AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Richard Hamilton sat in the media room at the Pistons' practice facility Saturday, a day sandwiched between two more humbling, frustrating losses. When a veteran NBA guru wrapped up a radio interview by calling him "The Coatesville Comet," Hamilton managed to smile.
Those were the days, when a smile didn't have to be forced.
|Rookie coach Michael Curry says he's ready for the reaction to how he uses Allen Iverson. (AP)|
Little did Hamilton know that was the correct answer, or at least the most telling one he could give. If you don't know what's wrong, how are you supposed to fix it?
In case you haven't noticed, the Pistons are a mess. The team that has made six consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference finals, won a championship in 2004 and made a lot of enemies on the way up, is encountering those enemies on the way down. And you know the old saying about that.
The Nov. 3 trade sending Billups to Denver for Iverson and his $20.8 million expiring contract had multiple motives, so it should come as no surprise it's taking the Pistons some time to adapt. If it takes much longer, though, they'll be adapting to something they haven't experienced in eight years: not making the playoffs.
The breadth of their decline is staggering. The Pistons are 25-21, tied with Miami -- Wednesday night's opponent at the Palace -- for the fifth playoff spot in the East. They've lost nine of 12, including six of their past seven at home. After a 90-80 loss Sunday to the Cavs -- who didn't even need LeBron James on the floor to start the fourth quarter on a 15-2 run -- Detroit slipped below .500 with Iverson in the starting lineup (21-21).
As if that weren't enough, their streak of 258 consecutive sellouts is expected to end either the last game before or first game after the All-Star break. That's more a product of the devastated Michigan economy than anything else, but when it rains, it pours.
"Time is running out now," said Antonio McDyess, who went to Denver with Billups but was promptly released and re-signed by the Pistons. "It's almost All-Star break, and we've got to make a run sometime soon. If not, we'll be at home real quick, out of the playoffs [early] if we make it, or not making the playoffs. We've got to make a change soon."
It's interesting McDyess put it that way; change is what got the Pistons in this mess in the first place.
Team president Joe Dumars saw the original Bad Boy Pistons get old and fade away, and vowed not to let it happen on his watch. After Dumars, Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and the gang won back-to-back titles in 1989 and '90, the Pistons got swept by the Bulls in the '91 Eastern Conference finals and weren't heard from for the rest of the decade.
It's called maxing out, and Dumars felt this Pistons team was well on its way after three consecutive losses in the conference finals. Faced with letting the team run its course or changing direction before it happened, Dumars decided to act. Trading Billups for Iverson put the Pistons some $26 million under the cap this summer and made them players in the big free-agent summer of 2010. It also removed "the engine that made the whole thing work," according to Cavs coach Mike Brown.
"We're definitely going through a transition and change right now," Dumars said. "When you're used to winning all the time, it becomes even harder to make that transition. We're positioned very well going forward, and we're going to do everything possible to compete at the very highest level."
|Rodney Stuckey is Detroit's point guard of the future ... and the present. (AP)|
"Totally different team," said the Cavs' Ben Wallace, a member of the Pistons' title team in '04. "Billups brought a lot of leadership to the team, made sure everybody got the ball where they needed to get it. He was more of a floor general, and Iverson's more of a scorer. ... It definitely hurt the chemistry of the team. It's going to take a little getting used to."
Throughout this lost weekend, which began with an 86-78 loss to the defending champion Celtics on Friday, the signs of fracturing in the Pistons' locker room were palpable. Iverson openly wondered why the Pistons brought him here to "stand over there in the corner" without the ball. He added: "I trust my teammates and our coaching staff to be able to get us over the hump. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't want the ball in my hands. If I said that, then the Detroit Pistons should get rid of me because I'm not the player that they wanted to have in here."
Tayshaun Prince stopped short of assigning blame, but expressed doubt that the new mix of Iverson and Rodney Stuckey in the starting backcourt with Hamilton coming off the bench will ever work. First-year coach Michael Curry has used eight different starting lineups since the trade. His predecessor, Flip Saunders, used nine last season -- and penciled in the same one for all but 19 games.
