Don’t kick ’em when they’re down. There’s no need. The Pistons know they’re finished. Finished for the season. Finished as a concept. When Rasheed Wallace told the media around his locker Friday night, “That’s the end, man,” he wasn’t talking about a movie.
He was talking about all of it, this whole long and crazy Pistons ride, which promised so much, delivered less, but still – and let’s not forget this – provided some amazing, tough, winning basketball, and gave Detroit six good springs, six springs where hope jumped eternal, and one where it slid all the way down the rainbow and landed in a pot of gold.
That’s nothing to dump on. You want an alternative? Move to Memphis. Ask how the fans enjoy their May and June basketball.
There is no reason to throw the entire Pistons franchise under a bus and run the wheels back and forth over it.
Say thank-you. Say good effort.
Then say good-bye.
Begin, maybe, with Wallace. Yes, it’s true, the Pistons only became champions when he arrived. Without him, they don’t have the one ring they flaunt. But from that winning moment, Rasheed drove the bus, and this team carried shades of his personality – good and bad. It carried a swagger (good), an arrogance (bad), an unwavering belief in itself (good), and a shut-up-we-know-what-we’re-doing approach that made it difficult to coach (bad).
Well, swagger now seems silly. Arrogance, laughable. The ridiculously over-the-top pregame ritual the Pistons perform, with Rasheed dancing in the middle of a circle, looks, in retrospect, pathetic. Even the Detroit players, following the collapse against Boston, seemed to suggest they no longer believed in their kryptonite. Chauncey Billups told the media the Celtics were a better team, said they were “more focused”- something you used to say about the Pistons. Antonio McDyess told the media his team blew its chances and let the fans down again.
Wallace, for his part, was last seen by the national audience throwing a towel into a TV lens and saying “get that (bleeping) camera out of my face.”
Not exactly heroic stuff.
But that’s what you get when, for the third straight season, you are bounced in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals and for the third straight season, it’s a different team that does it. That gets old. What’s new, however, is that, for the first time, Rasheed looked like an aging hot rod that needed a tune-up.
He’s the catalyst of this team, but the catalyst went 2-for-12 in the season-closer, had four rebounds in the game before that, and his final quarter Friday was almost sad. Foul trouble. Had a shot blocked. Had a ball stolen. Clanked his last, desperate three-point heave of the season.
That’s the end, man. What to do about ‘Sheed?
The problem with Wallace – the big one, anyhow – is that he often has been Joe Dumars’ best player. When he’s digging in, playing defense, hitting those turnaround jumpers, executing fundamental basketball the way few know how, he is hard to match. And he’s big. Guys 6-feet-11 with those skills are nearly impossible to find.
Dumars was not upset with Wallace last season when he exited Game 6 against Cleveland with a tirade against the refs. That game was lost anyhow. And Wallace had been the only consistently good Piston all series.
But it was a different Wallace who left the Palace floor Friday night, muted, tepid, totally outplayed by Boston’s big men, Kevin Garnett and young Kendrick Perkins.
Things run their course. The fans are weary of The Rasheed Show, the media are weary of it, too, but most significantly, Wallace, who will be 34 next season, has one year left on his contract, which makes this the perfect time to trade him and the worst time to keep him, if you don’t want him around long-term.
I suspect Dumars will have a heart-to-heart with Wallace and gauge whether he is committed to winning basketball for three or four more years. Perhaps deep down, Rasheed knows his time in Detroit has passed like a sunset. I think it has. He’s a smart guy. He deserves to be thanked.
But you thank guys when you let them go, too. What to do with the others?
Not that trading him would be easy. Or that Dumars, as president of basketball operations, will surely do it. But he can’t stand pat and expect to win – and Joe is not one to keep coming back to a wall and knocking his head against it. And if Wallace goes, the rest of the starters is a toss-up. It all depends on who is acquired in return. You could make a case that Billups, good as he was in Game 6, is expendable with the speedy development of young Rodney Stuckey.
You could make a case that Richard Hamilton, as machine-like as he is, may not work on a team that isn’t constructed to set him screens all the time.
You could say that Tayshaun Prince, a great body, a great talent, has nonetheless come up small in several key series moments now, and maybe you move him.
Who knows? The rules have changed in the NBA since the Pistons’ clamp-down defense won the championship in 2004. And the fact is, you need players who can create their own shots. Slash and drive to the hoop. Draw a foul. Every team the Pistons lost to had players like that. Only Billups really did it for Detroit, and his age and injury slowed him in that area this year.
Why do you think Stuckey seemed like such a breath of fresh air? Why do you think you kept hearing the word “aggressive”? That’s how you get points in this league in the playoffs. You can’t jump-shoot your way to a title. Ask Utah. Ask Phoenix. Or now ask Detroit. Relying on three-pointers to bail you out is a dangerous and undependable habit. The Pistons will be haunted by Rasheed, Chauncey and Tayshaun all missing three-point attempts as the minutes ticked away on their season Friday night.
