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INSIDE THE NBA
What's wrong with the Pistons? Grant Hill tried to answer that question from reporters 30 or 40 times, in polite, respectful fashion. Then, last Saturday in an interview with SI, the All-Star forward, angry with what was quickly becoming a lost season in Detroit, dispensed with good manners and deplored the state of his team. Two days later Doug Collins, Detroit's coach for 2 1/2 seasons, was fired and replaced by assistant Alvin Gentry.
After winning 54 games in 1996-97, the Pistons were expected to be contenders for the Eastern Conference title. But at week's end, after dropping four of their last six, they had slid to 21-24 and were tied with the Celtics for the 11th-best record in the conference.
"You know what's wrong with us?" said Hill, also voicing the thoughts of several teammates. "We're not that good. My first couple of years here, we took some steps in the right direction. But now it's like we're going backwards. This is the most frustrated I've ever been in my career."
At the center of Detroit's storm was Collins, the fanatical coach who demanded perfection and was relentless in his pursuit of it. No one questioned Collins's exceptional knowledge of the game, but players found it difficult, and in some cases impossible, to respond to his frenetic style. Sources told SI that in at least two meetings with owner Bill Davidson, Hill recommended a coaching change.
When asked about those meetings, Hill bristled. He acknowledged that he had huddled with Davidson, but he wouldn't divulge the substance of their conversations. "If the owner wants to meet with me, then of course I'm going to sit down with him," Hill said.
Hill has no interest in being lumped with Penny Hardaway, who has been branded as the spoiled athlete who led last season's palace revolt that brought down Magic coach Brian Hill. The difference, as several Pistons sources attest, is that Grant Hill worked hard at trying to peacefully coexist with Collins.
But the relationship of the coach and his superstar suffered a crippling setback in the aftermath of a Jan. 24 NBC interview in which Hill declined to endorse Collins. Six days later Hill was called into his coach's office, and the two engaged in a heated discussion that ended when Hill uncharacteristically shouted back at Collins. "There's no going back with those two now," reported one member of the Pistons afterward.
In the meantime Hill's performance was suffering on the court, where at week's end, though he was averaging 21.5 points, his field goal percentage was 43.6%, down from 49.6% last year. Some of the same media members who once embraced Hill as the "next Michael Jordan" are now dismissing him as overrated. But what they fail to note is that a considerable amount of talent has left Detroit over the last two years, leaving Hill to carry too much of the load.
In '95-96 Hill, shooting guards Joe Dumars and Allan Houston, and power forward Otis Thorpe were the core of an up-and-coming club. But Houston bolted to the Knicks as a free agent two seasons ago, Thorpe was shipped off to the Grizzlies last summer in the wake of his highly publicized clashes with Collins, and Dumars, his best years behind him, has struggled with injuries. Also, center Terry Mills, who last season helped with the long-range attack, left the team as a free agent for the Heat. The December acquisition of shooting guard Jerry Stackhouse from the 76ers has helped put more points on the board, but he's a scorer, not a shooter. "So now we're a bunch of clones," Hill said of the club Gentry inherits. "We've got all slashers"Stackhouse and guards Lindsey Hunter and Malik Sealy"and no deep threat to keep the defense honest."
The Pistons thought they had upgraded the team by signing free-agent center Brian Williams, whom they were banking on to provide a physical presence up front. But according to team sources, Williams has been a major disappointment, providing neither toughness nor intensity despite averaging 17.2 points. His teammates and coaches are frustrated because Williams misses too much practice due to various minor ailments.
In one respect Detroit's decline has taken pressure off Hill: He is no longer referred to as the next Jordan, a burden that's been transferred to 19-year-old Lakers star Kobe Bryant. Is Hill relieved? "In some ways, I'm kind of jealous," he said. "Kobe is in such a great environment. I'd love to see what it's like to be around three other All-Stars [Shaquille O'Neal, Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel]."
Hill won't know anytime soon. Dumars, the only other current Piston ever to make an All-Star team, will retire this summer, leaving Hill to wonder howand whenDetroit can turn it around again. "I know I'll be criticized until I win a championship," he said. "That's how it was with Michael and Hakeem. But it's hard to watch us get further away, instead of closer to that goal."
Issue date: February 9, 1998
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