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Nasty surprise

Dismantling of bench is key to Detroit's early-season struggles

Posted: Tuesday December 7, 2004 11:45AM; Updated: Tuesday December 7, 2004 3:25PM
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Corliss Williamson
Back in the day, Corliss Williamson was a sparkplug off the bench for the Pistons.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Welcome to the brave new world of the 2004-05 NBA, where the the Suns and Sonics are unbeatable, the  Wizards have the best record in the East, and the Pacers find themselves playing with Jamaal Tinsley and four guys from the Ft. Wayne YMCA.

So given those developments, perhaps it's no surprise that the defending champion Pistons are just 9-8 after 17 games. Of course, the fight with Indiana has been the main attention-getter in Detroit's campaign, and the team clearly was hurt by Ben Wallace's six-game suspension.

However, that shouldn't mask the champs' genuine struggles. Flash back, if you will, to how things stood right before the cup of ice hit Ron Artest. The Pistons were getting absolutely smoked in their own building, 97-82, by the Pacers. This was their third double-digit loss in eight games, without a single double-digit win to the team's credit.

In fact, even if one just focuses on the eight games Wallace has played, Detroit is a modest 6-3, including a 12-point setback against a mediocre Toronto team. While most teams would take 6-3 in a heartbeat, one must remember this is the same juggernaut that was nearly unbeatable after last winter's Rasheed Wallace trade, going 20-4 with a 13-point victory margin in its final 24 regular-season games. Clearly, something's amiss.

On the surface, the Pistons' struggles defy logic. The team returns the same five starters -- Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, and the two Wallaces -- that won a championship a year ago. Plus, none was showing signs of age or injury. Thus, it's perplexing that the quintet isn't producing the same results.

The answer lies in the performance of Detroit's bench, or lack thereof. Last year, Elden Campbell, Mehmet Okur, Corliss Williamson, Lindsey Hunter and Mike James combined to terrorize opponents on the second unit, but offseason moves denuded the Pistons' once-endless depth.

As a result, that group is now a shadow of its former self. The frontcourt unit is mostly intact, with Antonio McDyess filling the role of the Okur, who departed for Utah over the summer. But the other three spots have suffered. James left as a free agent to join the Bucks, and he was important in several ways. First, he teamed with Hunter to create suffocating full-court pressure that led to numerous steals and lay-ups. Second, he was a natural point guard who could create plays off the dribble and let Hunter play off the ball. Finally, his shooting stretched defenses.

With James gone, Hunter now has to play the backup point spot, which is a challenge for him because he can't blow by anyone offensively. Defensively, he's also appeared to lose a bit of his energy from a year ago because at 36, he's had to play too many minutes.

Then and now
Detroit bench in 2003-04 vs. 2004-05
2003-04 Pts/40 min FG% 2004-05 Pts/40 min FG%
Hunter 7.1 34.3 Hunter 10.7 39.1
James 13.7 41.4 Parker 12.9 37.0
Williamson 19.1 50.5 Delfino 14.5 46.3
Okur 17.2 46.3 McDyess 14.5 51.3
Campbell 16.2 43.9 Campbell 17.0 39.6

The spot opposite Hunter now is filled by rookie Carlos Delfino, who may eventually be a better player than James but certainly isn't there yet. Delfino is less potent offensively and, like most rookies, has struggled to learn NBA defense.

Losing James was a setback, but an even bigger problem is that general manager Joe Dumars gave away the centerpiece of the second unit, Corliss Williamson, in a cost-cutting move and has yet to come up with an adequate replacement.

It sounds odd to call Williamson the centerpiece since he only played 19.9 minutes a game. But the 2002 Sixth Man Award winner's presence in that group was essential. He was the one legitimate post scorer, so he could be the focal point of the halfcourt offense when James and Hunter weren't stealing the ball in the backcourt. Moreover, he represented a matchup nightmare for opposing coaches. A powerful 6-foot-7 forward, Williamson nonetheless was comfortable playing small forward and abusing opposing wings on the blocks. Yet he was versatile enough to slide over to power forward as needed and blow past slower players.

Unfortunately, Detroit wanted to clean up its future salary obligations. With three years and roughly $18 million left on Williamson's deal, the Pistons' brass thought it best to trade him to Philadelphia for the expiring contract of Derrick Coleman (technically there's a team option for 2005-06, but as we're about to see, Dumars would have to be clinically insane to pick it up). Off the court, this made sense, but on the court it was a huge setback. Coleman is about the sixth-best center on the Pistons' roster right now. It's not his fault -- at 37 with bad knees, the dude can barely walk, let alone play basketball -- but Williamson's departure left a glaring hole in the second unit that Detroit is unsuccessfully filling with the likes of Smush Parker and Darvin Ham.

Fortunately for the Pistons, the playoffs don't start tomorrow. Dumars has shown he can rearrange the furniture at midseason to address his team's needs, as he did last year when he brilliantly acquired James and Rasheed Wallace at the trade deadline to jump-start Detroit's championship run. He'll need to pull off the same magic this winter if he's going to get the second unit back up to snuff.

In the meantime, the Pistons still can win regularly in spite of the bench's shortcomings because their starters are so good, a fact they proved when they ran Dallas out of their own building on Monday. However, the reserves were the difference-maker for them a year ago. Without them, they're just another good team. That might be enough to get them a deep playoff run in the perenially weak Eastern Conference, but it's hard to imagine the Pistons defending their title without Dumars getting midseason reinforcements that can adequately replace the Big Nasty's production off the pine.

Odds and ends

• Atlanta rookie Josh Smith is absolutely, positively Da Bomb. His 11-point, 10-rebound performance against Philadelphia Monday night -- in just 18 minutes --included the game-winning basket on an offensive rebound, followed by a race out to the corner to block Aaron McKie's last-second 3-pointer. In his last four games, Smith is 15-of-23 from the field with 39 points and 21 rebounds in just 63 minutes. Oh, and he's 19 years old. 

• Does it make any sense at all for Charlotte to trade two second-round picks for Kareem Rush? If the draft were re-held today, would this guy even get picked? He's played 91 minutes and made four baskets. Yes, four. How many chances does this guy need to prove he can't play?

• Worse yet, the act of acquiring Rush inflicted two other bad moves on Charlotte. First, the Bobcats apparently intend to start Rush, which means they're keeping Keith Bogans --  who can actually play -- on the second unit. Second, in order to make room for Rush they made the bizarre move of cutting Eddie House, who was having a career year. I guess Bernard Robinson and Tamar Slay were too valuable. Needless to say, I have no idea what Bernie Bickerstaff is thinking with this move. 

• Anyone who doubts Andrei Kirilenko's status as one of the 10 best players in the game should check out how the Jazz are faring in his absence. It's especially noticeable on defense, where they can't stop anybody without Andrei's octopus arms swatting five shots a game. 

• Finally, I'll leave you with this thought: With every game that Scott Skiles leaves Chris Duhon in the starting lineup, I become a little more convinced that maybe this NBA coaching thing isn't his bag.