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Thursday, January 30, 2003
Updated: January 31, 4:35 PM ET
The 'new' Bad Boys

By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist

The Pistons are a seriously flawed ball club -- they have trouble scoring, rebounding and hanging on to the ball. Even so, they defend the hell out of everybody and always play hard, and that's why Rick Carlisle's squad is one of my favorites.

At the same time, most NBA players would rather hug a referee than tangle with the Pistons. "Nobody likes to have a defender in your face all game long," says Eric Piatkowski, the LAC's sharpshooting guard. "They'll push, bang and bully you, trying to take you out of your game. Richard Hamilton is the only exception, because he's more of a speed and finesse defender. But Detroit's game plan is to commit at least a dozen fouls on every play, knowing that the refs can't, and won't, call them all. And there's no letup for 48 minutes because, from top to bottom, the Pistons also have one of the deepest benches in the league."

Starting from the top, then, here's the scouting reports on the team that routinely tests their opponents' will to win:

Richard Hamilton -- 6-foot-6, 185. The blue-collar Pistons' closest approximation of a marquee player. Essentially, a pull-up shooter a la Calvin Murphy, Hamilton likes to squeeze the trigger after one or two bounces, usually to the middle. But he's also a slithery driver who can find a shooting angle in a forest of big men. Lacks consistent 3-point range. Adequate defender, but improving.

Clifford Robinson -- 6-10, 225. Veteran point-maker and long-distance shooter, who will even uncork 3s in fast-break situations. When facing up in a half-court set, Robinson likes to drive left for a pull-up jumper, or shoot a running jumper going right. On left block, uses jump hook or TAJ, going either way. On right block, looks for TAJ, baseline. Watch Robinson dip his shoulder into defender to create space for his shot. (Watch the refs let him get away with it.) Can't rebound in heavy traffic. Named to NBA's All-Defensive second team in 2000 and 2002 -- gets good position, can block shots coming from weak side, sometimes gambles for steal, foul prone when matched against stronger post players.

Chauncey Billups -- 6-3, 202. Strong, quick, athletic. Good driver, left or right. Excellent spot shooter, but will force shots. A shooting guard in a point guard's body. Close and constant defensive pressure can force him into making bad decisions. Physical defender.

Michael Curry -- 6-5, 225. Limited offense: Good standstill shooter, prefers to drive left, looking to dunk. A tough, aggressive defender. Plays passing lanes. Dives for loose balls. Runs the floor well going both ways. An underrated stopper.

Ben Wallace
Wallace's toughness defines the Pistons
Ben Wallace -- 6-9, 240. The NBA's Defensive Player of the Year and cornerstone of Detroit's league-leading defense. Strong, athletic banger who can, however, be overpowered by some of the NBA's more gargantuan pivotmen. Relentless rebounder (16.6 per game is NBA's best) who always crashes the offensive boards. Quick off his feet -- also No. 1 shot-blocker in league -- but since he has eyes to block every shot he can reach, is susceptible to ball fakes. Opportunistic scorer -- gets layups on S/Rs, drive-and-kicks, and put-backs. Looks for backdoor lobs to dunk. Awful form on free throws -- career percentage is all-time low of .384. (A right-handed shooter routinely sets his right foot slightly ahead of his left by way of keeping his right hip, shoulder and elbow in line with the target. But Wallace sets his left foot forward, thereby creating tremendous torque and strain in the middle of his body as he shoots.)

How, then, do opponents deal with the four defensive aces in the Pistons' starting lineup?

"First of all," says an NBA veteran, "know that if you go through the middle without the ball, you're going to be batted around like you're inside a pinball machine. They're not into cheap shots or anything like that. Just ornery chest-to-chest defense. They like to collapse whenever somebody is beaten by dribble-penetration, so making your outside shots is a must. And because they make such a hard commitment to the strong side, quick ball reversal can sometimes find somebody loose on the weak side. It's also necessary to make them play defense for as long as possible. Since they don't have a true center, they can also be attacked in the paint. Except for Wallace, nobody else hits the boards -- which means that lots of offensive rebounds are up for grabs. But the crucial factors here are to take the hits, persevere and execute your offense."

On the flip side, the only authentic offensive threats among the Pistons' starting five are Robinson, Hamilton and Billups. "We try to pressure Billups," says an assistant coach. "We'll tailgate Hamilton around the picks, bang him with a big man if he curls, and generally let him shoot from the perimeter. Since Robinson is a fadeaway finesse guy, we're not afraid to switch and play him with a guard whenever they screen-and-roll with him. It's usually one shot and about-face, because they're one of the worst offensive rebounding teams in the NBA."

