Wednesday, October 1, 2008

2008 - 2009 Pistons

Just about every year I try to take a look at the Piston's roster and make some predictions. It's one of the few "traditions" I have, unless you count some matters of personal hygiene and complaints. Without further Bob McAdoo (that's a required bad pun when talking basketball), here is your 2008 - 2009 Detroit Pistons.

Projected Starters

Point Guard/Shooting Guard Chauncey Billups: At 32, Billups is showing signs of his age, though most of the complaints pointed his way seemed to come during the playoffs--after a leg injury. He's still one of the best point guards in the NBA, averaging 17 points, 6.8 assists and only 1.7 turnovers per game last year (32.3 minutes per game). For the first time since joining the Pistons, his minutes dipped a bit. I expect them to continue to drop courtesy of the emergence of Rodney Stuckey. I suspect we'll see cases where Billups, Stuckey, and Rip are all on the floor at the same time, with Rip sliding over to the small forward spot. Billups biggest advantages are his size, strength, and defensive acumen. He's 6'3" and 203 lbs. as of the last roster update. He's never been an extremely fast guard, and struggles with some of the quicker guards in the league, notably players like Tony Parker. He averaged 1.3 steals last season, which promises to be an important part of Curry's agenda. Steals lead to fast breaks and easy baskets. Billups is still deadly from beyond the arc (shooting 40.1% last season) and can post up many point guards in the NBA, a rare ability.

Shooting Guard/Small Forward Richard Hamilton: Of all the "aging" Pistons, I predict the years will have the least effect on Rip. He stays in such phenomenal condition, he is the one Piston that never seems tired. With Curry's emphasis on "Bad Boy" defense, start to finish, I bet Rip won't see a big drop in his minutes. More likely, he'll spend a bit of time at the small forward spot now and then. He was especially effective guarding LeBron James during the regular season last year when they matched him up despite giving up a great deal of size and strength (LeBron is built like a power forward). Most fans look to Billups, Rasheed, or even Prince to shoot 3's, but Rip has gone from below average to deadly accurate the last few years. He shot 44% from behind the arc last season. I think Curry wants the Pistons attacking the rim more, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Rip continue to make teams pay when they leave him unguarded out by the three-point line. His bread and butter, however, is still moving without the ball, coming off screens and taking incredibly accurate mid-range shots. I believe Rip might be one of the most underrated Pistons. He averaged above thirty points a game during the playoffs when Chauncey was out on injuries, even during a game in which Stuckey put up 15 points. Rip would stand out more than he already does if he was playing for a less balanced, talented team.

Small Forward Tayshaun Prince: The youngest of the core Pistons, Prince just turned 28 and still hasn't missed a game. His defensive ability, high basketball IQ, and versatility earned him a spot on the Olympic team this summer--and a gold medal--though he was probably the least valuable player among the star-studded cast. That said, he's still a great player. Last year, he spent some time as a "point forward," since the Piston's didn't have much relief in the ballhandling department. While most compliment his ballhandling skills, I watched him attempt way too many alley-oop style passes during the playoffs... creating a lot of turnovers. He's talented, but I think his strength will continue to be a balanced game; last season he shot 36.3% from 3P range and demonstrated he could drive to the hoop with a surprisingly quick first step. His defensive skills on the perimeter haven't taken much of a hit with the years, though he looked tired now and then last season. I think he'll get a bit more rest this year, especially come playoff time.

Power Forward/Center Antonio McDyess: At 34 years old, McDyess is still a skilled finesse player and led the Pistons in rebounding as he moved from the bench to starting. Still, there has been a lot of talk about moving Dyess back to the bench; despite his impressive collection of double-doubles, he seems more productive coming off the bench. Amir Johnson is said to be the leading candidate for replacing him in the starting lineup, but I think Maxiell has certainly earned his chance as well. I'm not certain how effective McDyess and Maxiell would be together. Maxiell is only 6'7" and McDyess is 6'9"... adequate for power forward, but undersized for center, the spot he'd likely be playing off the bench. Out of all the Pistons, I suspect his minutes will take the biggest hit, but his attitude might win over Curry. McDyess seemed to want a championship more than any other Piston this past season.

