For the third straight season, the Detroit Pistons will not advance to the NBA Finals. And, though I am a Celtics fan, this truth is a result not of Boston’s strength, but of Detroit’s weaknesses. That assertion sounds crazy, I know. The Pistons have become, along with the Spurs, the league’s standard for consistency since the 2001-02 season, never winning less than 50 games since. In each of those trips to the playoffs, they have advanced past the first round. Their current series is their sixth straight Eastern Conference Finals. In 2004, the team upset the heavily-favored, star-laden Lakers to win the championship. Despite their experience, history of success, winning mentality, clutch players, and toughness, however, the 2008 version of the Detroit Pistons is not presently constituted to win a championship.
That first paragraph may strike you as ridiculous and unfounded. But I’m about to top the whole thing in one sentence. Ready?
The Pistons’ defense isn’t good enough to win this series.
Before you refer me to a psychiatrist, hear me out. As great as Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton are with a lead in a close game, the duo cannot consistently match baskets with another team’s go-to guy in the final minutes of a game, especially when trailing. And if you think the Piston’s stellar defense can make up for that weakness, you’re wrong. Since beating the Lakers in 2004, Detroit’s playoff history has been the history of opposing stars out-performing the Pistons in crunchtime.
2005 Eastern Conference Finals Against the Miami Heat:
Dwayne Wade scored 42 points in Game 3 and then 36 points in Game 4, both Heat victories. In Game 5, Wade strained his rib. Miami still won Game 5, but Wade was out for Game 6, and the Pistons cruised to victory. With the rib acting up in the final minutes of Game 7, the Heat could not close out the Pistons. The Pistons were one healthy Dwayne Wade rib away from elimination. This was the first series in which Detroit’s inability to stop a perimeter playmaker from taking over a game was exposed.
2006 Eastern Conference Finals Against the Miami Heat:
Dwyane Wade didn’t hurt his rib this series, and the Pistons lost in 6. The inability that had been exposed the year before became the least-talked about trend in the NBA. This trend continues to this day and remains just as un-talked about.
2007 Eastern Conference Finals Against the Cleveland Cavaliers:
The Pistons won the first two games of this series because of Lebron James’ mistakes, not because of their good defense. With Lebron learning how to be a clutch player, the Cavs won Game 3 and Game 4 by 6 and 4 points, respectively. Then, in Game 5, Lebron James essentially uncovered, polished, and put in a museum the fundamental truths Dwayne Wade had exposed. The Pistons could not stop a star player in a close game. Lebron scored 48 in the game, and the LAST TWENTY-FIVE Cavalier points. After breaking the Pistons’ backs, Cleveland cruised to victory in Game 6.
2008 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals Against the Orlando Magic:
All of the first three games are blow-outs—the first two being Detroit wins, the third, Orlando. In Game 4, however, the Hedo Turkoglu is a missed runner away from winning the game for the Magic. In Game 5, Turkoglu was almost uncontainable at the end of the Game. If not for a block by Tayshaun Prince (adding to his collection “clutch blocks” and undeserved reputation for outstanding defense), the Pistons lose this game. Turkoglu said after the game, “They didn’t do anything that beat us, we just made too many mistakes.” He was right. Not being able to defend Dwyane Wade and Lebron James is understandable, if not permissible. Struggling to defend Hedo Turkoglu is inexcusable for a team with championship aspirations.
The reason Detroit overcame this weakness to win their championship was because Ben Wallace was still an elite defender that would make perimeter players, like Kobe, pay for coming into the lane. He made the lane his house and protected it like he was in an Under Armour commercial. In 2005, Ben Wallace was no longer Big Ben and in 2006 he was a shell of his former self. Now he is unrecognizable.
People have accredited Tayshaun Prince with being a lock-down defender and, to an extent, making the shot-blocking presence at the forward or center position expendable for this team. I accredit Tayshaun Prince with being the most overrated underrated player in the history of the league. How many times have you heard that Tayshaun Prince was “underrated” since Detroit won the championship? Analysts drool over his length and his pretty shot, and seem to take it on faith that he is a lockdown defender. I admit, his offense has improved dramatically. But his defensive ability has stagnated. Everyone, including the entire Detroit coaching staff, seems to forget Prince getting destroyed in fourth quarters for the last three years. If he hadn’t blocked Reggie Miller that one time, the guys on TNT would be all over him. Tayshaun Prince is a good player. But he is not underrated.
The Celtics problem, up until Paul Pierce found himself, was that they had no clutch scorer. Well, now they do. And after getting worked by Hedo Turkoglu in the last round, do you really think the Pistons can stop the as-good-as-new Paul Pierce? I think not. The Pistons have refused to address this need in the last three seasons. And if you think Nazr Mohammed and Theo Ratliff count as addressing the need, you need to check your calendar—it’s 2008.
Detroit’s window is not necessarily “running thin,” as Rasheed Wallace said before the Boston series. If anything, with Rodney Stuckey showing huge potential, the future looks bright for the Pistons. They will have other years. And they’re going to need them, because they sure don’t have this one.