Posted: Wednesday November 9, 2005 11:35AM; Updated: Wednesday November 9, 2005 3:26PM
2. Track team finishers. Billups might be the strongest point guard in the league, Hamilton is tireless and Prince has the length and agility to swoop to the rim for tough finishes. Even the reserves are built to run; Carlos Arroyo looks far more comfortable scampering about this year than he did last and reserve guard Maurice Evans, who came over from Sacramento, is an athletic freak. Better yet, Detroit doesn't have any lugs; all their big guys can get out as trailers on the break.
3. Good decisions. It's a veteran squad, so the chances the Pistons take are usually good ones. Billups' tendency to go it himself is a strength on the break, something it isn't in the half court. Prince is an underrated passer, and can bring the ball upcourt if needed and Ben Wallace, to his credit, usually knows when not to dribble and instead give it to the nearest shooter ASAP.
The upshot of all this is that the Pistons are scoring. A lot. Of course, they haven't exactly played stellar competition -- Philly, Boston, Sacramento and Toronto -- but consider that last November they scored more than 100 points only twice, and one of those was an overtime game. This year, they've already done it three times in four games, while not sacrificing much on the defensive end (opponents are averaging just over 85 ppg).
Along the way, Saunders has made some heady defensive adjustments. Against the Kings, for example, he had Prince shadow Peja Stojakovic on defense, then went to Prince repeatedly on offense, working on the theory that you can tire a guy out by making him play D (as Rasheed helpfully explained after the game, "Peja's a bitch to guard, but he don't play any defense," something to which Prince's 25 points on 10-for-13 shooting attested). Saunders also focused on shutting down the Kings' use of the elbows at the free-throw line, where Sacramento big men like Brad Miller traditionally set up to make high post passes.
About the only part of the Pistons that wasn't impressive on Tuesday was the much-maligned Darko Milicic. I know he averaged 2.9 blocks in the preseason, and that he's supposed to be a practice stud, and that Joe Dumars loves the guy and he's got a web site nominally devoted to his emancipation (FreeDarko), but, at least right now, he looks lost. Literally. He lost his man on defense, he didn't know where to go on offense and when he set a "screen" in the pick-and-roll he didn't even wait for the defender to make contact before rolling, so anxious was he to get the ball. On one defensive sequence, he got beat underneath, then reached in when the pass came to his man, fouling on a made layup. Then, when his man missed the and-one free throw, Milicic gave him another chance by committing a lane violation. I don't mean to pick on the guy, because these are garbage-time minutes and he's young and no doubt nervous, but it was tough to watch.
That said, there's very little else that's disappointing about these Pistons. The players profess not to take sides about the coaching transition -- "they're both great coaches, that's all you can say," says Hamilton -- but it's clear they're enjoying themselves. Alley-oop passes, slashing breaks led by Billups, long post-pattern passes. "It's fun," says Hamilton. "We get up and down the court trying to get easy baskets. It makes half court that much easier." Saunders, for his part, says he's been impressed with his new charges. "The thing I've noticed is that there are no big egos," Saunders says. "Nobody's trying to be the man."
More important for the success of the team, neither is he. How much credit he gets for that remains to be seen.