The 2001-02 Detroit Pistons were one of the ugliest offensive teams I’ve ever watched closely. Their offense consisted of iso after iso for Jerry Stackhouse, choking the shot clock down to about three seconds each possession and occasionally tossing it inside to Corliss Williamson or letting Cliff Robinson and Chucky Atkins launch threes.
My point is not that this version of the Pistons can repeat what that team, which was far superior defensively, accomplished, but as they showed in Friday’s 97-90 win over Charlotte, the team can run an offense that is going to be boring and predictable, yet still win games by being opportunistic, tough and playing with consistent effort, just like that upstart team in 2002 did.
Rip Hamilton had a terrible shooting night, yet still had a game-clinching three-point play with less than 1:30 left after Charlotte had cut the lead to three. Greg Monroe had another solid all-around effort, yet his best play was simply slapping the ball out of Derrick Brown’s hand as Brown lazily tried to bring down an offensive board with one hand late in the game. Charlie Villanueva did basically the only thing we should rightfully expect Charlie Villanueva to do at this point: he hit threes and provided an offensive spark, including a buzzer-beating three in the third quarter that pushed the Pistons lead back up to nine after the team had blown what was once a 23-point lead and allowed Charlotte to tie.
Anyone who has read my work for a while knows that I’m a sucker for redemption stories. I fall for them every time (it’s why I’ve always had that pesky infatuation with perennially-in-need-of-redemption Allen Iverson). And the Pistons have no shortage going on right now. Tracy McGrady is on the verge of re-inventing himself as a smart, efficient role-player. He started at point guard, helped the Pistons establish an unselfish style early with his expert passing, he relied on craftiness rather than freakish athleticism to get to the rim and finish and he wasn’t too bad defensively, guarding the physical Gerald Wallace, picking up two steals, and helping limit Wallace to a quiet night overall.
And how about John Kuester’s redemption game? Kuester was faced with a tough decision. Rodney Stuckey openly demeaned Kuester’s authority in front of the team, the opposing team and everyone watching that game. Kuester was 100 percent right to take him out and not put him back in, even if it meant losing. But heading into the Charlotte game, Kuester and the team obviously felt Stuckey deserved more punishment than just missing the rest of the second half. The problem, however, is that Stuckey was the only healthy point guard on the team (Will Bynum returned to the lineup, but is obviously not close to 100 percent yet). Do you take a stand against Stuckey, taking a major risk that him sitting out could lead to another loss, more rumbling among fans, more impatience? Or do you let him play and risk, once again, making Stuckey look like he’s above the rules because he’s been treated as some sort of franchise savior since he arrived in Detroit, no matter what his production suggests? It’s obvious that the right call was to sit him out, but it’s also a difficult call for coaches in Kuester’s shoes.
Kuester didn’t play Stuckey, and the Pistons rewarded him with their best beginning-to-end effort of the season, they rewarded him by not folding when Charlotte mounted a run and they rewarded him by playing like they were actually having fun playing with each other for a change. Kuester didn’t push all the right buttons against Charlotte, and no coach ever does, but how he handled this situation could go a long way in him re-establishing some control that many perceived he’d lost.
And who’s next for redemption? How about Stuckey? He sat and watched his team, the team he’s been given the keys to for the last two seasons, go out and win without him. They played most of the game with small forwards McGrady and Tayshaun Prince running the offense, and the ball moved as well as it has all season with those guys in control. He watched Bynum gut it out, playing through pain, jumping over big guys to grab a key offensive rebound and get a put-back inside late in the fourth quarter and just generally playing like a team leader, a point guard, is supposed to play.
