So far, so good. The new-look Detroit Pistons, who are making their season’s only visit to Arizona tonight, are re-emerging as title contenders with the mid-season acquisition of free agent Chris Webber.
For the first time, Suns fans will see a Pistons team with Webber and without Ben Wallace, who used to patrol the defensive lane and boards so effectively for them.
The Pistons are 20-7 since acquiring the former Michigan star in January, and he has given them a new look.
Though they’re slower, they’ve got much better half-court firepower. With Webber and Chauncey Billups, they’ve — in effect — got two point guards, much like the Suns with Steve Nash and Boris Diaw.
“You look at the record and what they’ve done in the last month, they’re head and shoulders above everyone else (in the East) at this point,” Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said.
“Right now, we’re all chasing them.”
Carlisle should know.
Not only is he trying to turn around a fading team that is trying to grab one of the East’s final playoff spots, he used to coach the Pistons when they were starting to become a contending team.
Of course, they miss Wallace’s defense and rebounding. At least they miss these qualities that the old Wallace gave them.
Until recent weeks, Wallace appeared to be a player in decline with the Chicago Bulls. He turned down a $12 million a year offer from the Pistons and signed for $15 million a year with the Bulls.
Wallace finished out last season in ignominious fashion with the Pistons.
With the team on the verge of elimination by the Miami Heat, who were leaving Wallace virtually unguarded, coach Flip Saunders replaced Wallace in the lineup with journeyman guard Tony Delk in hopes of finding more offense.
It didn’t work, and the Pistons were eliminated.
If the Pistons are going to reach the finals, “We can’t have people cover us with five people guarding four,” says Bill Pope, a Pistons scout.
With Webber on board, “Our passing is a lot better. And we can score in the post.
“We didn’t get a lot out of Ben doing that.”
Webber has affected the Pistons’ pace in that, “You see us playing a lot more of a deliberate style,” he said.
“He’s such a good passer that we have to get the ball in his hands especially when Chauncy (Billups) is out of the game.”
Defensively, the Pistons are different, too.
“Ben did a lot of things on his own, gambling and trapping,” Pope said.
“We do that with our guards, and our bigs stay back a lot more.”
But are the Pistons better with Webber and without Wallace?
“The only way we can judge is on how we finish,” Pope said.
“They’re different,” Carlisle said of today’s Pistons. “There never will be another Ben Wallace. He’s as special a player as I’ve ever seen and certainly as special as I’ve ever coached.
“In my opinion, they’ve done what they need to do to keep the team at a high level.”
Suns coach Mike D’Antoni agrees.
“They can be better with Webber,” D’Antoni said.
“A different kind of better. They’ll have less defensively, but they’re more explosive on offense and much more dangerous.”
On the downside, Webber’s skills don’t always come to the forefront.
He’s had poor playoff games with the Sacramento Kings, and he was pretty much a bust in Philadelphia; the Sixers improved markedly after his departure.
Even so, “He’s as good a passer as I’ve ever seen for a guy 6-10,” Carlisle said.
A player who has battled the Pistons as much as anybody, the Pacers’ Jermaine O’Neal, said the Pistons didn’t seem to be missing much based on Wallace’s spotty play with Chicago until recently.
“You need defense,” O’Neal said. “They’ll miss his defensive presence. But offensively, they’re a much better team.”
One big man who played extensively in the East casts a vote for Detroit with Big Ben.
“They won a championship with Ben Wallace,” said the Suns’ Kurt Thomas.
Pistons at Suns
Series history: The Suns lead, 56-53, including a 31-23 edge in Arizona. The Suns beat the Pistons in Michigan on Dec. 31.
Pistons — They are 20-7 since Chris Webber joined them. Richard Hamilton leads them with 20.9 points on 47 percent shooting.
Suns — A win would be at least a little statement that the Suns can deal with a tough, slow-moving team. “This will be the first time in the playoffs for them with Chris Webber.”