Pep in their step
Pistons banking on young reserves for energy boost
Posted: Thursday July 12, 2007 2:31PM; Updated: Thursday July 12, 2007 5:48PM
LAS VEGAS -- Is Dallas still relevant after losing in the first round to Golden State? Do the Suns have another run at the title in them? Are the Cavaliers likely to build on their Eastern Conference championship?
You may answer "yes'' to all such questions, but for the teams themselves, the future is never assured. Even Spurs coach Gregg Popovich admitted -- shortly after winning his third championship in five years -- to worrying earlier in the season that he might have lost his team, that it might be tired of hearing his demands. As much as the Spurs dominated the playoffs, Popovich had questioned a few months earlier if they could regain their form.
Joe Dumars understands. "If you've ever walked that championship road, you know how hard it is, how fortunate you have to be to get there,'' the Pistons' president said. "You never hear champions talk casually about what it takes, and when you miss an opportunity, it's devastating because you never know when that opportunity will come again.''
Dumars considered making a major trade to improve his starting lineup after Detroit ceded its 2-0 lead to Cleveland in the conference finals. "If the right opportunity had presented itself, I wouldn't have hesitated,'' he said. But he was never going to tear down his lineup and start over.
Instead, he is planning to make another run with the 2003-04 championship core that has reached the last five Eastern finals. For all of the talk that the Pistons are yesterday's news, Dumars notes that his team lost three games to Cleveland by a total of 12 points. Instead of a makeover, maybe all Detroit needs is a little extra push to get through its conference and back to the Finals.
That's why he is presenting coach Flip Saunders with four young players off the bench -- Jason Maxiell, Amir Johnson and first-round rookies Rodney Stuckey (No. 15 overall) and Arron Afflalo (No. 27) -- to provide jolts of caffeine to a team that has seen and done everything already. The Pistons have played 99 postseason games over the last five years, and Dumars is empathetic.
"These guys are human,'' he said. "We ask them to play into May or June every single year for the last five years, and so when they get into January, February and March, they need something to get excited about.''
The 6-5 Stuckey has emerged as one of the best players at the NBA Summer League here, averaging 19.3 points, four rebounds and 2.7 assists in his first three games for the Pistons. During his two years at Eastern Washington, he was forced to take on all roles to help his team win -- scoring, playmaking, rebounding and defending.
"When you play for the Eastern Washingtons and the McNeese States of the world,'' said Dumars, whose Hall of Fame career began at McNeese State, "no job is too big. There were times on the floor he would make big-time plays and he just didn't have the talent around him to complete the play. I watched him closely for his reaction to his teammates, and he always reacted the right way -- he never showed an attitude or a negative reaction.''
Dumars envisions Stuckey as a combo guard capable of playing alongside Chauncey Billups or Richard Hamilton. Afflalo will take over for inconsistent Carlos Delfino, who was recently moved to Toronto to open up a backcourt spot for the 6-5 rookie from UCLA. Others in the Pistons' front office see in Afflalo the same traits of character and leadership that Dumars brought as a Pistons player two decades ago.
Dumars is following a simple formula. When Billups, Hamilton and Ben Wallace were young, he complemented them with veterans off the bench. Now that his starters are in their late 20s to early 30s, the bench needs to grow younger. That's why Dumars is anticipating bigger roles for young forwards Maxiell and Johnson, both of whom are highly valued within the organization. Against smaller lineups, the Pistons may follow the Spurs' lineup and shift Rasheed Wallace to center with Maxiell starting at power forward; depending on free agent Chris Webber's future with the team, the Pistons could also go traditionally big with a front line of Nazr Mohammed and Rasheed Wallace. It's obvious that the Pistons are trending away from waning veterans like Webber in order to revitalize their team with younger, lively legs.
The transition to youth off the bench will present issues. There will inevitably be ugly stretches and frustration with how much Stuckey and the others have yet to learn. But the Pistons' goal will be to finish April with a better second unit than they've had in recent years, one that could ultimately inspire their elder starters.
"The question has to be, Are we good enough?'' Dumars said. "When we were swept in the 2003 conference finals by New Jersey, I said we're not good enough. I look at us now and I see that we're still good enough.''