadly inside game. This would seem a much more likely trade than the Carlos Boozer one.

Assuming that Hamilton is now traded for either of these big men, it now opens up an opportunity for Ben Gordon to really shine. Gordon hasn't had a fruitful opening season in Detroit uniform, largely part to him staying on the bench as well as injury. When Gordon started games, he was much more effective, averaging over 20 PPG. On the bench he averaged in between 13-15 PPG.

The starting lineup would begin to look like this:

PG: Rodney Stuckey                                                                                        

SG: Ben Gordon                                                                                              

SF: Tayshaun Prince                                                                                        

PF: Carlos Boozer/Al Jefferson                                                                            

C: Ben Wallace

That starting lineup alone could land Detroit into fifth place at worst.

Another important factor in improving the Pistons is motivating Charlie Villanueva. Villanueva has been a major disappointment since his arrival to the Motor City. That doesn't detract from the fact that he can be a very good player when he wants to be. It is imperative that Villanueva performs well, plays hard, and attempts to defend better if Detroit is to go places.

The rest of the bench would include players such as Jerebko, Jason Maxiell, another promising big man who defends well, and Will Bynum—a constantly developing PG.

Finally, keeping Ben Wallace is crucial as he is their best defensive player by a country mile. Statistics show that Detroit wins more games with him at the heart of their team, so keeping him is key if Detroit wants to retain any of its diminishing defensive identity.

In a nutshell therefore, these are the main keys to bringing the Detroit Pistons back into elite (or thereabouts) status:

  • Trade Richard Hamilton
  • Add a low-scoring big man e.g. Boozer or Jefferson
  • Motivate Charlie Villanueva
  • Hope that Ben Gordon produces
  • Get a decent draft pick

Detroit might still need a while before it re-capture its 2003-2004 championship form, but meeting the five main requirements would certainly steer it into the right direction.

Things might get better yet when two of the current top four Eastern teams may find themselves in potential turmoil for next season. With the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers possibly losing Joe Johnson and LeBron James respectively, the door has opened slightly more for Detroit to enter the kingdom of the elite.

Offense can only get you so far. Just ask the Phoenix Suns.

If the Pistons are to get back to winning ways, and back into championship contention, then they must play the defense that made them who they are.

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