When the Pistons traded for Allen Iverson, it was clear that no coach with a contending team would have a more difficult job the rest of the way than Michael Curry. It's about to get a lot more difficult.
With Rip Hamilton missing the last two games with a groin injury, the Pistons have nonetheless extended their winning streak to four -- including a very Piston-like 88-82 victory over Orlando, ending the Magic's seven-game winning streak. After experimenting with a small lineup in recent weeks -- Tayshaun Prince at power forward, and a three-guard lineup of Rodney Stuckey, Allen Iverson, and Hamilton -- Curry has been forced to go with a more traditional lineup with Hamilton out. And you know what the great philosopher Rasheed Wallace once said: Necessity is the mother of invention. Or something like that.
While the Iverson trade clearly was designed to create cap space over the next two years, Curry's job is to put the best possible combination of players on the floor and give the team the best chance to win. Based on how the Pistons have played the last two games without Hamilton, it would seem that Detroit is better off with a two-guard lineup to start games. Against teams that play small, Curry could get away with a small-ball look and not get hurt in the post. But most nights, the Pistons will function best with two guards on the floor and three bigs.
Which brings us back to the question that was posed in the first place when Joe Dumars acquired Iverson: With Iverson, Hamilton and Stuckey all capable of starting, who sits?
Once Hamilton is healthy, the best candidate to go to the bench is Iverson. If Iverson looked at it objectively, he would see the benefit of reinventing himself as a killer sixth man, bringing instant offense off the bench the way Manu Ginobili does in San Antonio or Lamar Odom does in L.A. During the sometimes helter-skelter possessions that ensue with the second units on the floor at the end or beginning of quarters, Iverson would be a perfect fit to score buckets in bunches. Despite the beating he's endured over the years, he can still get to the basket and create his own shot with the best of them. He's also been a gambling steal-producer on defense his entire career -- not a sound, team-concept defender, which the Pistons need during the more structured portions of games.
The problem is, Iverson has never outgrown his desire to be on the floor 40-plus minutes every night. Every coach who has ever substituted for him can attest to the fact that you can't take Iverson out of a game without a dirty look and a few dirty words. This is partly a testament to Iverson's competitive fire, which has been matched by few -- if any -- of his contemporaries. But it's also a huge problem is Iverson is going to be placed in any kind of secondary role.
Iverson seethed when Curry took him out with four minutes left and the Pistons trailing the Hawks by six earlier this month. When Hamilton got ejected with about a minute left, Curry sent Iverson back in. According to this account, Iverson passed up an open look from beyond the 3-point arc with Detroit trailing by five, passing the ball without even looking at the basket. If you know Iverson, you know that A) he's never sized up a shot he didn't like, and B) there probably was a message for the coach behind it.
So if I'm Curry, I know what has to be done. Once Hamilton is healthy, Iverson needs to be sold on the glory of coming off the bench and showing his detractors that he can, in fact, reinvent himself at this stage of his career. Iverson will need a contract after the season -- either from the Pistons (not likely) or somebody else. For 13 years, the little guy has proved he's one of the greatest scorers ever to play the game -- and not just for his size. You don't wind up third in the history of the NBA in points per game -- behind Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan -- without being an all-time great. But he has reached a turning point in his career, a point at which he must show that he can not only accept the selfless fulfillment of being a great sixth man, but thrive in the role. He should listen to Ron Artest, who has gladly embraced any role presented to him for the sake of winning a championship.
Let's face it, the Pistons aren't winning a title this season regardless of how the Curry-Iverson feud plays out. But to have the best chance, Curry must have the courage to bench the unbenchable. And Iverson has to learn to like it.