Pistons Feel That If It's Not Broken, Keep Winning

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 11, 2006

It doesn't matter that they've had four players selected to the all-star team, that point guard Chauncey Billups's name has been thrown around in discussions for the league's most valuable player, or that they've had the best record in the league all season. The Detroit Pistons haven't run out of sources of motivation as they attempt to make their third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals.

"We certainly don't walk around thinking that we've arrived. We all feel we have something to prove," Joe Dumars, the Pistons' president of basketball operations, said during a telephone interview yesterday. "Every season you have to prove that you're worthy enough to be champions. That's what we rally around. It's great to be recognized, but at the end of the day, we know our success or failure will be judged by what happens in June."

No longer on the back burner "just simmering," as forward Rasheed Wallace likes to say, the Pistons (49-11) can't complain about being overlooked as they prepare to make their first visit of the season to Verizon Center tonight against the Washington Wizards. In many ways this season, they have emerged as the darlings of the NBA -- a true dream team (with emphasis on team) -- especially after the performance of Wallace, Billups, Ben Wallace and Richard Hamilton in the All-Star Game, when they outplayed the Western Conference all-stars and triggered a comeback victory for the East. "The perception of us has definitely changed," Billups said.

But despite the newfound acclaim, the Pistons' starting five -- considered the best in the league -- can always reach back and remember that all of them, with the exception of Tayshaun Prince, has been traded or cut. And Prince was passed over by 20 teams in the 2002 draft (including the Wizards, who had two chances) while the other four have been on or tried out for a combined 16 teams. "We'll find a way to use that no matter what. That's just the way we roll, man," Dumars said with a laugh.

Dumars has been praised for assembling a group of former castoffs who may not have found success individually but have become the most consistent starting unit in the league. The Pistons' starting lineup has been pretty much the same ever since Dumars acquired Rasheed Wallace from Atlanta on Feb. 19, 2004, and Dumars said he knew what he was looking for in each player. He saw Ben Wallace as a relentless worker; Billups a tough-minded scorer; Hamilton as a player who could move well without the ball; Prince as a skilled defender; and Rasheed Wallace as a reluctant superstar with an edge.

"Studying their games, watching how they and play and seeing what their strengths and weaknesses were . . . I was trying to find players that could mesh on the court," said Dumars, who has been in his position since June 2000.

The Pistons are the only team that has had the same starting lineup for all 60 games this season, which has contributed to much of their success. Such continuity is hardly the norm in a league filled with constant roster turnover, but Dumars said he has had no trouble keeping this team together.

"It's actually pretty easy because, when you make a change, you make it out of necessity and there has not been any reason to make any moves in terms of our starting five," Dumars said.

Dumars, however, has never been shy about making a coaching change. After Rick Carlisle posted back-to-back 50-win seasons and Central Division titles, Dumars brought in Larry Brown to take the Pistons to another level. After Brown led the Pistons to an NBA title and Game 7 of the NBA Finals last season, the sides mutually decided to part ways, so Dumars replaced Brown with Flip Saunders.

"If you know the pulse of your team, you're going to know when it's time," he said. "It may not always be popular, but my position is not to be popular, it's to be right. That's all I try to do, it's get it right."

Dumars said he decided to hire Saunders because he didn't think the Pistons "exploited our offensive abilities" in the previous four years. Detroit had a reputation for playing ugly, defensive-minded basketball.

Under Saunders, the Pistons are a more efficient machine, averaging 97.4 points -- their highest since 2000 -- and still rank third in the NBA in points allowed at 89.7.

"I felt our defense was already entrenched over the last five years. That wasn't going to change. That's the makeup of who we are," Dumars said. "But I thought if we could improve and if we did improve, it was going to be on the offensive end."

The Pistons have gone just 12-6 since their 37-5 start, and San Antonio and Dallas are threatening their once-comfortable lead for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

"We know what we're capable of doing, we know what type of talent we have in that locker room and we know last year, we felt like we let it go to waste," said Ben Wallace, who will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason.

"All we want to do is have an opportunity to be in the thick of things when it comes down to it, the opportunity to have home-court advantage so we can get that Game 7 at home instead of on the road."

Billups admitted recently that the players are beginning to feel some fatigue as the season wears on, which is understandable since the Pistons have played 272 games since the start of the 2003-04 season -- more than any other team in the NBA. Talk of the Pistons possibly catching the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who went 72-10, ended for good after they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers last Saturday, but Dumars said the players never were concerned with 70 wins.

"Our guys are focused on an NBA world championship," Dumars said. "They don't give out trophies for winning 70 games. You don't get rings for that. Maybe when they do, then that's what we'll shoot for. At this point, the only thing we're shooting for is the rings at the end of the year."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company