HOUSTON — The Pistons are now like men dancing in wet cement, never sure which pose will harden. It could be glory. For this is a team of talent, of scorers, of depth. But this is also a team that remade itself in the off-season, and for all the wins — 44 already — it is still difficult to figure who’ll do what on any given night.
“That could be good,” muses forward Adrian Dantley, stretching out across his hotel bed, “because the other team can’t prepare too much.”
“And it could be bad,” someone suggests, “if during the critical games, the team is unsure of whom to go to.”
Dantley listens and his eyes go hazy, until it looks as if he’s on another planet. He calls this thinking. “Could be,” he says, nodding slowly.
Could be. Those are the buzzwords for the Pistons this season. A division championship? A conference championship? A coach of the year in Chuck Daly?
Could be. This is what is. Adrian Dantley, stretched across the bed, talking long and loud, laughing on occasion, feeling “better than I ever have at this point in the season. If they keep playing me this way, I’ll be around five more years.”
He is different. That is the difference. They keep coming up to him and asking about his points — “Adrian, how come you don’t score like you used to?” — and he shrugs them off, and he tells them his role is changed, and he tells himself the same thing. He averages 21.7 now, down from the 30’s of the past, and you’d be a fool to think a former NBA scoring leader doesn’t miss big statistics. But he has kept quiet. He has adjusted.
“When I go out there now I never know if I’m gonna get six shots or 20,” he admits. “But hey. We’re winning. I’m not complaining.” Proving he can adjust It tells you something that Dantley throws in “I’m not complaining” just about every time he talks about his role. Such is the residue of his Utah reputation, where people saw him as surly, brooding, destined to lock horns with coach Frank Layden. “Detroit is completely different,” he says, fingering his gray Pistons T-shirt. “Take a guy like Joe Dumars. He’s quiet. Keeps to himself. Here they say, ‘He’s a good guy, he don’t cause problems.’ In Utah they’d be saying, ‘He’s aloof.’
“So that’s easier. And as far as the game, I think I’ve adjusted as well as any player in the league would under the same circumstances. Can you imagine taking, like, a Dominique Wilkins, for example, and telling him you can only do this or that now? What do you think would happen? You see what I’m saying?
“I had to come to grips with this. The older players said to me, ‘A.D., you’re playing great, man. Just do what they expect from you, that’s all. Don’t worry about points or numbers. Rest your body.’ That type of thing.
“And part of me wanted to listen to them. I am playing good, and I want to win and have longevity. But part of me said, ‘I’m not old enough yet (31) to be playing the way I’m playing now. I can still do the things I used to do.’
“That’s when I had to come to a decision, to say hey, look here, I know what Adrian Dantley’s reputation is. His reputation is scoring points. But can he play on other teams? I’m proving that now. I probably got more teams interested in me now because they say, ‘Hey, he can play this way. He has adjusted.’ “
He pauses for another cosmic moment.
“And I am the one who did the adjusting.” Excitement and reserve That is hard to deny. His former post-up game is an oldie now, making periodic blasts from the past, but never coming all the way back. “We are a perimeter, guard-oriented team,” he says blankly. Translation: Isiah Thomas’ team.
And he and Isiah have learned to co-exist. At times they even complement each other. It is not yet a perfect blend, but then Daly has had to experiment while doing, like a student getting dressed as he runs to class. Looking respectable would be enough. Winning is a feather in his cap.
Everybody else’s, including Dantley’s. Let’s face it. He wasn’t getting any rings with the cast in Utah. “My chances for a championship,” he says,
“are in Detroit. I’m excited about that.”
Which hardly means he’s a cheerleader. The Pistons could win it all and Dantley would never do one silly thing with a champagne bottle. He will never be a media darling. He will never host the alumni barbecue.
But so what? Like his team, he has made an adjustment, and the process continues, for him, for Daly, for the rest of them, even as the clock ticks away on the season. A title? A collapse? Could be this. Could be that.
“Do you think like a Piston now?” he is asked.
“How does a Piston think?” he answers.