The Pistons' bench players score more (39.6 ppg) than any other second unit in the league. Let's take a close look:

Corliss Williamson -- 6-7, 245. "Big Nasty" represents Detroit's only legitimate low-post threat. With a career field-goal efficiency of 49.7 percent, Williamson is their main man whenever a game's on the line. Gets great position inside and seals his man well. Has a variety of ways to score from his favorite parking spot on the left box: A right-hand jump hook or pull-up jumper to middle; a baseline turn for one or more pump fakes, then a hard drive either way; plus a drive right, then a spin left for TAJ. On the right block, Williamson drives middle and uses TAJ to his right shoulder. Will also turn and face, using jab step and pump fakes to create space. Effective shooter from 18-to-20 feet. Since Williamson plays the small forward, he can usually overpower his defender. The trick is to out-quick him on the other end.

Jon Barry -- 6-5, 210. Plays with energy, emotion and smarts. Long-range specialist -- nearly half of his shots are 3s and he hits 44 percent of these. Not afraid to take clutch shots, but needs lots of room to shoot. Drives left and right looking to pass -- will force passes when on the move. Make him finish at the basket on dribble drives. Has nice give-and-go relationship with Robinson. Solid positional defender who looks to ambush the passing lanes.

Chucky Atkins -- 5-11, 160. Like Billups, Atkins is a point guard with a scorer's mentality. Nice pull-up game, right and left. Dangerous 3-point shooter. But prefers to penetrate. Pushes hard in transition -- wants to go coast-to-coast -- and never pulls up in broken field. Gambles for steals on defense.

Mehmet Okur -- 6-11, 250. A shooter with 3-point range. Crude but strong post-up game. Ignore Okur, and he can score against second-string centers.

Chucky Atkins, Jamaal Tinsley
Can you imagine Chucky Atkins and Jamaal Tinsley in the same backcourt? Danny Ainge can.
When their "scoring platoon" (or parts thereof) are on the court, opponents are likely to employ some kind of zone defense. While this tactic successfully negates Williamson's forays in the paint, it is vulnerable to the long-range bombs of Barry, Atkins and Billups. "But facing zones doesn't always work in our favor," says Barry. "The trouble is that the outside shots are available almost too easily and too quickly. One pass and there it is. But what every halfcourt offense really wants to do is make the defense work hard for as long as possible. Get the defenders moving until they get tired and their concentration gets stretched. Then there'll be plenty of easy shots for everybody. When you get an open shot too early, however, it creates a certain hesitation. If, for example, there's still 15 or so seconds on the shot clock, it's too quick to shoot. But I'm open. But it's too quick. The result is that we usually don't shoot as well against a zone as we do against a man-to-man."

According to Pete Myers, an assistant coach with the Bulls, zoning the Pistons can be a dangerous undertaking. "In a straight man defense," says Myers, "every player has a personal responsibility to box the guy he's guarding off the boards. Not that it's always done, but at least the responsibility is clear. In a zone, though, sometimes there's nobody in your area to box. Sometimes there's two guys, and you have to pick one of them. So the risk that you take when you zone the Pistons is that they'll climb all over the offensive boards. And the last thing you want to do against Detroit is to give them extra shots."

For most NBA coaches (with the notable exception of Don Nelson), the heart of the game is defense. Over the course of a season, there are always a certain number of games when a team's shots just won't fall, when the ball seems to expand and the basket shrinks. But defense is a constant. Defense is the stuff of which dynasties are fashioned.

Unfortunately, the last act of any defensive stand is rebounding. Give the Pistons a wide-bodied big man who can clean the glass, and Detroit can mop up any of their Eastern Conference rivals. If that chimerical biggie can also score enough to demand double-teaming, then the Pistons are serious contenders for a championship.

Hip-hop hooplings may find the Pistons' blue-collar game plan too boring. But the Detroit Pistons are the best-coached team in the league, and, for old codgers like me, they're always fun to watch. And I'm in good company, because Elgin Baylor, the LAC's general manager, is another closet Pistons' fan. "They play the same kind of brutal defense that we used to play in the '50s and '60s," he says. "Man, I'd pay see the Pistons practice."

Maybe it's a generational thang.

Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."