So Stuckey can learn from this experience, see what two guys who, like himself, aren’t natural point guards, did to be semi-efficient in that role and keep teammates involved, he can grow as a player and teammate and he can use his immense physical skills to help the Pistons pursue more gutsy, hard-earned wins like this and ultimately find that redemption, or he can pack it in, learn nothing and continue to play his mix of sometimes brilliant, sometimes inefficient, sometimes selfish basketball and contribute to the Pistons continuing to lose. What should he do? (Just so you know: that commercial will never get old. Everyone should have a ‘What Should I Do?’ commercial)
Monroe should start soon
This is no knock on Austin Daye (commenter DetroitPCB/president of the Daye fan club is sobbing somewhere). He was pretty good shooting the ball against Charlotte, knocking down two triples in the first half and helping the Pistons build a big lead early with his good shooting, and he was a robust +17 for the night. But the Daye-as-power-forward bit has about run its course. Daye again struggled holding any kind of position on defense, but luckily Nazr Mohammed and Boris Diaw (And seriously, how huge is Diaw now? That dude played point guard in Phoenix and now he’s on his way to becoming Eddy Curry) are terrible, so they weren’t making shots. But make no mistake, Charlotte’s starting post players were getting great position, and against better competition, those shots will go in.
I like Monroe on the second unit. He’s able to build confidence against lesser bigs, and that’s really shown. He gets more assertive each time he steps on the court. I’d love for him to play 20-25 minutes off the bench all season, get great experience and learn behind veteran bigs who teach him the ropes. The Pistons don’t have that luxury though. Monroe is the Pistons second best rebounder (He’s averaging nearly 13 boards per-36 minutes, the second best average on the team behind Ben Wallace. No other player on the team is averaging more than seven per-36), he’s shown the feistiness that Kuester was looking for and he’s simply the most important player to the future of the team right now.
Daye would be fine off the bench, where his versatility will come in handy and he can help at multiple positions.
McGrady should keep starting
McGrady also continues to impress. He’ll never be anywhere near the player he was pre-injury, and that’s the impressive part. He’s really re-inventing his game. He’s bigger now than when he was in his mid 20s (aren’t we all?), and he’s really impressed me with how he uses his body, gets good positioning and creates angles where it’s hard for guys to block his shots even though his explosion is noticeably lacking (his two drives to the basket tonight would’ve been dynamic dunks four years ago). Not every player can do what it looks like McGrady is trying to do. It might be a little early for this lofty a comparison, but Antonio McDyess relied on athleticism and explosion pre-injury and changed his game to a below-the-rim, intelligent role player post-injury. McGrady can become the guard version of McDyess.
As far as why he’s great for the starting lineup, he creates a matchup problem. At point guard, opponents will have to put a wing player on the ball, and as we saw with Gerald Wallace tonight, he wasn’t entirely comfortable having to guard a guy at the top of the key, handling the ball a lot. Wallace is great chasing guys off screens and the clutch-and-grab physical defense stuff that is typical for a wing defender, but forcing him out top made him leave his comfort zone.
Plus, at McGrady’s height, he can still see and make passes through traffic even if he’s being tightly defended. Since the Pistons don’t have a point guard who is an elite passer, McGrady fits that bill better. He set the tone nicely, he had the team playing under control and, if my belief that Monroe should start over Daye ever comes to fruition, Daye can simply move into McGrady’s backup small forward spot and continue getting minutes off the bench at that position.
But what about Stuckey?
The unfortunate thing with the Pistons lineup is that any time a player is moved into a spot where he’s more useful, it bumps a guy out of the lineup. If McGrady continues to start at point guard, Stuckey doesn’t have a spot. After his incident with Kuester, it’s plausible that he could lose that starting job, but it’s also hard to take him out of the rotation completely. If you play him as the backup point, Bynum gets squeezed. If you play him at shooting guard, Ben Gordon or Hamilton gets squeezed out.
Kuester is still not in an enviable position when it comes to deciding who is going to be out of the lineup now that everyone appears to be back and healthy. But the positive about the last two guys is some players are starting to separate themselves. McGrady and Monroe have made the case for more minutes. Gordon has clearly earned the starting shooting guard spot over Hamilton. Kuester handled a major test with Stuckey pretty well, it will be interesting to see how he handles things with healthy players who expect to play but might be getting beat out for those spots.