Dispatches from the Pistons Team Pass

The last time I watched the Detroit Pistons, they were getting swept out of the first round of the 2009 playoffs by LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers. It was a turning point for the Eastern Conference: Detroit, a contender for almost a decade, would be a contender no more. The LeBron Era had begun.

For the last six years, I’ve followed Detroit through the box scores. It hasn’t been pretty. But after a promising end to the last year’s season and a hot start to this year, the team finally looks like it’s on the rise again. They’ve got a good coach in Stan Van Gundy, a rising star in Andre Drummond, and a fun, young cast around him. They’re scrappy, long and learning how to win. They’re trending upward, and for the first time since that early-to-mid-2000s run, I’m all in.

It’s strange coming back to a team stripped of all the players that, in so many ways, defined my adolescence. I’m still learning what kind of team these new Pistons are, and I can’t help but transpose them against the teams of my youth. Every time Andre dunks, I see Ben Wallace. Every time Kentavious Caldwell-Pope fights through a screen, I see Rip Hamilton. Every time Marcus Morris takes a stupid shot, I see Rasheed Wallace.

These Pistons are not those Pistons, but it’s still fun to compare them.

Center

2003–04: Big Ben Wallace | Current: Andre Drummond

This one’s actually not that much of a stretch: Andre’s becoming the emotional leader of this Pistons team much like Big Ben was for the Champs. Detroit was known for being a team in the truest sense of the word: they were selfless, they complemented each other, and they won without star power. Even so, they branded themselves around Ben, the longtime journeyman who became a defensive rock in the paint. Fear the Fro: The Palace exploded with every Big Ben dunk. The team fed off his energy, whether he was swaggering around straight-armed after a dunk, wristbands cuffing his massive biceps, or getting chippy with Ron Artest beneath the basket. In the tradition of Bad Boy big men Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn, Wallace was not a subtle man. His blocks were not blocks, but swats — it didn’t matter whether the ball landed inbounds or out, only that the message was sent and received.

What’s the difference between Ben and Dre? At 6-foot-9, 240 pounds (probably smaller), Big Ben was actually undersize at the 5. At 7-foot, 280 pounds (possibly bigger), Andre Drummond is almost always the strongest man on the court. Big Ben gave the Champs their Scrappy Underdog identity. Andre gives today’s Pistons their physical and psychological edge. He is to rebounding what Big Ben was to blocks: the best in the business, especially on the offensive glass. He bullies his way into the paint and plays volleyball with missed shots at the rim. He’s athletic, skilled with the ball and slowly developing a post-up game. That’s the scariest part: at 22, he’s only getting better.

Power Forward

03–04: Rasheed Wallace | Current: Ersan Ilysova

There is literally no difference between these two basketball players. I mean, look at them:

Rasheed Wallace
Ersan Ilysova

OK, maybe there are a few differences. Like how Rasheed Wallace was the loudest, most irritating motherfucker to ever set foot on a basketball court and I don’t think I’ve heard a peep from Ilysova through eight games. Or how Rasheed was the missing puzzle piece to a Championship team and you have to search for like five minutes to even find a picture of Ilysova in a Pistons jersey. Or how Rasheed was the most brash, the most “Bad Boy” of the 03–04 Champs, coiner of Ball Don’t Lie, perpetual shit-talker and drawer of technical fouls, and no one, certainly not nice, disciplined Ersan Ilysova, could ever be expected to match that.

Man, I love Rasheed Wallace.

Both guys play(ed) roles for their respective teams. Sheed was a stretch 4 before the league was obsessed with stretch 4s. Ilysova is exactly that: he was brought in via last seasons’s trade to hang out around the 3-point line and bang home open 3s.

Of course, Sheed could do more than that. He could post up when he wanted to (he almost never wanted to), and he also played incredible, indispensible defense. Ilysova’s a little less versatile and a lot less exciting, but if the Pistons are going to really take off, his contributions could be vital. If Andre Drummond is SVG’s Dwight Howard, then Ilysova plays the Rashard Lewis role.

Small Forward

03–04: Tayshaun Prince | Current: Marcus Morris

Personality-wise, these two couldn’t be more different. Morris is winning fans over, at least, but he’s a little whiny and a little brash — the Sheed of this group, maybe — and though his ability to create his own shot is saving the Pistons’ Brandon Jenning-less reserves right now, he’s also prone to Dion Waiters Syndrome: inexplicably thinking he’s the best player on the floor. (Cue the baseline turnaround J with three defenders in his face.)

Tayshaun? Tayshaun was quiet and smart. Tayshaun didn’t fuck up, even as the youngest starter on that championship team. Tayshaun played stifling D and scored when they needed him. Tayshaun went out there and did his job.

These guys are the same height — 6-foot-9 — but Tayshaun’s so much skinner it almost impossible that they play (present tense — Tayshaun’s still in the league!) the same position. In his prime, Tayshaun was long and lanky and quick enough to slink (is there a better word?) around much stronger opponents, using his wingspan to fly in like a mauve pterodactyl for a block or a slam. It’s different watching Morris at the 3. Morris bodies up: his strength is his strength.

I’m not sold on Marcus just yet. But then again, when Tayshaun first came into the league, I was a scrawny, long-armed hooper prone to throwing up goofy hook shots and playing lock-down defense on shadows in my Metro Detroit backyard. Tayshaun was always my favorite.

Shooting Guard

03–04: Richard “Rip” Hamilton | Current: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

Rip was my second favorite 03–04 Piston, and I like KCP, too. This comparison feels a little less interesting than the rest, maybe mostly because Rip was so unique. He ran opponents into the ground, sprinting laps around the half-court before slipping around a screen and nailing a stop-and-pop mid-range J. Rip made the mask famous. All that space in the paint Sheed opened up by hanging around the 3-point line? Rip filled it. The dude straight up wore teams out.

KCP is much less consistent and a little more exciting. He hits threes and throws down monster dunks. He plays lockdown D. He can do a little bit of everything. And, like Drummond, he’s only 22.

Point Guard

03–04: Chauncey “Big Shot” Billups | Current: Reggie Jackson

Chauncey made his mark by playing smart, keeping his cool and hitting clutch 3s. Reggie, on the other hand, is prone to overdribbling and committing bad turnovers — but he has tremendous upside, too. He runs the pick-and-roll well with Andre, and he’s long and quick enough to make good things happen when he pentrates the paint. Hey, at least he wants to be a Piston. He wants to be the guy. Detroit fans will take the bad with the good in hopes that he improves.

03–04 was Chauncey’s second year running the show in Detroit. By then he’d already gone though most of his growing pains, his famous spats with Larry Brown. What I remember most about him was his poise — not just the clutch shots he hit, but the way we always felt confident when he brought the ball up the court. We knew he’d make the right pass, take the right shot. Chauncey was solid, reliable, dependable. Reggie’s not there yet. He’s rough around the edges, and, much like the team around him, still in the midst of those growing pains.