No Regard

May 31, 2008

The anti-dynasty

Filed under: NBA — Tags: , — Andy Vasquez @ 2:36 pm

It’s amazing to think that when this started in 2004, when Detroit took down the Lakers in five games to win the NBA title, the Pistons were the model of the ultimate team.

Unselfish. Fun-loving. Hard-working.

After losing to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, it’s clear that Detroit has become the example of how not to play or act.

Over-confident. Whiny. Arrogant.

And because of the attitude this team has adopted over the past few years — because of the way this team let success get to its head — the Pistons have also become colossal underachievers, leaving opportunity after opportunity on the table, unclaimed. Leaving promise after promise, unfulfilled.

And there’s no one to blame, but themselves.

The only Pistons’ veteran who shoulders none of the responsibility is Antonio McDyess, who must be asking himself, why did I come here to win a ring? He always played hard, like a man possessed. He tried to take his other teammates with him, they just didn’t want to come. They’ve already got their rings.

But the blame doesn’t fall squarely on any one person, either, as nearly all the team’s veterans were complicit in the attitude that led to their demise. Rasheed Wallace’s lack of focus and instability seemed to constantly lead to his team’s unraveling, and Tayshaun Prince’s unwillingness to assert himself in key games has been perplexing and damaging.

The Pistons two best games this postseason, in terms of energy-level, came when Chauncey Billups was out with an injury. Perhaps that’s a coincidence. Or perhaps that’s because Chauncey’s laissez-faire attitude — as if to say “we’re the best team, we need no sense of urgency” — was not on the court to corrupt his teammates.

And Flip Saunders never got the respect of this team — Rasheed yelled at him openly, for God’s sake! — and never knew how to ask for more of his players. The Pistons’ collapse in the fourth quarter Friday night was proof of that. The team thought that a 10 point lead was good enough. It’s Flip’s job to tell them that it isn’t. And he failed. Miserably.

Failure. It’s been something the Pistons have had to get used to a lot lately, despite consistently having one of the top rosters in the NBA. So don’t blame it on team prez Joe Dumars, either.

The Pistons were not an elite team when their streak of six consecutive Eastern Conference Finals appearances started in 2003. Getting swept by the not-so-good New Jersey Nets proved that. But when they acquired Rasheed Wallace from the Atlanta Hawks in 2004, Dumars & Co. had put together a remarkable First unit.

For the last five years, the Pistons have had the best starting lineup in the NBA. Sure, there are better players on other teams. But there is no starting lineup in the league like the Pistons. On paper, there really isn’t a weakness.

Five years of the best starting lineup in the game, six straight trips to the Eastern Conference Finals and what do the Pistons have to show for it? Not too much.

One championship, only two trips to the NBA Finals, and now three straight losses to teams the Pistons should have eliminated in the playoffs. That’s right, the team with the best starting five in basketball, only got out of the NBA’s weakest conference twice in six tries.

The team that prides itself on its consistency and poise, has proven, repeatedly, that it isn’t so consistent, or poised.

The loss to the Spurs in the 2005 Finals wasn’t too egregious. Sure, the Pistons were the better team, but the Spurs were no slouch and took advantage of a key mistake in Game 5, when Rasheed Wallace left Robert Horry open for a game-winning 3-pointer. Team’s that leave Robert Horry open in key situations for 3-pointers don’t deserve to win. It’s a tough loss, but not because of arrogant play.

The trouble started in 2006, when the Pistons felt so good about themselves that they nearly lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers, who at that point had ONLY LeBron James. And he was still a year away from figuring things out — more on that in a second. They needed to come back to win in a seventh game. Interestingly, the Pistons haven’t made it to a Game 7 since.

The 2006 Miami Heat will go down as one of the worst teams ever to win an NBA Championship, doing so after Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks threw up all over themselves in the NBA Finals. But the Heat were able to take their dubious place in history because the Pistons never challenged them. Detroit, so certain it was the better team, didn’t decide to “turn it on” until they were down 3-1 in the Eastern Conference finals. It was too late, and they were out in six. The me-first oriented Heat should have never even made it to the Finals.

Last season, the same thing happened against the Cavs. Detroit builds a 2-0 series lead, and quits. They don’t think they have to play hard until Game 5. But at that point, they’ve already let LeBron James get too much momentum. He scores 25 straight points in the the fourth quarter and overtime and leads the Celtics to a win. Detroit can’t recover in Game 6, and is eliminated again. The Spurs, a team with a equal talent to the Pistons, take the Cavs seriously throughout the Finals, and sweep them.

This year, the Boston Celtics might have been the better team, but the Pistons should have won. It’s been proven over the course of NBA history that teams making a run for the first time together don’t bode well.

You have to pay your dues, unless you play the Pistons.

The Pistons, confident as ever, didn’t seize the moments they had to and now Boston is in the Finals. The most embarrassing occurrence came in Game 3, when the Pistons squandered a chance to go up 2-1 by letting Boston build a 20-point lead and coast to victory on Detroit’s home court.

After the game, Saunders said, “[Game 4] is a crucial game for us. No ifs, ands or butts, that’s our biggest game of the year.”

Flip didn’t realize, Game 3 had been the “biggest” game of the year, the Pistons chance to finally seize control and turn things around. And they let it pass by, without a second thought. No big deal. We’re still in this, we can fix this, is surely what they were thinking. It’s that lack of attention to the moment, that missing sense of urgency that has cost the Pistons.

What if Larry Brown had stayed the coach, or if the Pistons had brought in a hard-ass who would have never allowed Chauncey and his teammates to ever become so falsely sure of themselves?

It’s hard to imagine what could have been, as yet another season comes to an end with opportunity unclaimed. And promise unfulfilled.

(AP Photo)

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