AFTER THE Pistons fell to the Celtics in the Eastern finals last season, a livid Joe Dumars put the entire team on notice. The first casualty: coach Flip Saunders, who was fired four days after the decisive Game 6 and replaced with assistant Michael Curry. "I'm open to moving anybody," said Dumars, the club president. "There are no sacred cows here."
The player who was closest to untouchable? Second-year guard Rodney Stuckey. "He was the last guy we would have moved," Curry says. "With older All-Stars, you look at their window at that high level, and it's always closing. Stuckey had the widest window, so naturally he would've been the hardest to give up."
The Detroit brass loves Stuckey's build (6'5", 205 pounds), salary (a mere $1.7 million) and stretch-run performance (he averaged 14.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists in just 27.3 minutes in April and scored 13 or more points three times in the series against the Celtics). So although he'll be coming off the bench again this year—Curry plans to use him as a "sixth starter," since Dumars wound up not making any significant changes to the roster—expectations are higher. "I'm just happy that [the team is] the same," says Stuckey. "I'm going to come in like last year and play hard."
Stuckey's development, of course, could make one of the Pistons' veteran guards, Chauncey Billups or Rip Hamilton, expendable. "There's a sense of urgency here, but those guys know it's not personal," says Curry. "The starters are very aware that we're not afraid to put our young players on the court. And competition is only going to make us better."
A rival scout on the PISTONS: At 32, Chauncey Billups is beginning to show his age. He's been more efficient in playing fewer minutes, but he doesn't get to the rim as much as he used to.... Rasheed Wallace's contract expires at the end of the season, and the Pistons will have to make a big decision before the deadline. If you're one of the top teams in the first half, how could you trade your best big guy? So even if they have no intention of re-signing him, they may let it play out to give this team one last hurrah.... They've done a good job with their drafts, and the youth off their bench is a big help to their older starting lineup. But Rodney Stuckey is the only sub who has a chance to be a frontline guy. Jason Maxiell hit his ceiling last year; he's a tweener, an energy guy who gets exposed when he plays too many minutes.... Michael Curry has been in the organization a long time, and the players trust and respect him. But will they allow him to coach them? There may be some rough patches, but I think in the end they will.
For the third straight year and the fourth time in his career, Rasheed Wallace hit 100 three-pointers and blocked 100 shots. He is the only player in NBA history to have had more than one such season.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE with 2007--08 statistics
KEY BENCH PLAYERS: G Rodney Stuckey, F Antonio McDyess, F Jason Maxiell, G Arron Afflalo, C Kwame Brown*
Record: 59--23 (2nd in East)
Points scored: 97.5 (17th in NBA)
Points allowed: 90.1 (1st)
Coach: Michael Curry (first season with Pistons)
EXTRA BENEFIT Detroit views the versatile Stuckey as a "sixth starter" after his strong performance late last season.
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