IF PISTONS ARE TO WIN, IT’S NOT IN THE STARS

Try it. You can’t do it. You can’t name a recent NBA champion that didn’t have superstars. The Lakers wear the crown because of Shaq and Kobe. Chicago earned it with Jordan and Pippen. Detroit’s Bad Boys had Isiah and Joe. Boston, with Bird, McHale and Parish, battled L.A., with Magic and Kareem. These are Hall of Fame players. Their rings are no accident. Role players are great. But role players are role players.

So Wednesday night at the Palace, The Grand Experiment began. The Pistons, a team many tout as an Eastern Conference finalist, have been gradually, like some exotic snake, shedding the skin of every superstar on their roster. Grant Hill is gone. Jerry Stackhouse is gone. The highest-paid player on the team, Clifford Robinson, is coming off the bench. They are trying to do what has not been done in a very long time — reach the promised land without a Moses.

History is not on their side. But then, they said that about the Anaheim Angels.

“I like the idea of not having to rely on one guy,” said coach Rick Carlisle, sitting in his office before the opener against the Knicks. “We can wear people down. We can spread it around. Other teams won’t have one player to focus on.”

They won’t have one player to worry about, either. If you recall last year’s playoffs, the Pistons’ problem was finding a go-to guy when the leading scorer, Stackhouse, was struggling. Many felt Corliss Williamson was really the “gotta have a basket” man. And he came off the bench!

Now even Stackhouse is gone. Williamson is still coming off the bench. And Detroit’s starting lineup is a mixture of brute force (Ben Wallace), sticky defense (Michael Curry), often-traded point guard (Chauncey Billups), still-learning foreigner (Zeljko Rebraca) and young kid who is supposed to do the shooting (Richard Hamilton).

The question is: Why is management so happy?

No divas to take a dive

Well, here are a few reasons: In Philadelphia, management lives with the tick-tick-tick of the next Allen Iverson time bomb. In New York, the front office fined Latrell Sprewell $250,000 and told him to stay away for a while. In Toronto, the Raptors pray that Vince Carter renews his interest in the game.

Superstars are like opera divas — magnificent, moody and maintenance. You hang a lot on their shoulders and you hope they come through. Getting them to defend can be tricky. And benching them for a hotter player is done at your own risk.

Neither Carlisle nor Joe Dumars, the Pistons’ president, is inclined to that kind of catering. Dumars, the consummate quiet professional, has gradually, in his time behind the desk, cast a team in his own image: hardworking and non-glamour.

Carlisle, meanwhile, came from the Indiana Pacers, where, by his own admission: “Wwe were really a superstar-less team. We had Reggie Miller, but while he made big shots, he wasn’t dominant the way a lot superstars are. Mostly we spread it around, Dale Davis, Antonio Davis, Jalen Rose, those guys.”

Carlisle likes that approach. Dumars likes it, too. And Bill Davidson, who pays the bills, really likes it. No $100-million contracts for him. And if he can win without them, can you blame him?

We did say “if.”

Doing their version of the wave

Wednesday night, against a Spree-less Knicks team, the Pistons showed why they will have good streaks and bad streaks. They came out flat and, with no one player to ignite them, did a lot of passing and little attacking. On the other hand, their first wave of substitutes was Robinson and Jon Barry. Their next wave was Williamson and former starter Chucky Atkins. They kept it close, hung around, then, midway through the fourth quarter, surged with defense and a second-chance hustle play that whipped the ball to Atkins for a three-point try. He hit it, he hit two more, and they never trailed again.

So the Pistons keep coming at you, hoping eventually a wave will knock you over. Their defense is collective — perhaps because nobody feels above it — and they pursue rebounds with the kind of third and fourth efforts that are often the difference in slow nights in January.

Carlisle will do a lot of coaching — actually, it’s more like playing chess
— and he will wait and see how the board develops. “We’ll put different guys out there and see who steps up. I told them, everyone on this team should play 24 minutes and come off feeling like they played 32.”

It is not the norm. It has little precedent for success (those Indiana teams, you’ll recall, were notorious for failing). Then again, there’s this: In L.A., Phil Jackson juggles the egos. In Boston, Vin Baker paid a teammate $10,000 to get his old number. In Portland, they are already counting the technicals on Rasheed Wallace.

Here in Detroit, there will be few rap records or rap sheets. But the Pistons will keep knocking, night after night, and if things go the way Carlisle and Dumars plan, the hardest part will be deciding who to credit for the win. We should all have such problems.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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