Commentary

PER Diem: Feb. 27, 2009

Looking at five major questions surroundings the Pistons' plunge this season

Updated: February 27, 2009, 3:54 PM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Detroit PistonsAllen Einstein/Getty ImagesA few poor decisions and the decline of some stars have put the Pistons in the cellar.

Few stories in the NBA this year have been more shocking or sudden than the demise of the Pistons.

Since a late December winning streak, Detroit is just 6-18 and has fallen two games below .500. Though the Pistons still cling to the No. 7 slot on the Eastern playoff board, they have just a 44.3 percent chance of making the postseason in today's Playoff Odds, thanks to a fairly difficult closing schedule.

Included in that schedule are two national TV gigs this weekend, and two near-certain defeats: at Orlando on Friday (ESPN, 7 ET), and at Boston on Sunday (ABC, 1 ET). When the league set up the schedule, these games were supposed to be showdowns between contenders; more likely, they'll serve as barometers of just how far Detroit has fallen.

I've covered the Pistons' struggles in some detail in the Insider Gems, but Detroit's decline has so many layers that it could easily encapsulate several columns. Instead, today I've distilled it down to my Five Big Questions about Detroit. In no particular order:

How Did They Get So Bad So Fast?

Detroit fans all point to the early-season trade of Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson, and certainly that had a major, major impact. Iverson isn't Billups' equal on either end of the floor; additionally, the trade left Detroit without a true point guard.

However, that's far from the only reason. Detroit's core is aging, and Rasheed Wallace and Richard Hamilton have been notably less effective than in past seasons. The young generation that was supposed to replace them hasn't quite proven up to the challenge -- Amir Johnson can't go more than three trips without fouling; Rodney Stuckey has flamed out over the past month; and Jason Maxiell is strangely unable to get minutes in the frontcourt.

Couple that with a few iffy moves by the usually sage Joe Dumars -- firing Flip Saunders, extending Hamilton for three years and $34 million right as he was starting to show his age and signing Kwame Brown (Seriously? Kwame Brown?) -- and Detroit's ship was already taking on water.

The collapse has been apparent at both ends, but it has been more an offensive phenomenon. The Pistons are 23rd in offensive efficiency and 14th in defensive efficiency as of today.

The interesting part is that they still play the same way, just not nearly as effectively. Detroit's game plan offensively has always been to shoot decently while posting an extremely low turnover rate; the Pistons still have the league's lowest turnover ratio, but now they're mostly firing up bricks, ranking 28th in True Shooting Percentage.

But don't pin all the blame on the changing of the Palace guards -- Detroit's big men aren't pulling their weight either. The Pistons are only 21st in rebound rate, grabbing 49.6 percent of available caroms. For a team that once dominated with its size and depth up front, that's a jarring decline.

Will they fire Curry?

The mutterings have been increasingly loud from the Motor City that not everybody is feeling Curry, who faced a tough transition in taking over a veteran team without ever having been a head coach before. While the resistance doesn't seem as open or vocal as it was with Terry Porter in Phoenix, it's certainly worth noting given the team's recent descent in the standings.

[+] EnlargeMichael Curry
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesMichael Curry has had a rough first season in Detroit.

Curry has compounded his problems with some strange personnel usage: starting Kwame Brown for a big chunk of the year, trying to play a small-ball lineup while still walking the floor upcourt and consigning Maxiell to the end of the rotation for no apparent reason.

With two losses this weekend, the Pistons would be 6-20 in the past 26 games, and that might get the vultures circling. The maxim in the NBA is that the best time to fire a coach is with an easy stretch of schedule ahead and a couple of practice days available, which is exactly what the Pistons will have next week … so if Dumars is going to make a move, I'm guessing it will be in the next five days.

He may also decide to ride out the season, of course, and he may very well bring back Curry next year; when he hired Curry, Dumars seemed pretty confident this was the guy.

That said, Dumars has already whacked four coaches, and three of them were vastly more successful than Curry. Ironically, that may be the one factor helping Curry hang on: If Dumars blows through coach No. 5, how many high-profile candidates do you suppose will line up to be No. 6?

Of course, all the questions about Curry lead to the next big question:

Why are they playing so slow?

When Iverson was a Nugget last year, his team played the league's second-fastest pace. With the Detroit Pistons, he's playing the league's second-slowest pace. No wonder he's frustrated -- one of the league's most dangerous open-court players is relegated to walking the ball upcourt and coming off pin-downs to get his points.

