HOUSTON’S SUDDEN DEPARTUREJUST ANOTHER SIGN OF NBA’S GREED

Pistons fans are holding a big pie of anger this morning. What they want to know is: Who gets it in the face?

Allan Houston is gone, outta here, signed by the New York Knicks, and if you believe some very high-up people in the Pistons’ organization, Houston was, at the end of last season, their best player. Better than Grant Hill, Joe Dumars, Otis Thorpe. Certainly this was true in the playoffs — brief as they were around here. Houston was a great shooter, an improved defender, and was aggressive in going to the hole. Whether he was top dog or almost top dog, the Pistons have definitely committed the cardinal sin in today’s money-soaked NBA:

They failed to keep a star.

Let’s face it. The only trump card you get in the NBA is signing your own free agents. Houston is worth far more to Detroit staying than he is going. His body, they could pay anything to keep. But his slot against the salary cap is worth less than $2 million. In theory, that’s how much the Pistons have to give his replacement. These days, I’m not sure you get a junior high schooler for that.

So any way you look at it, the Pistons just had a big chunk of their future ripped away, and it’s now a question of whom do you believe and whom do you want to blame?

Round up the suspects.

It’s not as hard as it sounds.

Pistons were never in this game

Do you blame Rick Sund, the man who signs players for the Pistons? He says it’s not his fault. “We told Allan from the start that we’d match any offer,” Sund said Sunday. Of course, that assumed that Houston would give them the chance to match any offer. He apparently did not. Houston got up Saturday, said yes to the Knicks and their $56 million over seven years — more on that insanity in a moment — and according to Sund, never even called to offer numbers.

It’s hard to bargain with thin air.

Do you blame Doug Collins, the hyperactive coach, who chewed out a good piece of Houston’s pride early in the season — but supposedly had won him over by the end?

Do you blame Grant Hill, with whom Houston reportedly — and, if you ask me, rather suddenly — had a personality dispute?

Or do you blame an agent named Bill Strickland, who supposedly doesn’t like the Pistons, Hill or — can you believe this — Hill’s mother?

Well, forget about blaming Hill. What’s he supposed to do, tell people to stop paying attention to him? If Allan Houston had an ego problem getting along with Grant — and I personally never saw it — then he’s gonna have a problem wherever he goes. Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson aren’t exactly going

to step out of line to let Allan go to the front, you know.

And forget about blaming Collins’ coaching. He only knows one way to do it. If he starts going easy on players because their contracts are coming up, you might as well shut the team down.

As for Sund, if he means what he says, that the Pistons would have matched anything, then it’s hard to fault him. Should he have offered Houston the moon from day one? That’s not negotiating. And don’t tell me Houston was insulted by the Pistons not offering $8 million at the start. Come on. The guy is a third-year player. He has no rings on his fingers. If he was “insulted,” let him get a higher level of tolerance.

I will say that, as a player personnel man, Sund should know everything that’s going on in his players’ heads, and I mean not just what they’re saying, but what they’re thinking. And perhaps more important: Whom they’re talking to.

In the end, it was Houston’s call

Which brings us to Strickland, the agent. You know what makes me the maddest in this whole thing? When Strickland says, “I felt there were times this season when Allan should have been playing and he wasn’t.”

Who is this guy? Who cares what he thinks? I swear, the only thing bigger than these agents’ egos are their phone bills.

But this is nothing new. The most powerful man this crazy NBA weekend wasn’t Michael Jordan or Juwan Howard. It was David Falk, who handles both of them. The standard agent rate in the NBA is four percent. If Falk took that, he made himself $5 million in commission — over the weekend. Five million? That’s pretty amazing for a guy who doesn’t shoot the ball.

Having said that, let’s remember who hires the agent. Which brings us, finally, to the person to blame — or to give credit to — Allan Houston. Allan is a grown man. He’s about to get married to a Michigan woman. He has friends here. He is well- liked here. If he wanted to stay in Detroit, he could have told Strickland “keep me here.” The agent still works for the player.

So it’s Houston who, in the end, wanted to go. Whether his reasons are sound, who knows? Maybe Strickland told him the endorsement deals will be better in New York. Maybe Ewing called and said Jeff Van Gundy is easier to play for than Collins. Maybe Houston thinks the Knicks are a lot closer to an NBA title than the Pistons. He’s right about that one — although he’s also partly to blame now.

Whatever. He’s gone. Allan Houston spent his first year here on the bench, his second learning to play at this level and his third coming into his own. Just as he’s ready to bloom, he negotiates incredible money and leaves. That’s the NBA. That’s the deal the players and their agents negotiated. And it’s the reason this league is going to sink under the weight of its own greed. Whatever and whoever is at fault for this whole mess, this morning there are fewer Pistons fans than there were the day before, and a few more people who have sworn off sports altogether.

What a way to start the week, huh?

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