EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Richard Hamilton was sitting in the corner of the visiting locker room in New Jersey; the only more desolate place in the NBA is the home locker room down the hall. He was speaking in general terms about the Pistons needing to "get the chemistry better," a euphemism for a basketball team that is broken.
|Tayshaun Prince: 'We're in a situation where we've got to find the right chemistry between these guys.' (Getty Images)|
The Pistons? They're still caught between eras. Tugging on one end of the rope is the old guard, the holdovers from the glory days -- Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and even Ben Wallace minus the Afro and the vertical leap. Pulling on the other end are the free-agent stop-gaps, Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, who were quickly lavished with the cap space cleared in the Billups-for-Allen Iverson deal. Stuck in the middle are the players who represent the future, in the form of Rodney Stuckey and 2009 draft picks DaJuan Summers and Austin Daye.
Thanks to injuries -- on Tuesday night, the Pistons (16-31) had their full complement of players for only the third time this season -- the idea of returning quickly to contention has backfired. With the Feb. 18 trade deadline barely two weeks away, team president Joe Dumars has reached another crossroads. But at this point, there's really only one direction that makes sense.
Despite lip service in the locker room Tuesday night after the Pistons scraped together a 97-93 victory over the 4-43 Nets, there's little reason to believe this team is capable of mounting anything resembling a push for the eighth playoff spot in the East. That is the spot their rivals used to dread, because it meant a first-round exit at the hands of the cocky and surgically effective Pistons of old. The Pistons have fallen so far, so fast, that they can't even aspire to being the first-round sparring partner for the Cavs on their way to the conference finals and beyond.
Dumars knew this would be a transition year, but not like this. Now, he must finish the job he started when he traded Billups.
Hamilton and Prince didn't elaborate on the improvement in chemistry that is required, but you don't have to be a psychologist to figure it out. Take the lingering bitterness over the Billups trade, combine it with three coaches in three seasons, and lather it all up with losing and you have a team that one person close to the situation said is "in need of serious change."
The way the veteran core of Hamilton, Prince, Billups and Rasheed Wallace ran roughshod over Flip Saunders at the end of his tenure has come full circle. After a dismal year under the inexperienced, but no-nonsense Michael Curry, the Pistons have another pushover in the lead chair on the bench. Old habits have returned under first-year coach John Kuester, whose vision for the future is being clouded by the faces of the past.
There's a growing feeling in the locker room that Kuester isn't holding the veterans on the team accountable, and that he's "too soft," said a person with direct knowledge of locker room conversations.
"Once Joe traded Chauncey, that was sort of the tipping point for all that stuff," the person said. "There is this old-guard mentality there, and it holds them back."
Finally at full strength, the Pistons as currently constructed have two weeks to choose a direction before the cord will be cut with the past. Prince's value isn't nearly what it was three years ago, when Dumars passed on the chance to send him to Charlotte; the Bobcats wound up acquiring Jason Richardson from Golden State instead. But Prince's notorious defensive skills, playoff experience, and length would be useful to any number of contenders. He's also a few weeks shy of 30, and has one year left on his contract at $11.3 million.
"It's not my say where this team is going," Prince said. "I'm not the GM of this team. I don't know where it's going. He makes the decisions. Obviously, we've got a younger team now. We're in a situation where we've got to find the right chemistry between these guys. But when you've played three games this season with everybody healthy, what can you say? It's unfortunate that it's going the way it's going this year with the transitions and adjustments that we've made with the team."
Prince would be good in the East or the West. He can defend Rajon Rondo or Paul Pierce, Billups or Carmelo Anthony. One deal that would make sense would have Prince going to Utah for Carlos Boozer, who would bring the low-post presence the Pistons so desperately need to complement Stuckey's perimeter game. The salary difference this year is small enough to still work under league trade guidelines, yet big enough to put the Jazz within about $100,000 of the tax line. If Utah could make another deal to get under, the combination would provide about a $7 million swing -- the difference between being a tax payer and recipient. After the season, the Pistons would sign Boozer, whose $12.7 million deal expires June 30, and the Jazz would have an asset to peddle in Prince's $11.3 million expiring deal.
Given coach Jerry Sloan's preference to keep Boozer -- and the Jazz's improved play of late -- they could simply hang onto him, pay luxury tax this year, and head into next season knowing they'll be tax-free.
Trading Hamilton is much more problematic. The extension he signed in 2008 -- believing, at the time, that Billups would remain with the team -- has three years and $38 million remaining. That's too much cheddar for all but two or three teams to take on in this trying economic environment. Of the teams in a position to take on that kind of contract, the best fits for Hamilton's skills would seem to be Dallas, which is eager to trade Josh Howard, and Boston, which has been scoping out landing spots for Ray Allen's $19.7 million expiring contract.
The Pistons almost certainly will do something, because they can't go on like this. They are the ultimate proof that you can either be in contending mode or teardown mode; you can't do both. There's talent, assets in the form of two second-round picks in 2011, and the potential for one impactful signing next summer if Prince or Hamilton can be moved. There are also plenty of impediments.
Karen Davidson, widow of late Pistons owner William Davidson, confirmed last month that the team is for sale. A prospective owner might favor clean financial books over promising basketball talent. Such an owner also would not necessarily be loyal to the Dumars regime, which produced six consecutive conference titles and one NBA title but nothing much since.
"We're gonna make a run; we're gonna make a push," Prince was saying in the visiting locker room in New Jersey, the second most dismal place in the sport on Tuesday night. "We've got to figure out how to play a 48-minute game."
Yes, with a different mix of players that almost certainly won't include him. It's time to break up the Pistons -- again.