We don't really know how much of his struggles is coaching and how much is personnel. Certainly the Pistons' four mainstays -- Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess -- have little or no interest in playing up-tempo, making their pairing with Iverson an odd one. On the other hand, wasn't that supposed to be one of the reasons to pick him up, that the Pistons wanted to add a little bounce to their game and get a few easy buckets in transition?

At the very least, the second unit should be able to run. Johnson and Maxiell can get up and down the court and make plays, and reserves like Will Bynum and Walter Herrmann also are comfortable in the open court.

This also sets up an interesting side debate: Today, columnists in both Detroit papers said Iverson should come off the bench and Hamilton should start. Hamilton openly complained about his bench role after Detroit's most recent loss, and there's a logic to it -- Hamilton would be playing with the guys who want to walk it up, and Iverson could play with the guys who can run with him … if they're allowed.

The other part of the pace equation is what has happened at the point. Billups is probably the most methodical point guard in the league, so replacing him with nearly anyone should have resulted in a quickening of Detroit's pace. And Stuckey has looked very comfortable in open-court situations, most notably in the rookie game. Yet, the Pistons still don't run. And their point guard seems unable or unwilling to take advantage of the chances he gets to do so. Which takes us to our next question …

What has happened to Stuckey?

One of the reasons Detroit was heralded for the Billups-Iverson swap was that it would give Stuckey a chance to shine in the backcourt. The logic of this always seemed a little flimsy to me -- it's not obvious how trading a guard for another guard would lead to more opportunities. But Detroit used the trade as a reason to promote Stuckey, and his first month as a starter he was outstanding -- in December, he averaged 15.6 points on 53.0 percent shooting, and in January he bumped the average up to 17.3 points on 47.5 percent shooting.

[+] EnlargeRodney Stuckey
D. Lippitt/Einstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesRodney Stuckey has fallen off after a fast start.

But this month? Crickets. He's averaging 8.5 points on 35.6 percent shooting, and has 27 points combined in his past five games -- it's as if somebody took him aside and told him that "true point guards" aren't supposed to score and he has taken those words a little too much to heart. (I stress that I have no idea if this conversation actually happened; it's merely what it looks like from the outside.)

Stuckey also has two big problems that are keeping him from being as big a star as the Pistons hope, and he'll need to address at least one of them. The thing that made Billups so effective was that he would kill you even if he shot 35 percent because he spiked it with so many 3-pointers and free throws.

Right now, Stuckey is the exact opposite -- he has to shoot in the mid-to-high 40s to be helpful because he hardly ever makes 3s (18 on the season), and for a penetrating guard who has an overwhelming size advantage on most opponents, he doesn't draw huge numbers of free throws.

And if Stuckey isn't the answer, that leads to the obvious follow-up:

Who's in Detroit next season?

The one positive about Detroit's season is that now Dumars can move on with rebuilding without any second thoughts. Iverson, Wallace and Herrmann have expiring contracts and will undoubtedly move on next year, while McDyess is likely to opt out as well.

(By the way, is any player having more second thoughts than McDyess? He could have taken his money and played for the Nuggets, who are third in the West. He could have signed with Boston or Cleveland after his buyout, almost certainly for more money than he's getting from Detroit. Instead he took a pay cut to watch his team sink into the lottery.) Subtract Will Bynum's team option, add the cap hold for a mid-first-round draft pick, and the Pistons are likely to enter the summer with $18 million in cap space … in one of the all-time great buyers' markets.

There's a chance the Pistons could sign somebody very good at a cut-rate price. There's an equally good chance some team will actually pay them off to take a contract off its hands, much like the Suns did with Kurt Thomas to Oklahoma City two years ago, except with a better player. And the Pistons have enough cap space that they can do this with two $9 million players, or even with three $6 million players.

So next year's Pistons are likely to look a whole lot different. Three of the five starters in the losing streak (Iverson, Wallace and McDyess) won't be around, leaving a Stuckey-Hamilton backcourt with Prince on the wings, Arron Afflalo in reserve, and Maxiell and Johnson likely having one or two new partners up front. They'll also have a first-round draft pick joining them, and as this season circles the drain, it looks like it will be a higher pick than they had expected.

All told, the Pistons should be able to reload with a talented nucleus, a draft pick and a couple of quality free agents. So they really aren't in bad shape going forward. … They just look like it when you see them on the court.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.