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Around 11 p.m. on Dec. 5, nearly two hours after the Detroit Pistons had finished off the Seattle Supersonics 95-91, the arena bar in the belly of The Palace of Auburn Hills was still packed with staffers and luxury-box types. Amid the crowd stood Vinnie (the Microwave) Johnson, one of the original Bad Boys from Detroit's championship teams of 1989 and '90, as fit and barrel-chested as ever. A glass of red wine in hand, Johnson, who runs an auto parts business, smiled and shook his head admiringly when asked about the early-season success of the Pistons, who were leading the Eastern Conference with a 13-6 record through Sunday. "They're finding a way to win," Johnson said, "and that's all that matters."
Johnson's endorsement was hardly grandiloquent—Ocean's 11 is finding a way to entertain!—but it was apt for this blue-collar Detroit squad. Buoyed by a newly selfless All-Star shooting guard and anchored by a coif-conscious power forward, the Pistons have won with defense, hustle and heart, which suggests that they have inherited their title-winning predecessors' hard-nosed ways, if not their Hall of Fame talent. For the Detroit faithful disappointed by teams that have been more Mediocre Boys than Bad Boys, with one playoff series win in 11 years, this season's heady start—not to mention a return to the red-and-blue uniforms of the glory days—has stirred pleasant memories. During the win over Seattle, fans could even be heard repeating, tentatively at first, the description of the Pistons intoned by the PA announcer at regular intervals: Best team in the East.
Of course, it is far too early to call the Pistons contenders. More likely they will turn out to be an overachieving squad similar to the Orlando Magic of two seasons ago—a scrappy bunch that fell one win short of the conference's last playoff berth. Regardless, Detroit has already exceeded preseason expectations, an easy task considering that there weren't any. "Most publications picked us from 22nd to 26th in the league," says Rick Carlisle, 42, the Pistons' sixth coach in the last decade. "I knew it was going to take unique players to turn it around, guys who were willing to get down and dirty and give great effort in front of small crowds. But even I can't say I expected us to win this quickly."
Who could have? Last season's 32-50 Pistons were a solo act: Jerry Stackhouse in The Man Who Shoots Too Much. "You'd let Stack get his 30 and shut everybody else down," says Detroit guard Jon Barry, acquired from the Sacramento Kings in the off-season. "They didn't have enough other guys to get it done."
All that changed this summer. After failing to sign free agent and Detroit native Chris Webber, president of basketball operations Joe Dumars took a piecemeal approach to remaking the team. Like a discriminating buyer at a yard sale, he picked through other teams' salary-cap liabilities, going after players deemed expendable because of the impending luxury tax. From the Phoenix Suns, Dumars plucked veteran forward-center Cliff Robinson, a proven scorer and savvy defender, for scrubs Jud Buechler and John Wallace. Dumars stole the gritty Barry and a future first-round draft pick from Sacramento, giving the Kings turnover-prone point guard Mateen Cleaves. Finally, by sending their second-round pick in 2002 to the Toronto Raptors, the Pistons got the rights to 29-year-old rookie center Zeljko Rebraca, a 7-foot Yugoslavian with a soft touch, a mean streak and a bad blond dye job.
Dumars's most important move, however, came last May, when he hired Carlisle, a former NBA guard with a reputation as an excellent offensive strategist. Carlisle was Dumars's first choice, though to avoid stepping on any toes he had to interview several other candidates, including his former Bad Boys teammate Bill Laimbeer. As an assistant with the Indiana Pacers from 1997-98 to 2000-01, Carlisle developed a reputation as an X's and O's guy who didn't relate well to players, so he took steps to be more personable with the Pistons. The day after he was hired he and Stackhouse discussed at length the direction of the team, a practice he continued with his star over the summer. Carlisle also made a point of spending less time designing plays in the office and more time working with players on their games. "The team bought into what Coach was doing from the first day," says forward Corliss Williamson. "He wants to win, and he knows what he's doing."
Not surprisingly, the free-flowing offense that Carlisle installed, which takes advantage of the low-post skills of Williamson and Rebraca, has paid dividends. At week's end Detroit was first in the league in field goal shooting (47.5%), was tied for second in three-point shooting (39.5%) and had boosted its scoring average by 2.2 points, to 97.8, from last season. More important, Stackhouse had embraced Carlisle's pass-first mentality and through Sunday was leading the team in not only scoring average (22.1 points) but also assists (5.6) while playing the best ball of his seven-year career. "I've always been about doing what it takes to win," says Stackhouse, who averaged 29.8 points last season but at week's end had reduced his shot attempts to 17.5 per game from 24.1. "This year I don't need to score so much, because I have better players around me."
Still, it is defense, which Carlisle made a priority from the first day of training camp, that has carried Detroit. The essence of that D, which assistant coach Kevin O'Neill has distilled into 68 red-numbered rules on his office whiteboard, is aggressive man-to-man. Players always front the post, relying on help from weakside rotations, and everybody is counted on to "war" (put a body on) cutters coming through the lane. "Basically, it all comes down to trusting that your teammates will have your back," says Barry. "Well, that and Ben."
That would be Ben Wallace, the Pistons' 6'9", 240-pound power forward and human bottle of Wite-Out. At week's end he was the only player in the league to rank in the top 20 in blocks (second, with 3.26 per game), rebounds (eighth, with 10.7) and steals (tied for 17th, with 1.68). A sixth-year pro out of Virginia Union who came from Orlando in the Grant Hill trade of August 2000, Wallace is "a power-forward version of Jason Kidd," as Magic coach Doc Rivers describes him, "a guy who can dominate without scoring." So deep is Wallace's commitment to team D that he considers blocks, usually catnip for big men, almost distasteful. "Only if there's a defensive breakdown should I be blocking a shot," Wallace explained last week while showing off the collection of game tapes he keeps at his house, the better to study his defensive efforts. "If we make our rotations, I shouldn't have to try to make an athletic play to save a basket."
As the embodiment of Detroit's hard-hat image, the 27-year-old Wallace has become the face (and, it turns out, hair) of the team. Pregame intros at the Palace begin with a JumboTron video of a goggles-wearing Wallace holding a jackhammer in his mighty mitts and demolishing the opposing team's logo. More often than not, the crowd contains at least one group of young fans in Number 3 jerseys and giant black wigs, in homage to Wallace's unruly wedge of an Afro, an explosion of curls that looks like a Rogaine experiment gone horribly awry. Though often the object of ridicule—upon seeing a photo of Wallace's do recently, TNT analyst Charles Barkley demanded, "Now what the hell is that?"—Wallace is proud of his hair, which he wears in dreads, in corn-rows and unbridled. Styling changes take place on Monday and Thursday nights because, as Wallace says in his Alabama drawl, "that's when rassling is on, and that's the only show that'll keep me sitting still for two hours so my wife can braid my hair."