Sunday, November 11, 2007

Opposing View: 11/11 vs. Detroit

All season long, Sonics Beat will be consulting an expert on the opposing team as part our gameday preview. Today, Matt Watson from the Detroit Bad Boys blog discusses the Pistons. Also see the blog Need4Sheed and's preview.

Have any of Detroit's off-season changes come in response to the loss to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals?
I don't think changes were made specifically to match up with the Cavs, but it was the second year in a row that the Pistons looked worn down and out of sorts in the Conference Finals. So with that in mind, Joe Dumars went about making the team younger and deeper to take some of the pressure off the starters, both in the regular season and playoffs.

Because Dumars didn't make a blockbuster deal, I don't think most people realize just how well he accomplished his goal. The Pistons had two first-round picks in one of the deepest drafts in memory, which they used on Rodney Stuckey (15th overall) and Arron Afflalo (27th). Stuckey is recovering from a broken hand suffered in the preseason finale, but once he returns he's expected to be the first guard off the bench as well as the primary backup at point, where Flip Murray played out of position last year.

Dumars also did a little addition by subtraction, clearing out a crowded frontcourt by allowing aging veterans like Chris Webber and Dale Davis walk so that Jason Maxiell and Amir Johnson could see more action. Maxiell was effective in limited time last year but Johnson was absolutely buried, seeing most of his action in the D-League.

The Pistons are second in the league so far defensively. Is this the best D they've played under Flip Saunders?
I hesitate to say it's the best just because it's so early, but it's certainly been inspired. That's to be expected, I guess, considering it's been the team's calling card forever, but it's still encouraging.

When it was announced that Rasheed Wallace was moving to center and Antonio McDyess would start at power forward, my initial concern was how the team would fare against some of the league's bigger centers. So what happens? They open with games against Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard and prevent either from doing the kind of damage they usually do. One guy can't do it alone, but by efficient trapping and double-teams and rotating, they get the job done. Plus, McDyess is strong enough to man the five for long stretches and Nazr Mohammed is also available off the bench after being all but forgotten after Webber's arrival last year.

What does the emergence of Jason Maxiell do for the Pistons?
The guy has a motor that doesn't turn off, which works out perfectly since the team is now asking him to provide energy as the first big man off the bench. He stands just 6-foot-7 but plays much larger thanks to a 7-foot-3 wingspan and a violent disposition in the paint. Yes, I said "violent"; on offense he's looking to tear the rim off every chance he gets and on defense he's trying to block shots into the fifth row.

Last year, that was about all he did, but this year he's also re-dedicated himself to cleaning the glass. He's battled foul trouble a bit in the first few games so the progress he made in that department during the preseason hasn't completely carried over, but he's already had a couple of games with eight rebounds, which is pretty solid off the bench.

What did you see from Rodney Stuckey before his injury and how will his return affect the Pistons?
Stuckey may already be the best on the team in terms of getting into the paint and drawing a foul. That's not a knock on Chauncey Billups or Rip Hamilton, it's just that penetrating isn't their strength. But Stuckey did it time and again during the preseason, averaging nearly seven free-throw attempts in just 25 minutes a game. That kind of ability gives Detroit's offense another wrinkle.

Also, as I mentioned above, his presence should bump Flip Murray down a spot on the depth chart. As I'm sure fans in Seattle can remember, Murray has his strengths and weaknesses, and he just wasn't put in the best position to succeed when the Pistons asked him to be their primary backup point guard last year. Murray is a scorer, not a distributor, and he'll be a better fit backing up Hamilton instead of Billups. Fortunately, he should return to that role relatively soon, as Stuckey looks like he'll return from his broken hand earlier than expected, perhaps as soon after the team wraps up their five-game swing out West.

What don't we know but should about the Pistons?
On the national scene, the veteran starting lineup gets all of the accolades, but if you ask a random sampling of hard-core Pistons fans which player they're most looking forward to watching this year, Amir Johnson just might top the list.

Why all this hype for a little-used player with 11 regular-season games under his belt entering this season? First and foremost, the kid is a special kind of athlete. Drafted out of high school two years ago, he's since grown two inches and now stands 6-foot-11, and what's even better, he hasn't lost one bit of his quickness or leaping ability. While most players need to gather themselves between jumps, he's like a pogo stick in the paint, bouncing right back up to go after rebounds or block a shot.

Plus, there's the allure of the unknown. Johnson put up head-turning numbers in the D-League last year, averaging nearly 19 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks a game … and he didn't even turn 20 years old until May! Also, it's hard to hold against him the fact that he hasn't played too much – the Pistons have been too busy contending for a title to let a teenager go through growing pains on the court – but he should finally get his chance this year. In fact, Joe Dumars promised Johnson as much this summer when convincing Johnson to re-sign for three more years as a restricted free agent.

So why has Johnson been limited to garbage time so far? In part because he's still making up for a wasted preseason, during which he missed seven of eight games because of a sprained ankle. Plus, he's fighting for minutes with Maxiell, who's held his ground so far by making the most of his opportunities to date. But sooner or later Johnson's time will come, and there's really no telling what his ceiling might be.