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In Detroit it's known as a refreshening. An automaker takes last year's model, modifies the headlights, makes the wheel covers bigger, adds a little chrome to the rear bumper and—voilà!—rolls out the same gas guzzler but calls it new and improved. Only time will tell if the Pistons' off-season acquisitions, free-agent power forwards Christian Laettner and Loy Vaught, turn out to be more than cosmetic improvements. Grant Hill, for one, can't wait to find out. "I like what the front office has done," Hill says. "Loy's a great re-bounder, and Christian's a great competitor. They're going to make us a better team."
Although Vaught missed all but 10 games last season with a back injury, and Laettner won't be able to play until March 1 at the earliest because of surgery he had in September to repair a ruptured right Achilles tendon, Detroit should indeed be better than last year. With stalwarts like Hill, guard Joe Dumars and Bison Dele (the center formerly known as Brian Williams), the Pistons were more in need of a tune-up than an overhaul. "Last year we underachieved," says Detroit coach Alvin Gentry, who replaced the fired Doug Collins last February. "I know we're better shooters than we showed."
Hill will once again be the star, but Laettner and Vaught will be the keys to the Pistons' success. Last year Detroit gave up too many second shots, and Hill wound up having to do too much work on the boards. Gentry hopes that Hill can concentrate less on going to the glass and more on getting out on the break. "Grant's the best open-court player in the league," Gentry says. "Hopefully we can get more rebounds, so we can play more of a transition game."
The ability of Laettner and Vaught to score inside will also open things up for Detroit's backcourt. Without a scoring threat at power forward last season, Pistons opponents were able to stay in the faces of guards Lindsey Hunter and Jerry Stackhouse, neither of whom is deadly from the outside to begin with. This year, they should at least get more open looks.
Of course, Gentry's plan assumes that the 30-year-old Vaught, who signed a five-year, $22.8 million contract, is fully recovered. In eight seasons with the Clippers he averaged 11.9 points and 8.0 rebounds and had earned a reputation as one of the best players nobody ever saw. But Vaught underwent a rare form of spinal fusion surgery in December 1997 and hasn't played in an NBA game since. "My back is better than before the surgery," says Vaught, who scored 12 points in the preseason opener.
The Pistons lack the backcourt depth and outside shooting needed to be an elite team, but if Laettner and Vaught can regain form, Detroit should return to the playoffs. If they turn out to be damaged goods, however, the Pistons will be left with a bad case of buyer regret.
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