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Breaking free

Defensive-minded Pistons open up their offense

Posted: Wednesday November 9, 2005 11:35AM; Updated: Wednesday November 9, 2005 3:26PM
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Carlos Arroyo; Flip Saunders
With Flip Saunders at the controls, Carlos Arroyo and his fellow Pistons have been free to attack the basket at will this season.
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images
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How much does a coach matter?

That's not an easy question to answer. Sometimes it is a lot, such as when George Karl arrived in Denver last season and the Nuggets suddenly morphed from mediocre to indomitable. Other times, it is not as clear. Certainly, a bad coach can take down an average-to-below-average team quicker than you can say "Tim Floyd." But what happens when a good coach takes over a team that is already good? Or, in the case of Flip Saunders, when he takes over a team that was considered to be very good in large part because of the coaching?

The manner in which the season plays out in Detroit will go a long way toward answering that, and if the first four games are any indication, the Pistons remain the team to beat in the East, regardless of what you may have heard about Indiana or Miami. At 4-0, Detroit is off to its best start since 1996 while averaging 102.3 points per game, an increase of almost 10 points a contest from last season. With each win, one expects that Saunders' reputation will be burnished, and that Larry Brown's may receive a nick or too. But one could also interpret the Pistons' success as a testament to Brown's coaching, the idea being that the players are so programmed, especially defensively, that they are almost self-coaching at this point.

After watching Detroit last night at Arco in Sacramento, I left with the feeling that the credit lies with both men: Brown for instilling the veteran group with excellent defensive principles and unselfish offensive ones, and Saunders for knowing not to mess with a good thing on defense and for installing a fast-breaking offensive system that appears a perfect fit for the Pistons personnel. Time and again Tuesday night, Detroit cleared a defensive rebound and triggered a break, leading to easy dunks or lay-ups. On at least two occasions, the Pistons even ran breaks off of made baskets; the most impressive occurring in the first quarter when Rasheed Wallace grabbed the ball out of the net and fired a beautiful 3/4-court baseball pass to Richard Hamilton, who laid it in, summoning visions of a Detroit-Marymount attack. It sounds weird to say that Detroit might have one of the best fast-breaks in the league, but it could be the case. Here are three reasons why:

1. Reliable defensive rebounding. This starts with Ben Wallace and could, conceivably, end with him. But Rasheed and Tayshaun both rebound well (as does Antonio McDyess) and both Detroit's guards are above-average boarders. More important, both Wallaces -- and especially Rasheed -- are adept at firing outlet passes off of rebounds. Last night, Ben kicked one rebound out to Chauncey Billups before returning to the ground, while Rasheed made a number of textbook long outlets.