Larry's out, Flip's in, and the Pistons feel fine
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- If you search the gym hard enough, really scope it out, you can still see Larry Brown's face at Pistons practice every day.
Only if you look super hard, though.
On a small wall between the players-only door and the weight room at the Pistons' practice facility -- a wall you probably wouldn't notice unless you got close to it -- Brown's visage appears in a lower corner of a painting that features every member of Detroit's 2004 championship team.
That's pretty much it.
There seems to be very little Larry in the Pistons' airspace otherwise.
The players insist they don't talk much amongst themselves about their departed coach. Chauncey Billups says they haven't even fielded many Larry questions since media day. The Pistons have made their move into the Flip Saunders Era look as workmanlike and ho-hum as it could possibly look just two weeks into the preseason.
Not that anyone should be surprised, sayeth the new coach.
Check out how John Hollinger rates the Pistons' roster.
"This," Saunders reminds, "is a no-fluff team."
It's starting to look like Saunders' team, too, judging by the faster ball and player movement in the Pistons' embryonic new offense ... and the expanded role for Darko Milicic ... and the sprinkles of zone defense seen throughout training camp so far.
Most of all, after all the drama of the past season and the messy summer divorce that ultimately routed Brown to the New York Knicks, there is a discernible lack of tension in the Detroit camp.
There can be no guarantee the feeling will last, because nothing of consequence has happened yet to challenge Flip's Pistons. Yet the refreshed atmosphere isn't merely an outsider's impression; Lindsey Hunter also sensed it when he caught his first glimpse of the Saunders' regime Wednesday following his recent ankle surgery.
"Everybody looks loose," Hunter said. "Everything looks like it's coming together fast.
"But this team is so familiar with each other ... this is what you get with these guys."
Saunders knows it firsthand now. He was as curious as anyone coming in, unsure how he'd mix with this group after all its success under Brown and after Saunders' nine-plus seasons in Minnesota in the only NBA job he has ever known.
The greeting, Flip says, couldn't have been warmer.
"I thought, 'You're coming to a team that just won a championship and was five minutes away from winning another,' so your question is how receptive will they be to what you want to do," Saunders said.
"They've been really, really good."
They've been so open that Saunders waited only one day before running the proud Pistons through some zone concepts. He sees too much length, quickness and athleticism on Detroit's front line to resist the idea, even though he knows that the Pistons of Brown vintage were adamant that real men don't zone.
"Zone might be a four-letter word around here," Saunders said, "but they've been pretty receptive to it. I think it's one of those things that, if we play it and we're successful with it, they'll wrap their arms around it a little bit more."
In Minnesota, Saunders relied on zone defenses to cover up holes in a vulnerable defense. In Detroit, Saunders sees it as a weapon that can lead to fast-break opportunities. Or a handy changeup to confuse the opposition. Or, at the very least, a valuable practice tool to help the Pistons' offense when it has to face a zone in real life.
Saunders' offensive preferences, meanwhile, have been met with zero resistance. He wants to run more. He wants to increase the Pistons' screening and motion. He wants big men like Rasheed Wallace and Milicic to make use of their unique passing gifts.
He wants the Pistons to score at least 95 points nightly, compared to the past two seasons of 93- and 90-point averages.
Perhaps it doesn't sound like much of a jump, but the Pistons scoring 95 regularly would make them rather dangerous. Especially if 'Sheed's latest guarantee holds up: "No matter what the offensive sets are, we'll always go out there and play defense. You can't teach the defense we play."
"I think we'll be a little bit more up-tempo," said Billups, who already knows the Saunders system after two seasons in Minnesota before his life-changing move to Detroit.
"We won't be like Phoenix or anything, but I think you'll see a lot more pick-and-roll stuff, a lot more execution stuff and just a lot more freedom for everybody. Larry was an old-fashioned coach, and we won. We won like that. But we've got athletic big men who can run and jump, and we'll be able to utilize that now and let them run their big guys until they're dog tired.
"Flip is an offensive genius, man. What he does, our team needed. Our defense is going to stay the same, 'cause you've got so many great defenders. It's really the offense that I thought, over the last few years, we've been a little predictable."
Saunders' early dealings with the unpredictable 'Sheed are another source of optimism. The coach insists he's not exaggerating a bit when he compares 'Sheed's skill set to Kevin Garnett's -- "very similar," Saunders said -- and 'Sheed appeared to be rather giddy during the two days ESPN.com spent with the Pistons.
'Sheed shed 20 pounds in the offseason, played with more pep than anyone else in Detroit's exhibition opener and looked as though he's spearheading the vets' Welcome Flip campaign.
Will it last?
Skeptics say it was Brown's firm hand that made Wallace, a fellow North Carolina Tar Heel, more effective than he's ever been. Thus the fear in Motown is that 'Sheed, without that edge, won't play his way into the same zip code as KG.
"We'll see how it turns out," said sixth man Antonio McDyess. "You can only be yourself. I hope Flip [doesn't] feel any pressure from us."
Your thoughts, 'Sheed?
"It's still too early to say what we're gonna look like and what we're gonna to do," said Wallace, who then decided to give it a try moments later.
"Once the season progresses," 'Sheed said, "we're gonna be some monsters."
He meant the good kind.
The monsters from the painting, the ones that terrorized the Lakers just a few months after 'Sheed's arrival in the championship spring of '04.
"It's really not fair right now to compare [coaches]," Billups said. "I had the two best years of my life with Larry. We're going to miss him, but at the same time we're happy to have somebody like Flip who we think can make us better."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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