Cliffy, Barry help make Stack's Pistons run
Detroit is off to its best start in years, thanks to a more balanced lineup around Jerry Stackhouse.
There is some talk that Stack won't play, or that Grant won't play, or that neither will. Any of that happens, obviously, and they're going to have to find another story line for Monday night's Pistons at Magic run.
Unless, on a Cliff note, we simply talk about Detroit. No matter who else is playing.
Jerry Stackhouse vs. Grant Hill would be probably be spicy under any circumstances, especially because they haven't met yet since the divorce, but the Pistons have made the matchup intriguing in the team sense by getting off to the better start. If the stars are healthy enough to go, after both sat out Saturday's games with injuries, even better. If not, it's no less a talker that there are traces of an actual team in Motown, as opposed to Just Jerry.
While it's early still, and remembering that the Pistons faded after a near-.500 start over 30 games last season, there has been enough evidence already to suggest that Orlando won't be alone tonight in its playoff-worthiness. Jerry's kids, since the 32-50 struggles of 2000-01, have added the aforementioned Uncle Cliffy Robinson and Jon Barry and a rookie named Rick Carlisle, who might win Coach Of The Month in the first month he's eligible.
It's not like having Chris Webber, whom the Pistons hoped to score with all their summer salary-cap space. But it's the best Detroit has been since Hill and Doug Collins had the 1996-97 edition off to 10-1 launch and, eventually, 20-4, before Collins' inevitable meltdown and Hill's standard first-round playoff exit.
"I'm not surprised that it's coming together," says Stack, who has missed the bulk of Detroit's past three games because of a groin strain. "I knew it had to come together eventually. But I didn't know that everything would happen so quickly, especially on the defensive side of the ball. People are excited."
The justification is ample. Detroit won seven of its first nine games, losing only to Dallas and Portland in that start and beating the Mavericks, Pacers and Raptors in the same stretch. The Pistons then lost a couple, to Philadelphia and Atlanta, but only had Stack for only one full quarter in those two games. Neither was a lopsided loss, either, meaning that Stack might have easily made up the difference of five points against the Sixers and seven on the night Shareef Abdur-Rahim went for 50.
At the very least, it was a bad night to be without your leading scorer, and Reef's awakening stands as the only example so far -- with or sans Stack -- of slack Pistons defending. Detroit has the league's third-stingiest D, allowing just 89.0 points per, largely because of bushy-haired (or cornrowed) Orlando alumnus Ben Wallace. Tough to describe Wallace as underrated any more when his name shows up in the top 10 of three categories -- rebounds (No. 8 at 11.0), blocks (No. 1 at 3.6) and steals (No. 5 at 2.0).
Swinging and missing badly on Webber, a Michigan man, was quite the slap for Joe Dumars, who received little more than a courtesy visit from CWebb. But the spurned Pistons were still in roomy position to benefit from luxury-tax panic in Phoenix and Sacramento and absorbed Robinson and Jon Barry for nothing essential.
Again, added up, those two aren't Webber, but they're tough, wizened pros who have made Stack's life less of a strain (groin aside). Averaging roughly seven fewer points and seven fewer shots than last season, Stackhouse is still good for 21.7 points and a team-best 5.4 assists. Carlisle went to Stack in the off-season and told him what he wanted to see from the All-Star and Stack is providing everything that was requested, under control and overtly mature.
Though the total package might not look as good as the old 29.8 points-per-game average, it no longer takes a commercial with Trey Wingo to get Stack smiling and laughing happily.
"We've found some guys that really complement what we're trying to do, and the things I do well like putting pressure on a defense and creating open shots," Stack says. "Those guys [Robinson and Barry] are a little older, guys I can draw from so it's not all the time guys drawing from me.
"I have no problem being the leader by example, but it's just nice sometimes having someone else to do that, too. We basically lucked out."
There's more, too. Carlisle has restored Michael Curry, Dana Barros and Corliss Williamson to favor, all of which means that Rodney White -- one of the few June draftees expected to play immediately -- can't get off the bench. And still Carlisle is trusting one rookie: Zeljko Rebraca, rookie with an European asterisk at 29, is backing up Robinson and Wallace with some more traditional center play (and a snazzy Eminem tint, to go with Cliffy's headband and whichever look Wallace goes for).
There are bound to be some blips, of course, especially if Stack's groin trouble lingers. Robinson and Wallace, however good together, can't carry the offense like the captain can.
Folks wonder, too, about Carlisle's ability to placate players and already he's dealing with a public mini-flap, having promoted Damon Jones to backup point guard ahead of Chucky Atkins when the Pistons were in the midst of that 7-2 start. In this case, fortunately for Carlisle, Atkins isn't one of his main guys, so it's really more of a wannabe controversy. There's also this: Carlisle made the right move, given that Jones is a deep threat and a bigger body a better contrast to Barros.
Stackhouse insists that there won't be problems with Carlisle if he can help it. He doesn't need a new coach to make it clear that all the talk about shooting too much and feuding with Hill and being difficult won't go away until the Pistons string some wins together after April.
"It's been good with Rick," Stack said. "And he didn't try to start all this at the beginning of the season. We've had contact ever since he got the job. We've had running conversations about how we feel about things, and he didn't only do that with me.
"I think it's starting to be our time again -- maybe the second side of the Bad Boys era. Things going in cycles, and we've been down for a while.
"I know that you have to be one of those teams playing in May or June to gain your credit or your reputation or whatever you want to call it. That's just got to be the focus for me."
Not a November grudge match with Grant.
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Marc Stein, who covers the NBA for The Dallas Morning News, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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