TRUE, ROOKIE coach John Kuester has a Pistons championship ring from 2004, when he was an assistant under Larry Brown. And yes, power forward Ben Wallace, 35, has returned to Motown after four seasons away. Not to mention that shooting guard Richard Hamilton and small forward Tayshaun Prince—key holdovers from the era of eight consecutive conference finals appearances—still remain. But make no mistake: The gang isn't back together. With the trade of Chauncey Billups to the Nuggets last November, Rasheed Wallace's exit this summer as a free agent and the arrival of free agents Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, Detroit is clearly a team in transition.
A big challenge this season for Kuester, though, will be a familiar one to Pistons fans: how to distribute backcourt minutes among Hamilton, third-year combo guard Rodney Stuckey and newcomer Gordon, a scoring machine who signed a five-year, $55 million contract. Last year a similar situation went horrifically wrong after the swap of Billups for Allen Iverson, the former MVP who ended up disgruntled and exiled to the bench for the first time in his career. The Pistons believe it will go better with Gordon, because the 6'2" former Bull (who says being a backup "makes no difference" to him) has made his name from closing games that he often didn't start. "Ben's been great so far," Kuester says. "Whatever role we put him in, he's willing to accept."
Even if the Pistons avoid the chemistry problems that plagued last year's team, there's another issue—stopping people. Both Gordon and the 6'11" Villanueva, who signed for five years and $35 million, are known for their offensive inclinations. "We're blessed that we have a lot of guys who can put the ball in the hole," Kuester says. "But we're going to have to make sure that we become a defensive team." Accomplishing that may be Kuester's most daunting challenge.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE with 2008--09 statistics
KEY BENCH PLAYERS: G Ben Gordon, 20.7 PPG; F Jason Maxiell, 5.8 PPG; G Will Bynum, 7.2 PPG; F-C Chris Wilcox, 4.5 RPG • New acquisition
COACH: John Kuester (first season with Pistons) • 2008--09 RECORD: 39--43 (third in Central)
POINTS SCORED: 94.2 (28th in NBA) • POINTS ALLOWED: 94.7 (eighth in NBA)
Consecutive games started by forward Tayshaun Prince, the league's longest active streak. He hasn't missed a game since his rookie year, 2002--03, which gives him 494 straight appearances.
ENEMY LINES | A RIVAL SCOUT ON THE PISTONS
It's good for them to move on without Rasheed Wallace, but they're going to miss his talent. It's hard to say you're going to replace Rasheed with Charlie Villanueva and come out ahead.... Charlie V isn't a post-up four man—he's more of a catch-and-shoot guy who can put it on the floor one or two times. He's not somebody who makes contested jump shots. If he's your power forward, you need a center who commands a double team inside. Kwame Brown is their center, and he doesn't command a double team.... I don't view Ben Gordon as a starter, but he can be a 30-minute player, especially if you've got a good team defense to cover up for him. But the more he's shooting, the less the ball is going to Richard Hamilton.... At the end of the game they're going to run pick-and-roll. In Gordon's case that will mean, pick and get away from me so I can get a shot off. That's never been what Rip has been all about, so it will be interesting to see how they pull it all together.... They're going to try to get the most minutes out of Hamilton, Gordon, Tayshaun Prince and Rodney Stuckey. They can play small with Prince at four, which is what I imagine we'll see at the end of games.
ANDREW HANCOCK (GORDON)
BEN GORDON He'll have to come up big when Detroit goes small.
BILL FRAKES (HAMILTON)