Power Forward/Center Rasheed Wallace: Also turning 34, Sheed is in the last season of his contract. Many expected him to get traded in the summer, but it doesn't look like many teams looking to drop payroll (courtesy his expiring contract) had anything to offer in return. Rasheed is still probably the most skilled Piston on the roster, though his rebounding ability is less than you'd expect for a big man. The other complaint facing Sheed is something he could address... fewer three's and more post offense. Sheed has an incredible post game, but he shows a lot of reluctance to go down low on offense. Curry has already been vocal about this. If Sheed doesn't comply, expect fewer minutes for him. If he's paired with Amir Johnson--the best rebounder and shot-blocker on the team--I'd expect some of his weaknesses will be covered, at least as long as Amir can stay out of foul trouble.

Second Options:

Point Guard/Shooting Guard Rodney Stuckey: If you haven't heard of Stuckey, ESPN magazine (if memory serves) picked him as the most likely player in the NBA to have a breakout year. He had some amazing playoff games last year, and he missed the first 25 games of the season after breaking his hand in the final preseason game. A year older, I predict Stuckey will be a "sixth starter" and compete for Sixth Man of the year awards. He's big (6'5"), fast, and gets to the hoop with amazing speed. He also seems capable of running the point, even if he doesn't have the court vision of the best pass-first point guards. He averaged 19 MPG last season, jumping up to 22.3 MPG during the playoffs--including two games as a starter while Billups was injured. During on of those two games, Stuckey scored 15 points and had NO turnovers. He gives every indication that he was an absolute steal with the 15th draft pick.

Shooting Guard/Small Forward Arron Afflalo: Arron played more than many expected last season (12.9 MPG), in part because Rip missed ten games. His offense was quiet (3.7 points per game), but he shot a solid percentage (41.1%) despite struggling from the three-point line (20.8%). In college, he definitely displayed a knack for scoring from the perimeter, and I suspect his consistency will improve this season. His defense is already impressive, which is how he managed to earn minutes over veteran Juan Dixon. During the summer league, I saw him score 26 in a game and the announcers ranted "He's a man among boys out there!" He definitely seemed poised and confident beyond the start of his sophmore season. He's undersized (6'5" 215 lbs.) for small forward, but Curry made a career as an undersized, defensive-minded small forward, so I wouldn't write off some minutes at the small forward spot for Afflalo.

Power Forward Jason Maxiell: Maxiell has been another fantastic draft pick by Dumars. He was definitely the Piston's sixth man last year and earned his minutes through sheer will power. At 6'7" he's one of the shortest power forwards in the league, and he even played a few minutes at the center spot against Dwight Howard. He rebounds very well for his size, though struggles against the true big men of the league. He's an adept shot-blocker. And, he dunks. Man, does Maxiell dunk. I was surprised when I heard the mentions of Amir Johnson competing with McDyess and Maxiell for the starting power forward spot, but Maxiell has played better off the bench. He's an "energy" player. His undersized status also limits how well he matches up with players. Still, I expect Maxiell continue to stand out in the NBA. He's a great guy and should be a real spark plug off the bench.

Power Forward Amir Johnson: People have started to expect a lot from Amir Johnson since he was drafted in 2005 (the 56th pick of the draft). He's demonstrated, in flashes, what a remarkable player he can be. He has explosive speed and is starting to make moves on the perimeter and cut to the basket. He is most definitely the most gifted rebounder on the Pistons, especially on the offensive glass. With his offensive rebounds come easy put-back dunks. He is the best per-minute shot-blocker on the team, too--able to block shots with either hand. And, lets not forget that he has three point range. The coaches have made Amir concentrate on post play, but he most definitely can hit NBA three's. At the end of the season in 2005-2006, Amir played three games. He shot 2 of 3 from three-point range. While he missed all three attempts from beyond the arc in the following year, he only played eight games. If you check, you'll find two of those shots were last second prayers, not legitimate attempts. I firmly believe Amir Johnson and Rodney Stuckey are the future of the Piston's franchise. Amir continues to make rookie mistakes, but no one else has the potential he does. To paraphrase something the coaching staff just said, Amir does some things you can't teach very well, and does some things you can coach poorly. That's a good spot to be in. I predict he'll get at least 15 minutes per game, whether he starts or comes off the bench. I'd like to see him get 20+ per game this season. I think everyone will stand up and take notice when they see what this guy can do.