"You would think that by this time, things would be in the right direction for us," Prince said. "When you talk about time, I think we've had plenty enough time to figure it out."
Amid Prince's vague stabs and Rasheed Wallace's harmless invective, there was Hamilton, whose three-year, $24 million contract extension was announced the same day Billups was traded. Does anyone think Hamilton would've entered into extension talks had he known Billups was on his way out?
Bothered by a nagging groin injury and frustrated by his role and the losing, Hamilton met the crisis head-on Sunday night when he directly and publicly questioned Curry's coaching. He belittled Curry's strategy against James, saying the Pistons "should've played him straight up" instead of switching on pick-and-rolls. "We can't switch it up," Hamilton said matter-of-factly, "because he's good enough that once he gets you on his shoulder, he's going to drag you all the way to the basket."
Curry has heard the whispers that he's losing the team. An assistant for Saunders, he saw how combustible the Pistons' locker room was during the best of times. He's bracing for the worst.
"When you make change, somebody's got to be the bad guy," Curry said. "That's the seat I sit in."
In Curry's defense, he prepared all summer to coach a team led by Billups, only to have it disassembled in the first week of the season. Curry politely sidestepped the opportunity to use that as a crutch, saying he knew Dumars was contemplating a big trade when he got the job.
"Without saying that the team had run its course, you can keep waiting and wait too long," Curry said. "And when they have and you haven't developed any younger talent and you don't have any cap space, then you're stuck. ... I wasn't sure how many changes he would make, and I don't know how many more he'll make. But you knew he would make some changes to get some youth involved and into the mix."
|Richard Hamilton is among the veterans letting their frustrations show. (AP)|
This is Iverson's gift -- putting pressure on the defense with his absurd quickness and freelancing ability. It's why he will be in the Hall of Fame. It's also his curse, and at 33, he is starting to show subtle signs of slippage. He can still beat his man, but not the next two. He can still buckle you with a crossover, but settles for fade-away jumpers instead of finishing at the basket.
If he comes out of the game for the final 30 seconds of a quarter, he still claps his hands and barks obscenities -- just like he did for Johnny Davis, Larry Brown, Randy Ayers, Chris Ford, Jim O'Brien, Mo Cheeks and George Karl. It's coming from the right place, but even playing 40-plus minutes a night, Iverson is hard to please. He's addicted to competition, and handling the basketball and shooting it is how he delivers the drug.
"I would love to be a focal point on the offensive end," Iverson said. "That's what I've been my whole career, and that's why I play the game. That's what type of competitor I am. In crucial situations, I want the ball in my hands."
Curry outlined sound basketball reasoning for moving the popular and productive Hamilton out of the starting lineup instead of Iverson, saying Iverson wouldn't be effective in that role. There are only two options Curry has yet to try -- starting McDyess and bringing Iverson off the bench. Don't bet on it. "Barring any major injury," Curry said, "we won't make any more changes with the lineup."
Iverson said friends in the league have told him how much easier it is to guard him now because he doesn't handle the ball much in the Pistons' offense. One player who has competed against him for years said Iverson should be playing point guard for Detroit; he should forget about scoring and drop 10-12 assists a game. Curry tried Iverson at the point for 14 games; the Pistons were 6-8.
"What's the answer?" I asked the Answer.
"You've seen me throughout my career and you can see for yourself," he said. "If you've been watching and paying attention to how I've played all my career, then you can see the difference from how I used to play to how I'm playing now. It's easy. It's easy for anybody to see. I'm 33 years old, and I'm a positive man. I'm going to stick with it regardless and I'm going to do whatever it takes for me to help my teammates."
What the Pistons -- and Dumars -- do between now and the Feb. 19 trade deadline will be one of the fascinating storylines in the NBA. When Detroit hosts Miami on Wednesday night, it'll be three months since the trade. Nobody knows if it will be days or months before Dumars makes another one. Already there are rumblings Iverson is on the block.
"If they trade me from here, just don't send me overseas," Iverson said. "As long as it's in the NBA, I'll be happy."
We shall see. After all, Detroit is still in the NBA, right?