The last stop on the Clippers season-long seven game road trip is also the toughest stop in the Eastern Conference: the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons aren't quite the juggernaut they were last season, but they are very good. And since acquiring native son Chris Webber in mid-January, they're even better. After their trouncing of the Lakers on TNT Thursday night, their record with Webber in the starting lineup was 9-2 (I'm writing this preview in advance of my camping trip, so I don't know what they did against Toronto on Saturday, but I bet they won.)
The Pistons are the sort of skilled, disciplined team that the Clippers have shown absolutely no ability to beat, or even compete with, this season. Think San Antonio and Utah. They run good sets, get good shots, space the floor, involve five guys in the offense, and shoot the three. In short, I just don't see any way, short of the Pistons coming out completely flat, that the Clippers can win this game.
Sorry. I hope I'm wrong.
The only ray of hope I can come up with is that Elton Brand and Chris Kaman used to absolutely torch Webber when he was with the Kings. Of course, Rasheed Wallace is a little better defender than Brad Miller, so it won't quite be the same.
The Pistons obviously aren't the same team with Webber that they were with Ben Wallace, but they may actually be better. With Webber, the Pistons can put five skilled players on the floor in a manner that is frankly reminiscent of Webber's Kings teams. Every player out there can pass, and every player can shoot. Any one of their starters could go for 30 on a given night, so there's basically no one player you can focus your defense on. You have to guard everybody. Along with Phoenix, this is one of the two most talented starting lineups in the NBA. Billups and Hamilton are All Stars, Rasheed was an All Star last season, Webber is not as good as he once was but can still play the game, and Prince, the only starter never to have made an All Star team, may be the best all around player of the bunch. They even bring a former All Star off the bench in Antonio McDyess.
With Ben gone, they've lost something on the defensive end, but they're still good. Prince is one of the five best wing defenders in the NBA, Billups and Hamilton both work hard, and Rasheed is a very solid low post defender. They can even bring Lindsay Hunter off the bench to hound ball handlers. When the Pistons beat the Clippers in overtime in LA two seasons ago, Hunter's defense on Marko Jaric turned the game around. Jaric literally couldn't get the ball into the front court against Hunter.
When the Pistons were on a 70 win pace last season, I told anyone that would listen that they were good, but they weren't 70 wins good - they hadn't suffered any injuries, and every single player on their team was having a career year shooting the ball, and neither of those things could last forever. Well, they're still unusually injury-free, although they have had some starters miss some time this season. And their three point shooting has come back to earth - they're still very good at 36%, but last season they made over 38% from out there. Nonetheless, four of their five starters can make the three if you leave them, which is another very bad sign for the Clippers.
The Pistons were right to let Ben Wallace go to Chicago. Of course they didn't know that they would be able to rent Chris Webber for a season or two, but paying Ben that kind of money at the age of 32 would have made it difficult to impossible to keep the younger players (Billups 30, Hamilton 28 and Prince 26) around much longer. With Ben gone, and Rasheed, Rip and Tayshaun all signed for at least two more seasons, the Pistons have the money under the luxury tax threshold to re-sign Billups this summer and keep this group together for several years.
The Pistons are my pick to come out of the East, this year and for a few years to come.