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The Pistons just finished their 6th straight Eastern Conference finals and for the 3rd straight year they find themselves on the outside looking in. They are the dynasty that isn’t; the team with the great run that was just short of greatness. Now everyone wonders if this is the end of the journey.
The Pistons Eastern Conference dominance is impressive. For 6 years they have put themselves on the cusp of the NBA finals. They have taken advantage of an inferior conference and given themselves the opportunity every team looks for: the chance at a championship. They just couldn’t capitalize on their chances. They are now 2-4 in these series. Why?
The tale of these Pistons is all about coaching. The Pistons reached their first conference finals under head coach Rick Carlisle, who appeared to be an up and coming coach that would lead the Pistons for the next 10 years. The Pistons ran into the K-Mart-Jefferson-Kidd trio in its prime. The Nets were defending eastern conference champions and had a chip on their shoulder. Carlisle and the Pistons weren’t ready to take the next step and it showed. The Nets swept them. Pistons General Manager Joe Dumars saw that Carlisle couldn’t get the Pistons to the next level and fired him.
In came Larry Brown. He was coming off a successful stint in Philadelphia, leading a team of Allen Iverson and a bunch of role players to the NBA finals. Now he was given a team with emerging stars in Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, and Ben Wallace. His coaching style of grinding his players’ day in and day out had worn out hundreds of players in their careers but Dumars felt he was the guy to push the Pistons to the peak of greatness. Then Dumars went out and traded for Rasheed Wallace. The Pistons now had a vocal leader and a jolt of energy heading toward the playoffs. The Pistons made the Eastern Conference finals and would play against Rick Carlisle and his Indiana Pacers. The Pistons came in with a solidified starting 5 as Tayshaun Prince emerged as a big time player. Carlisle hit the wall again and the Pistons made the NBA finals. As a huge underdog the Pistons ended the Lakers dynasty with a 4-1 series win. With a young core of talent the Pistons were on the verge of starting their own dynasty.
In year 3 the Pistons would reach the conference finals again. They would play a surprising Miami Heat team led by underrated coach Stan Van Gundy. The Pistons were supposed to win this series easily but the arrogance that would be their Achilles heel started to simmer. Miami was up 3-2 before the Pistons got their act together and rallied to reach the NBA finals, where they would face the Spurs. The finals went 7 games, and once again game 5 was the pivot point of the series. The Pistons had a 3-2 lead in their grasp until Robert Horry hit a 3 with 6 seconds left in overtime to give the Spurs the edge. The Pistons would fall short of back-to-back titles. With Larry Brown already talking to teams about his next job before the series was over it was clear his time with Detroit was over. Brown took his circus act to the Knicks, and to this point neither Brown nor the Pistons have recovered.
With Dumars on the ropes again he decided to hire Flip Saunders as the new head coach. Saunders was known as a great regular season coach who couldn’t win in the playoffs. Dumars was banking on the fact that Minnesota and to an extent Kevin Garnett was the problem and not Flip. The Pistons would face the Heat again in the Eastern Conference Finals but the Heat had Pat Riley and Dwayne Wade the superstar this time around. The overconfident Pistons would lose in 6 and the Heat would indeed cash in on their mortgage of the future to reel in a championship.
In year 5 the Pistons would once again feed on a weak eastern conference to earn the number 1 seed. They would once again make the eastern conference finals and would play a Cleveland Cavalier team that featured LeBron James. Many expected the Pistons to sweep or win in 5. The Pistons arrogance reached a boiling point as they simply expected to just show up and win. Flip Saunders again could not keep his troops in-line. The Pistons blew a 2-0 lead and couldn’t beat the Cavs on the road. Again game 5 proved to be a historical pivot point for this Pistons team. LeBron scored the last 25 Cavalier points in one of the greatest performances in NBA history and the Cavs won at the Palace in double overtime. The defeated Pistons then were routed in Cleveland by Daniel Gibson. The Pistons fell to a far inferior team.
That brings us to this season. Once again the Pistons handled their business heading into the playoffs. This time their arrogance didn’t wait until the conference finals. The surprise of the NBA, the Philadelphia 76ers, who are basically a bunch of role-players, won 2 games. The Pistons basically didn’t show up in the 2 losses. The Pistons then geared up and took care of another Stan Van Gundy up and coming team in 5 games. Then they got to play the “Boston Three Party”, whose playoff road struggles bordered on epic. The Atlanta Hawks took them to 7 games. The Cavs were given game 1 and missed, and then had every opportunity to win game 7. The Celtics made the conference finals by the skin of their teeth. If the Cavs had the same team from a year ago they probably would've knocked the Celtics out of the playoffs. The Pistons were playing at a much higher level and was clearly the better team heading into the series. After stealing game 2 it was a foregone conclusion that the Pistons could defend home court. The Pistons once again bit the media hype and lost game 3 for the 4th straight conference finals. The Celtics shut them down defensively. In game 6 the Pistons had a ten point lead in the 4th quarter before once again becoming complacent. They gave away another ticket to the big dance and in the process answered the defining question of the last 3 seasons. Dumars banked on Flip being the answer rather than the problem. As KG and the Pistons have shown, Flip was the problem in Minnesota.