So Dumars has a real challenge on his hands, because he was so good at constructing this model, where every starter played a role, that deconstructing it becomes surgery. It is folly to sit here today and say “this guy should go” and try to Rubik’s Cube the new version of the Pistons. All anyone can clearly say is that they need to get faster, more aggressive, a little younger in their starters – and if Wallace goes, and McDyess retires or diminishes, they need to find new bigs.
That’s no small task.
But retooling never is. What to do with the coach?
As for Flip Saunders? Well, remember he was a scramble hire to begin with. Dumars was told Larry Brown had to go, right away, it didn’t matter who was out there to replace him. Had it been up to Joe, Brown likely would have coached one more season, and a behind-the-scenes search for a replacement would have been given more thought and care.
Flip was the best available at the time. He fit the “manager” profile. He was never going to light a bonfire under these guys, but at the time, coming off an NBA Finals in 2005, they didn’t seem to need it.
Flip won a lot of games. He got his teams to three straight Eastern Conference finals. He has been a good coach, if not a stellar one, and he’s a decent man who has faced the fire. If he now faces a heave-ho, it’s not because he doesn’t know how to do his job. It’s just because, as Chuck Daly always said, after a while, they just stop listening to you.
It was telling to watch those ESPN in-the-locker-room scenes before Friday’s game. While Doc Rivers was telling his Celtics, “I don’t need to trick you to fire you up. We’re the better team,” Flip, meanwhile, was caught imploring his guys to execute, and if they did that, “we’re as good an executing team as (anybody) in the league.”
Even he didn’t seem to believe Detroit was superior.
He was right. What about the playoffs?
But let’s remember a few things. The Celtics were better than the Pistons – and everyone else – in the regular season. And in the end they were better in the playoffs. It is not a shame to lose to this Boston group – the ultimate in single-season front-office rebuilds. Then again, this wouldn’t be the Pistons if there weren’t some curiosities about it.
For example: The Celtics needed seven games to edge past lowly Atlanta and seven games to squeak past Cleveland, yet they beat Detroit in six, on Detroit’s home floor.
On the other hand, nobody could win in Boston this postseason until the Pistons did it on their second try.
On the other hand, Boston couldn’t beat the Hawks or the Cavaliers a single time on the road. Yet they won two games at the Palace.
You see where this is going. It’s the same old same old. Pistons lift up, Pistons let down. And ultimately, Pistons perplex.
From where I sit, the difference between these Pistons and the three teams that have passed them three straight years now is this:
Miami. Cleveland. Boston. All played with a fire and passion that the Pistons, in crunch time, seemed to lack. Those teams got it from their stars (Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Paul Pierce) as well as role players (remember Daniel Gibson’s three-pointers? Perkins’ career night in Game 5?). You get that effort when the entire team is laser-focused and saliva-dripping for a title.
The Pistons were that way once. In 2004. They were castoffs then, players nobody else wanted, guys who had been told, “You’re OK, but you’re expendable.” They melded that abandoned puppy spirit into a powerful force, and they stomped through the starlit Los Angeles Lakers for a championship, surprising everyone by winning in a quick five games, remember?
That was hunger. More recently, the Pistons give away minutes, quarters and games to a complacent attitude. This last series likely was not lost Friday night but in Game 3, when the Pistons had the Celtics down and handed away a blowout at the Palace. A starving team wouldn’t do that.
These Pistons talk hungry, but, at times, play fat.
And that won’t win you anything. What about the past?
So say good-bye for now, and, as currently constructed, for good. This Detroit cast would not win a title next year any more than it did this year. All it would be is a year older – a team with one starter under 30 (and that’s Prince, who is 28). The 2008-09 campaign, meanwhile, could again see these Celtics as a powerhouse, could see LeBron on a warpath in Cleveland, could see Orlando and Toronto improve, and who knows what out of Chicago, with good young talent, the No. 1 pick and Doug Collins in charge.
Things change, and the Pistons must, too. Dumars is good at what he does. He has managed to restock a young core of talent with late picks. He deserves time to figure his next moves.
Meanwhile, we should acknowledge that is not akin to failure. Remember, there has been a lot of noise in the Palace the past six years, a lot of Thunderstix late into May, even when the hockey team disappointed and the baseball team was lousy. The last three teams to keep Detroit from a title are also home right now, and none, except the San Antonio Spurs, can point to as consistent a record of winning in the playoffs over the past six years as Detroit.
Don’t kick them when they’re down. Give them a backslap. Let them exit with dignity. Thank them for giving us what we want out of sports – excitement, drama, a huge dose of success.
And then roll up your sleeves, Joe.
Because this game never sleeps.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.