Don't Look Now: The Pistons Are on a Roll
Thursday, December 29, 2005; 12:00 PM
Go ahead, wrap yourselves up in the never-ending zaniness of Ron Artest and his flip-flop trade demands. Spend some more time trying to see if Pat Riley really undermined Stan Van Gundy to take over as coach of the Miami Heat. Try examining Kobe Bryant's 62-point barrage to determine if he really could've scored 80 had he played the fourth quarter. Keep fawning over the surprising Los Angeles Clippers or frowning over the disappointing Denver Nuggets.
Do everything you can to overlook the best story in the NBA this season: The Detroit Pistons don't want your love anyway. "It's cool, though. That's how we like it, that spotlight is not on us," Pistons forward Rasheed Wallace said during the first week of the season, well before the Pistons jumped out to one of the greatest starts in NBA history.
It's a strange fuel for this team that thrives on being overlooked and slighted. The Pistons have been in the NBA Finals in each of the past two seasons, but their perceived lack of recognition drives them each night to perform at such a high level that eventually, you will have to focus on them. Now you don't have much choice: After their 113-106 victory against the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday, the Pistons won their eighth game in a row and improved to 23-3.
Detroit is on a pace to win 73 games this season. Yes, that's 73 -- as in one more than the 72 victories the Chicago Bulls won in 1995-96. Los Angeles Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, who guided the only team in NBA history to win 70 games, was asked this week if he thought the Pistons had to potential to go 73-9. "I don't know. It's really hard to say," said Jackson. "You just have to manage it game by game and see where it goes. They haven't had to survive any injuries at this point, as far as anything critical, so we'll see what happens. But they have good athletes."
This is no longer about just trying to prove to everyone that they can win without Larry Brown. The Pistons like to remind people that they weren't too shabby under Rick Carlisle, either. Coach Flip Saunders has opened up the offense, letting his players' individual talents shine through. The Pistons should have three players representing the Eastern Conference at the all-star game in February (Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton).
The Pistons' all-star deficient backcourt shouldn't be snubbed any longer. Billups is finally beginning to generate some buzz for MVP for quarterbacking this unit, former Washington Wizard Richard Hamilton is averaging a career-best 21.6 points in the uptempo offense, and Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace have been able to carry the team offensively any given night. They are even surpassing the expectations of Saunders. "I thought we had the ability to get off to a good start, but I didn't think it would get this gaudy," Saunders said recently.
ESPN basketball analyst Scottie Pippen boldly predicted in November that the Pistons would join the Bulls among the 70 win elite. "I'm sure he's talking to [Pistons assistant and former Bull] Ronnie Harper about the team a little bit," Jackson said with a burly chuckle. "They're cracking each other up a little bit."
Jackson said it's too early to even think about winning 70. He said the 1995-96 Bulls didn't start to seriously think about 70 wins until the entered the month April with a 62-8 record. His one bit of advice to the Pistons: "You can't lose two in a row," said Jackson, whose Bulls had a chance to post back-to-back 70 win seasons but lost the final two games in 1997 and finished 69-13.
Last season, the Phoenix Suns started the season at 23-3 and received considerable publicity, with the "Steve Nash for MVP" campaign taking off before New Year's Eve. This season, the Pistons have yet have an Eastern Conference Player of the Week. Has there ever been a team this good that got so little love?
San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said he understands the Pistons' chip-on-the-shoulder motivation. "Now they're really angry," Popovich told reporters on Sunday. "It sounds simplistic, but that's how they're playing. It's like they are saying, 'You [expletives], we're going to show you now.' They are scary."
The Pistons, however, will have a difficult time keeping up this pace: They play in arguably the toughest division in the NBA. They have been fortunate to have the same starting five for all 26 games this season and each starter averages at least 34 minutes per game.
In the past 15 years, six teams have started the season 23-3 -- Portland (1990-91), Houston (1993-94), Seattle (1993-94), Chicago (1995-96 and 1996-97) and Phoenix (2004-05) -- but the Bulls and the Rockets were the only teams to follow their incredible starts with championships in June. That's why the Pistons aren't too worried about how they finish the regular season. "Our ultimate goal is not to have the best record, but to win that championship," Wallace told reporters Tuesday night.