Center Kwame Brown: When the news said the Pistons signed Kwame Brown, the fans were angry. That's the BIG trade? Well, no. He's a single piece, to replace the role played by Elden "Soup" Campbell, Dale Davis, and Theo Ratliff. Kwame is only 26 years old, but was drafted with the #1 pick by Michael Jordan right out of high school. He's an athletic freak--6'11" and 270 lbs., not to mention very fast--and everyone has been disappointed with his performance. The thing is, Kwame doesn't have much of an offensive game. He rebounds well. He is a good shot-blocker. He has small hands and struggles with free throws and anything beyond put-backs. Sound familiar? For $4m a year (two year deal, second is an option of some sort) is a good deal for a legitimate, young center that is a good--highly skilled--post defender. He has had some health issues, but is capable of putting up solid numbers off the bench. He'll probably get most of his play time against the real big men of the league, the ones the Pistons struggle with since loosing Big Ben (despite the fact he was only 6'9" and 240 lbs). I think Kwame was a good signing. He's trying to salvage his reputation and won't be expected to be the star. On the Wizards, he was beat down by player/GM Michael Jordan, who couldn't understand why Kwame wasn't Shaq. Then he was moved to the Lakers, where they expected him to replace Shaq. Last season, he finished his year in Memphis, where he was supposed to replace Pau Gasol on a very poor team. Combined with the health issues and some immaturity early in his career, is it really a surprise he hasn't lived up to the hype?

The Third-Stringers:

Point Guard Will Bynum: I expected Bynum to make the team a bit ago, but he finally earned a contract this year. He's an impressive athlete, very strong, and is a bull-dog of a defender. He gets to the rim, or at least did in the D-League (leading scorer two years ago) and in Europe, playing for Israel. He isn't likely to get a lot of play time behind Stuckey, but he's a good third option at the point. He doesn't distribute the ball well, but the bench often lacks scoring--something he can provide.

Point Guard/Shooting Guard Alex Acker: Drafted by the Pistons a few years ago, he finally gets his chance on the roster. He is filling the hole left by Lindsey Hunter, who seems to be headed to retirement now. Acker will probably be used at the shooting guard spot, not point, and I wouldn't expect him to play without injuries, but he isn't a bad player. He spent the last two years in Europe, and looked pretty good.

Small Forward/Power Forward Walter Hermann: Hermann is probably the most likely player of the third-strings to get play time. He's a good defender, but he also is versatile enough to play shooting guard to power forward with his 6'9" frame. He has a deadly three-point shot and can score in a variety of ways. I was surprised he was signed this year. I really thought the Bobcats turned him off to the NBA. I expected he'd be in Europe this year, but the Pistons have another year to see what he has. I think he's a quality player. I wouldn't be shocked if he got some time at the small forward spot.

Small Forward/Power Forward Walter Sharpe: Walter #2 is a rookie and is very unlikely to play this season. He's a prospect. I'd say he is the LEAST likely Pistons to put time in on the hardwood this year. I think they intend to move him to the D League next year, having him concentrate on the Piston's mentality this year (and what they expect).

Center Cheick Samb: This will be Samb's second year and he would have probably played some minutes if they hadn't signed Kwame Brown. As is, I suspect he'll spend a lot of time in the D League barring injuries. He's a 7'1" guy with incredible shot-blocking ability. He also showed he has a smooth shooting touch, making him a very interesting prospect. That said, he'll probably join Alex Acker and Walter Sharpe watching most games... at least for now.

So that's it. That's the 2008-2009 Pistons. They look like a very skilled, deep team. Michael Curry will be the difference maker if they succeed this year. He promised to bring back "Bad Boy" defense even if the rules have changed. I suspect he'll focus on transition baskets off of turnovers, post play, and use his bench more than Saunders. If he wants 34 year old guys to play hardcore defense, start-to-finish, and then pound the ball inside on offense... he won't be sending them out for extended minutes. With key players like Stuckey, Maxiell, Amir, Afflalo, even Kwame Brown... he'll have a lot of options. I suspect the improvement from the young guys combined with the new coaching approach will make for an exciting year.