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Identity crisis (cont.)

Posted: Wednesday May 31, 2006 9:58AM; Updated: Thursday June 1, 2006 6:02PM
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No matter what direction Flip Saunders takes the Pistons in, it won't be done without the strong guidance of Joe Dumars.
No matter what direction Flip Saunders takes the Pistons in, it won't be done without the strong guidance of Joe Dumars.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

This week one of the most respected voices in the league shared a startling point of view with me: His belief is that the Pistons have been overrated. While playing in the weaker conference with a consistent lineup that avoided injuries, they won only one game more than San Antonio and just four more than Dallas -- even though those Western powers were bogged down by poor health all season.

Ironically, the Pistons are facing a coach in the East finals who knows all too well the dangers of peaking during the regular season. In his previous life Pat Riley used to burn out his Miami teams in the regular season, leading to complaints that they were chronic underachievers in the playoffs. But this year his Heat used the 82 games to jell while the Pistons are in the unfortunate position of failing to raise their level of play in the postseason.

No doubt the next era of the Pistons will become a joint venture between Saunders and his team president, as Dumars must not only share Saunders' vision going forward but also find a way to implement it.

That could mean a renewed commitment to defense, which at least would make Ben Wallace happy. (Amid Wallace's legitimate complaints that Saunders' practices have emphasized offense at the expense of defense, Wallace offered some reasonable perspective. "I don't think we're that far off," he said of the Pistons' defensive commitment. "Some nights we come out and show it, and some nights we go through the motions." In other words, the problems can be fixed.)

It could also mean a change in personnel, such as importing a scorer who can beat his man off the dribble and exploit the hands-off defensive rules that have liberated all of the young athletic slashers, from Dwyane Wade to Devin Harris.

But does that mean -- barring a comeback over the next week -- breaking up their starting five with a trade this summer? That's a question for Dumars to consider over the month to come, in consultation with Saunders. But Dumars' philosophy is renowned: Whether it's moving Jerry Stackhouse after his finest year or replacing Rick Carlisle and Larry Brown in spite of big successes, he will do whatever he thinks the Pistons need to improve. He won't make a move just to shake things up -- he might have to wait until next season to find the right acquisition -- but if he believes that this team has lost its killer instinct, he won't let the malaise fester.