COMPARISONS AREoften made between jazz and basketball--the free-form improvisation of a fastbreak, the singularity of a no-look pass. As John Edgar Wideman wrote,"Every note, move, solo, pat of the ball happens only once." Rarely,however, is the analogy extended to the defensive side of the game. Defense isneither pretty nor lyrical; it's often dissonant, percussive, ugly. Except, onecould argue, when played by the starting five of the Detroit Pistons. To watchthe quintet of Billups, Hamilton, Prince and the Wallaces shifting and rotatingas one is to see defense as spontaneous unity, each defender seamlessly fillingthe void created by another's movement, the way water flows to lower ground. ¬∂It's a collective consciousness born of a remarkable run together. Sinceacquiring Rasheed Wallace in February 2004, the Pistons have won 162 of the 218games in which their starting five took the floor together. This season theteam set an NBA record by starting the same lineup 73 games in a row. (Bycomparison, ex--Detroit coach Larry Brown started 42 different lineups thisseason in New York, proving, well, a lot of things.) Despite their success thePistons' starters are respected but far from celebrated. There are no Fab Fiveanalogies, no Larry, Magic or Michael to give the group a national identity, nocatchy nickname like Cinqo de Motown or The Uni-Fived. Four of them wereAll-Stars this season, but only one was voted in. This is the one downside whenthere is no star system. Case in point: Rip Hamilton recently debuted in anational cellphone commercial that was shocking solely because, hey, that's RipHamilton in a commercial!
Nonetheless, thePistons' core embodies the best of the game: selflessness, perseverance,teamwork. "They all want the shot, but they all will pass the balltoo," says assistant coach Ron Harper, who played on formidable startingfives with the Michael-led Bulls and the Shaq-powered Lakers.
After two yearsunder Brown and a season under Flip Saunders, these Pistons are almostself-coached or, as Saunders puts it, "self-patrolled." On offenseBillups often calls plays unilaterally. Explains Ben Wallace, "If Chaunceycalls a play and Flip calls a play from the sideline, we're like 'Hold up,Coach, we already got one.'" Timeouts are akin to committee meetings, and abad shot is fodder for peer review, not from one player but from all four."Not taking anything from Flip, but it's easy for him," says Billups."We have no ego battles out there. No one is out there complaining theyneed more shots or this and that. That's half the battle in the NBA."
Saunders may haveinherited a ready-made squad, but he deserves credit for three reasons. First,he has made the players the focus again, something that was--ahem, Larry--notthe case last season. Second, he was smart enough not to overemphasize the zoneschemes that he employed with success in Minnesota. Third, he opened up theoffense, pushing the transition game and installing sets that cater to theteam's strengths.
For example, thePistons core offense is the "Hawk" series. The basic set begins withBillups up top and Hamilton making a "hawk" cut, using a RasheedWallace pick to slice from the three-point line across the lane. Wallace thenenters into a side pick-and-roll with Billups, allowing Billups to drive orkick the ball back to Wallace, one of the game's best three-point-shooting bigmen. At the same time, Hamilton continues his cut to the baseline, where hecurls around a double screen set by Ben Wallace and Tayshaun Prince and pops upon the opposite wing for a midrange jump shot, his specialty. If teams cheatout on Hamilton, it opens up a slip cut to the basket for Prince or BenWallace, with Wallace conveniently stationed near the hoop for offensiveboards.
That Detroit isso proficient in their sets--they averaged a league-low 10.8 turnovers thisyear--is yet another testament to team chemistry. "They're very fluid,"says one scout. "It's rare that they're coming down and Chauncey's pointingat guys, telling them where to go. I won't say they're always in the rightplace, as that's impossible, but they're very comfortable with eachother."
The same can besaid on defense, where the buzzwords are trust and accountability. Threestarters--Ben Wallace, Prince and Billups--made the league's all-defensive teamthis year, and a fourth, Rasheed, missed it by one vote. The Wallaces are thefoundation of Detroit's D. Ben because he erases perimeter mistakes with hisshot blocking and can guard almost anybody. (He has switched to LeBron Jameswith success during the Pistons' second-round series against the upstart Cavs,which was tied 2-2 through Monday.) Rasheed because of his help-side acumen andbecause he acts as the captain, shouting directions like a mildly profaneauctioneer. The result is an interconnected D that accomplishes the toughest ofNBA feats: physicality without whistles. The Pistons were called for the fewestfouls, 18.5 per game, of any team in the league this season.
Detroit's successhas led some to wonder where its starting five ranks among alltime quintets.Cavs coach Mike Brown recently called them one of the best in history. Billupssays, "I gotta rate us up there in the top five alltime." Dumars soundsa more cautionary note: "Until this team wins multiple championships, let'shold off on those comparisons."
He's right, ofcourse. As good as this Detroit group has been, they have been pushed harderthan anyone expected against the Cavs, and history will judge them on the"ships," as Rasheed Wallace likes to call them. Win one this June, andit would be two rings and three Finals in a row for Detroit. And with noreturning starter over age 32 and free-agent-to-be Ben Wallace likely tore-sign, they could be contending for years to come.
Still, thechances of this fivesome, or any fivesome, staying healthy all season, asDetroit did this year, is unlikely. So enjoy the Pistons now, while they are atthe peak of their collaborative powers, even if they lack the glitz of Miami orthe juice of Phoenix. After all, great pop songs are catchy, but great jazz,with its nuances and layers, grows on you over time. You just have to letit.
SI's panel of insiders provide 10 more reasons to lovethis season's playoffs at SI.com/nba.
Says Billups of the Detroit quintet's place inhistory, "I gotta rate us up there in THE TOP FIVE ALLTIME."
Photograph by Greg Nelson
Ben Wallace is the centerpiece of the Pistons' finely tuned D--as lethal on theperimeter as he is under the basket.
'Sheed was part of a starting lineup that was the same for an NBA-record 73straight games this season.
In a tight series Prince and Billups (1) clamped down on James, who was scoring7.6 points under his season average.