The Heat are a mess. The Bulls are a mess. The Nets are a mess. Those three, all thought to be legitimate playoff teams, were 18 games under .500 entering last night, with Miami, less than two years removed from an NBA title, holding down the cellar. None would even make the playoffs if the season ended today.
Ah, but then there are the Pistons. We'll always have Auburn Hills.
One quarter into the season, you can scan the Eastern Conference and see one team, really, that poses any threat to the rampaging Celtics. Yup, it's the Pistons, who make their first Boston appearance of the season Wednesday.
Orlando might pose a threat on paper, but how can you take the Magic as seriously as Detroit with a stretch they just went through, i.e. home losses to Atlanta and Indiana and a road loss to Milwaukee?
No, it's Rip, Chauncey, Sheed, and the fellas who have to concern Celtics fans - if any team in the East does. Heading into the weekend, the Pistons had the second-best point differential in the league (well behind the Celtics, though) and still have that enviable mix of youth, experience, and playoff savvy.
Just think of the run they've had (which shows no sign of abating, either). They've won 50 or more games six straight seasons; no other Eastern Conference team currently has as many as three straight 50-win seasons. They've made five straight trips to the conference finals, matching the run of the vaunted Bad Boys teams from 1987-91. In that span, they've twice made it to the Finals, losing in 2005 and winning in 2004. They've done it under three coaches, but the constants remain on the floor (the aforementioned lads, who've been the anchors the last four years along with Tayshaun Prince) and in the front office (the venerable tag team of Joe Dumars and John Hammond).
With 16 wins in the first 23 games the Pistons are on course for another 50-win season and Dumars is pleased with what he sees. He was not so inclined last spring, when he watched the Pistons blow a 2-0 lead in the conference finals and drop four straight to the Cavaliers. He talked afterward of restoring the team's edge, grit, and toughness, traits he had when he played and traits he tries to instill in his players.
"We came back with a very good focus," Dumars said by telephone Friday. "And we've added some youth, depth, and athleticism to the team. I'm pleased with what I've seen over the first 20 games."
While the Pistons can point to early contributions from the likes of Jason Maxiell and Arron Afflalo, and anxiously await the debut of impressive rookie Rodney Stuckey (hand surgery), this is still a team whose success hinges on those names that have become so familiar to us over these last five years. But as with any group that has had prolonged success, it is natural to see some slippage at some point, which Dumars saw last spring in the playoffs.
There is no way the Pistons should have lost to the Cavaliers, let alone lose four straight. But they did. Dumars still can't bring himself to watch a tape of Game 5, when LeBron James went otherworldly. Or Game 6, when Daniel Gibson put on a shooting clinic from Youngstown. It's too painful. And too revealing.
"If you're honest with yourself," he said, "something like that is bound to kick in when you've had the success we've had, five straight trips to the conference finals. That's why it's imperative for me in my job to push the envelope, to push the buttons. We need to keep the main components we have and add to them. We have a great core here."
These Pistons score - they are averaging 99.3 points a game through their first 23. They are among the league leaders in turnovers (fewest committed) and in assist-to-turnover ratio. Only the Celtics allow fewer points a game, so they're also able to make stops. And they're among the league leaders in blocked shots.
The NBA and one of its broadcast arms, ESPN, recognized the attraction of Wednesday's game by moving it to its early game for the night. And, in a real break for both teams and their fans, each team will have had two offdays prior to Wednesday's game. No one will be on the second leg of a back-to-back, which so often happens during the season.
Unfortunately, it will be the first of just three regular-season meetings. But based on what we've seen over the first quarter of the season, we could be in store for a few more in May. The Pistons have played four different teams in the conference finals the last five years. Is Boston going to be No. 5?
"Obviously," Dumars said, "Boston is going to be a force in the East that everyone is going to have to deal with."
Spurred on to new heightsOn Oct. 29, Beno Udrih was driving to his San Antonio home when he got a call from the Spurs' office. Could he please come back in because he had been traded to Minnesota? He came in, signed the paperwork, then headed home when his cellphone rang. Forget about Minnesota, his agent told him. He had just been waived. Two days later, he signed on with the Sacramento Kings and, with the absence of Mike Bibby (thumb injury), has been a huge addition.
"We knew he could play," coach Reggie Theus said. "He has done what I hoped he could do. He's been a pleasant surprise."
Udrih, of course, collected two rings in three years with the Spurs - "not too bad, huh?" he said - but was seeing less time as Tony Parker became a fixture at the point. It was a dilemma of sorts for the affable Slovenian - stay in San Antonio and collect playoff checks, possibly another ring, but also some bench sores, or go elsewhere and actually play. He chose the latter, and coach Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford did their best to accommodate him.
"I understand what Pop was going through and I am very grateful to him and the organization," Udrih said. "Pop was in a tough situation. He knew Tony better than me. He trusted Tony more than me. So, common sense, really, it was no decision for him."
Once waived by Minnesota (which already had a glut of point guards and got only some cash for the deal), Udrih said he had a couple of offers. The Kings swooped in quickly and he has been a mainstay in the Sacramento backcourt. He had a stretch where he scored in double figures in 13 of 14 games, including a season-high 27 points against his old team Nov. 26 in a Kings victory.
"Popovich told me he really kept him under his thumb," Theus said of Udrih. "He didn't allow him to get up and really do anything for him. That was a compliment. In other words, he was saying, 'He can play. I didn't give him a chance.' "
Telfair's starting to get the point in MinnesotaOf all the TimberCeltics, we had to figure that Big Al Jefferson would be the most prolific. And he has been. But did you think Sebastian Telfair would be No. 2? Ahead of Ryan Gomes or Gerald Green? (We won't even mention poor Theo Ratliff, who is injured yet again.)
Telfair has moved into the starting lineup as coach Randy Wittman decided to pair him with the taller, less-mobile Marko Jaric. While Minnesota isn't winning, Telfair has been a revelation of sorts and it's mainly because he's starting to do what Doc Rivers insisted he do all along: be a point guard.
"He has come a long way," Wittman said of Telfair. "When his focus is on scoring, he's not as effective as he can be. Lately his focus has been on just being a point guard, running the offense. Now, I think he realizes that that is what he has to do to make it in this league. I think he's starting to see it."
Telfair has led the Wolves in scoring one time this season. He's led them in assists 11 times. Telfair had 10 assists last Tuesday in Washington and 11 more the next night in Philly. No T-Wolf had had back-to-back double-digit assist games since Sam Cassell in 2004. Gomes, meanwhile, has been dropped from the starting rotation and is playing sparingly, although he should find a home somewhere next season (he's a free agent). Green, who also will be a free agent, is on the bench, waiting for his number to be called. "He's going to get a chance," Wittman said of Green. "He's just gotta stay patient."
Big Al went for 32 points and 20 rebounds against the Suns Dec. 8. He's only the second player in franchise history to record a 30-20 game; some guy named Garnett did it, ahem, eight times, the highlight being a 35-point, 25-rebound submission against Sacramento. But the highest-scoring game for a Minnesota player this season belongs to none other than Craig Smith. The ex-BC Eagle had 36 points against Washington.
Peter May can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.