Friday, June 01, 2007

O Larry, Where Art Thou?

Detroit, please allow me to take a page out of the Rick Pitino playbook:

Larry Brown is not walking through that door. Ben Wallace is not walking through that door. Hell, even Corliss Williamson, Mike James and Elden Campbell are not walking through that door.

That is to say, Detroit fans and their expectations have become a bit too lofty granted the players that currently comprise their beloved Pistons. They became lofty thanks to the wonderful championship run (hell, even *I* was rooting for them) in 2004 that the four aforementioned players helped put together along with the rock-solid 1-4 that still plays in the D today in Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace. Some people called that team boring but I had a blast watching their 2004 playoff run (and not just because I hated the Lakers). Their hunger and drive was something to behold as 12 underdogs battled and scrapped their way to a decisive hammering of the Lake-show in those '04 Finals.

Over the course of the next three years, guys like Williamson and James and Campbell turned into guys like Dale Davis and Jason Maxiell and Chris Webber (only one of whom I'd want on my team -- and it ain't Mr. Time-Out) and this turnover certainly damaged what Joe Dumars had built in '03 and '04.

The most grievous blow, however, occurred when Larry "Wanderlust" Brown decided that his dream job was available with the Knicks and instead of coming back to take another run at The Ugly Trophy he would rather coach a team going nowhere with THE WORST GM EVER. The loss of Brown was only further complicated by the puzzling hire of Flip Saunders as the Pistons' bench boss. Things became even more complicated when Ben Wallace split the scene for big bucks in Chicago.

With Saunders in charge the Pistons have remained atop the East standings but have faltered in the playoffs, losing in 6 last year to a searing-hot Miami squad (no pun intended) in the East Finals and now finding themselves perched precariously on the edge of playoff elimination to the Cavaliers, a scenario found to be unthinkable just 7 days ago.

What happened? How did these guys go from nigh-invincible to nigh-eliminated? There are two fundamental changes that occurred between 2004 and 2007:

1- Larry Brown created a team atmosphere that Flip Saunders could not follow through on. We heard it last year when Ben Wallace, arguably the biggest star on that team, was publicly calling out Saunders in the middle of the playoffs. This year it's gone a step further with 'Sheed taking technical fouls from throwing his headband out of frustration with his own teammates. There has been talk of a serious chemistry-related breakdown in the Pistons' locker room and Chris McCosky paints a revealing picture of it in his Detroit News article. The Pistons won in '04 as a team and really do seem to be, in the finest words of Al Pacino, crumbling as individuals in '07. Team = hunger; hunger = The Ugly Trophy.

2- What I refer to as the Rasheed-ization of the Pistons. Under Brown, Rasheed's attitude was held in check and we heard about the "Kinder and gentler 'Sheed." Brown was able to use the aforementioned team atmosphere to dull any impact from big personalities like 'Sheed's. Since Brown left, Rasheed Wallace has been allowed to act like Rasheed Wallace and, in my not-so-humble opinion, the results have been pretty disastrous: constant bulletin board material, a lack of respect for their opposition and, most annoyingly, constant bitching about every single call on the floor. None of this happened under Coach Suitcase.

So now Detroit fans expect their boys to band together with their backs against the wall because they have responded to this kind of pressure so well in the past. They expect the Pistons to band together and play as a team, but... who will they band together around?

Larry Brown is not walking through that door.

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