Now the Pistons stare in the mirror and see another wasted opportunity. And in the corner of that image is the Philadelphia Eagles, the other dynasty that couldn’t. From 2001-2005 the Eagles reached the NFC Championship game each year and was the home team in 3 of the 4 games. They only made the Super Bowl once after also acquiring a malcontent in Terrell Owens. McNabb and the Eagles put up a good fight but hurled in the end (allegedly) to a Boston team of their own. The Eagles flight ended there as they have now played near the .500 level for the last 3 years. They were always considered a contender but didn’t have the luxury the Pistons had of an inferior conference. The Eagles played in the toughest division in the NFL: the NFC East. Also, the Eagles weren’t the better team on paper in each of their 3 NFC Championship losses. They lost to the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams that would usher in the Patriots dynasty. They lost to the Bucs team with one of the top 5 defenses in NFL history. The next season they lost to the Carolina Panthers team that was expected to start a dynasty of their own. The Eagles made these championship games with few offensive playmakers. They then picked up Owens and McNabb with just one great receiving threat got the Eagles to the Super Bowl.
After the Super Bowl loss the Eagles were at a crossroads. They could’ve dumped the team and started over again. They could’ve gone with a new coach to try win the big game. Instead the Eagles would stay put with their roster and Head Coach Andy Reid. The next season the T.O. gamble blew up in their face. The Eagles shelved him but never replaced him. McNabb was hampered by injuries and has been ever since. The Eagles front office never made major moves and as a result the Eagles have faded away. They are now headed into seemingly the last year of the McNabb-Reid era.
Now the Pistons face the same decision. Flip Saunders continues to hit the wall and Dumars needs to determine what the future of these Pistons holds. These Pistons don’t have the rebounding prowess of the finals teams and the spirit of Ben Wallace in his Hey-day has yet to be replaced. Just like in year 2 a rookie has emerged as a potential big time player for the Pistons. Rodney Stuckey is clearly not afraid of the spotlight and has all the tools to be the steal of last year’s draft. The Pistons also have a talented power forward in Jason Maxiell who could be their next Ben Wallace. But their core is aging. Antonio McDyess doesn’t have many good years left in him. The enigmatic Rasheed Wallace may finally be a burden rather than a strength for this team. Lindsey Hunter and Theo Ratliff are critical players off the bench but are now both free-agents. Dumars will have to determine whether they can stay put with the current core of players or shakeup the team like he did when he traded for Wallace.
A major move in free-agency for the Pistons doesn’t seem likely. The only all-star player the Pistons could bring through free agency that could help them is Antawn Jamison and the Wizards will be intent on keeping him even if it’s over fellow unrestricted free-agent Gilbert Arenas. An under the radar possibility for the Pistons could be DeSagana Diop, who could provide the shot blocking and rebounding presence these Pistons are missing at center. But odds are the Pistons will have to trade a key player if they want to make a big splash.
If Dumars chooses to keep the team intact then the necessary move is to fire Flip Saunders. He is a playoff underachiever who cannot control the ego of this Pistons team. He has lost 3 straight conference finals to teams the Pistons should have beaten. History has shown that this team needs a coach that will stay on top of them and take complete control. Larry Brown is the only coach who did that and the Pistons were a Robert Horry brick away from having 2 titles because of it. And a coach with this domineering style is on the open market. Avery Johnson is waiting for a phone call and the Pistons should dial him up as their new head coach. The same coaching style that caused the Mavericks to fall apart is exactly what this Pistons team needs to get back to the finals. They need a coach that is always on top of them to prevent them from becoming arrogant and feeling that things will come easy to them. Avery would be a great mentor to Rodney Stuckey, who will be a major factor in the future of this Pistons team. Based on an Eastern Conference that has the Celtics and then an Orlando team that’s 2 years away this is the smart decision.
If they hire Avery then it’s a foregone conclusion Diop will play for the Pistons next season. The Pistons will immediately turn into a better rebounding team as Diop joins Maxiell, a possible starter next season as McDyess would go to the bench. Diop can also defend well against big men, which would help the Pistons defend Garnett next year. Rasheed would respond well to Avery and would be used much more as an inside post player, where he’s at his best. The Pistons will regain their defensive identity that disappeared when Flip Saunders showed up. The Pistons are a half-court team by nature, which blends in well with what Avery likes to do. A big problem in Dallas was that the Mavericks wanted to score a bunch of points and weren’t a half-court team. The Pistons can lock down on defense and are better running half-court sets with Billups and Hamilton and now Stuckey in motion. Defensive identity is what made the Pistons a championship team. Avery Johnson is the guy to resurrect it in the Motor City.
If Dumars feels these Pistons need one last tune-up to get to the finals, Avery Johnson is their ride back to glory.