Sunday, December 21, 2008

Stuckey Is A Point (Guard) Well Taken; Now Let’s Keep Him Around

Isiah Thomas was all of six-foot-one, playing a tall man’s game, yet you couldn’t miss him. You couldn’t help but spot him as he slashed to the basket, laying one in, or as he stuck a dagger of a three-pointer into your heart, or as he played on one good leg in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

David Bing was six-three, another relatively short guy among the giants. But those giants were often helpless as Bing glided to the hoop, or drained jump shot after jump shot over their outstretched arms.

Bing played on a lot of losing teams in Detroit, but he was no loser himself. And the next person to accuse Isiah, the player, of being a loser will be the first.

Then along came the bigger, stronger Chauncey Billups. It was easier to notice Chauncey physically, and it also became impossible to miss him because of his flair for the dramatic. Mr. Big Shot, they called him. It was largely a Detroit nickname, but it fit well for a time.

All three of them – Thomas, Bing, and Billups – have one thing in common. Championships? Well, no. Isiah and Chauncey have theirs, but Bing never made it that far. Scoring champ? Bing did that, but not the others. The number 1? Hmm, sort of; Bing wore 21, Thomas 11, Billups 1.

What all three have in common is that each of them, every one of them, was banished from the Pistons organization. Three of the best Pistons of their respective time – gone, sent packing. Oh, and all three turned ex-Pistons under the watch of owner Bill Davidson.

It started with Bing. After a fine 1973-74 season in which the Pistons won 52 games and made the playoffs, the team slumped to 40 wins in ’74-’75. But not before Bing had the audacity to hold out for more money in the summer of 1974.

Davidson, who had recently bought out his partners to gain sole control of the Pistons, didn’t understand the idea of a player holding out. Mr. D made his money with Guardian Industries, and to him, a deal was a deal. End of discussion.

Davidson would learn, of course, that pro sports isn’t like most businesses.

But before he saw the light, Davidson had mentally shifted Bing into his private dog house. We didn’t know it, but after Bing held out in 1974, he was as good as gone.

So Davidson had Bing traded in the summer of 1975 to the Washington Bullets for a pugnacious, bratty point guard named Kevin Porter. It didn’t matter that if it wasn’t for Dave Bing, the Pistons might not have made it in Detroit. Honest. It didn’t matter that Bing helped put the Pistons on the NBA map. It didn’t matter that no Pistons guard before him was as talented and gifted as Bing was. It only mattered that Bing had wanted more dough from a previously-signed contract.

Then it happened with Thomas, who led the Pistons to their first two world championships. Isiah became so famous in the league that he turned into one of those one-name stars, like Dr. J, Kareem, Bird, and Magic. He played for 13 seasons in Detroit, joining the franchise when it was nearly moribund.

But all that went out the window when Isiah violated Davidson’s trust and told everyone that he was to one day help run the team from the executive offices.

That revelation wasn’t concurrent with Davidson’s timetable, so Mr. D froze Isiah out. Essentially kicked him out of the Pistons forever.

Just this past November, it happened with Billups, too.

Mr. Big Shot was the Finals MVP in 2004. He, too, came to the Pistons when they were in desperate need of a face, of some respect. Billups became the ring leader for a team that prided itself on being blue collar, just like the city it represented. He became involved in the community. He WAS the Pistons, to many outside of Detroit.

But Billups was traded to the Denver Nuggets, for the future Hall of Famer Allen Iverson.

Three point guards, the best the Pistons ever had. And all became ex-Pistons, in one way or another.

If the Pistons make Rodney Stuckey an ex, they’d have some ‘splaining to do.

Stuckey is the Pistons’ new point guard, in his second year. He attended school at Eastern Washington University. When you find out where EWU is, drop me a line. I’m dying to know myself. The Pistons drafted Bing from Syracuse, and Thomas from Indiana – two places where you routinely go to find NBA players. But Eastern Washington? Score one for the scouting department. And Rand-McNally.

Stuckey is the next big thing with the Pistons – literally. He’s six-foot-five, which would dwarf the point guards in Bing and Thomas’s day. He can drive to the basket, score, or find the open man for an easy hoop. He can nail a jump shot with consistency. He hasn’t played in too many big games yet, but the ones in which he has, he’s played with ice water in his veins. Now his rookie head coach is giving him even more to do.

With Billups gone, Michael Curry is trying something new. He’s starting Stuckey at the point, Iverson at shooting guard, and Rip Hamilton at small forward. The NBA jargon for it is “going small.” Curry’s jargon is “We need more scoring – and we need to give Stuckey more minutes.”

Both missions are being accomplished.

Stuckey is doing that “double-double” thing now with some regularity. Meaning, double digits in points and assists. It’s what Isiah used to do with brilliant monotony. Stuckey was at it again Wednesday night against Washington: 38 minutes, 18 points, 11 assists. Many of those assists went to Iverson, who struck for 28 points. Hamilton added 12, making it 58 points from Curry’s three small men. And many of Stuckey’s own points came as a result of his relentless attack on the basket. The Wizards players seemed helpless against Stuckey’s play, just as Bing’s opponents once had been.

And Curry is letting Stuckey call most of the plays, entrusting him to keep the likes of Iverson, Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince fed and happy. That Stuckey himself can drop an average of 15-20 points into the basket per night is more than a bonus – it’s an indication of just how talented this kid is.

Since the Pistons had just signed Billups to a big contract extension in the summer of 2007, I wondered after last season where that left Stuckey, who was coming off a fine rookie year and who showed some moxie in the playoffs. Where would Stuckey play, if all the backcourt minutes were going to go to Billups and Hamilton?

Thanks to the Billups trade and Curry’s out-of-the-box thinking, we’re seeing exactly where and how much Stuckey will play. So no banishing him until at least the next Pistons championship – OK, Mr. D?

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