Sunday, December 18, 2011

Pistons' Frank Has to Make Team Likable AND Competitive

Auburn Hills is a 35-minute drive north of Detroit. Make that almost an hour if you dare try it in the shadow of 5:00 traffic. It’s a rather uninspiring trek up I-75, with warehouses and impersonal office buildings surrounding you on the east and west.

The starkness of the Detroit city limits gives way to those of the industrialized Troy as you head north, with a lovely view of the Oakland Mall to your right. Your passengers can practically reach out and touch Macy’s.

Then there’s a woodsy interlude before more commercialization, in the form of the Great Lakes Crossing shopping complex. More retail outlets and fast food joints than you can shake a stick at.

Finally, there it is, to your left, off Lapeer Road. The Palace of Auburn Hills, sitting by its lonesome self, like the Silverdome did so infamously in Pontiac.

The Palace, built in the middle of the woods in 1988, is a state-of-the-art facility that continues to be a model of engineering for those seeking out new sports arenas.

It’s a delightful arena with wonderful sight lines and plenty of parking. You don’t have to settle for a space in another part of town and take a shuttle (or a People Mover) to get there. There isn’t a parking structure with which to contend.

The problem is that it’s too far away from…anything.

Certainly too far to travel to watch an unlikable pro-basketball team lose on a snowy January night.

Professional hoops has never been the easiest sell in our town. The Pistons, in their sometimes-inglorious 54-year history in Detroit, have heavily discounted and given away more tickets than all the community theater performances of “Annie” put together.

When the Pistons first arrived in our town back in 1957, they played Olympia Stadium like they were the Beatles’ opening act.

The maintenance crews would throw some would panels onto the ice surface so the folks in the expensive seats wouldn’t slip and fall on their fannies. The court was also laid on said ice, which resulted in some players sliding too.

The crowds were a couple thousand of the most curious, or those who happened to see a voucher on a fast food counter.

Then the Pistons took their act to brand new Cobo Arena in 1961. Cobo, a pill-shaped venue on the Detroit River, was gorgeous in its own way but too vast for the Pistons crowds. Cobo seated about 11,000 for basketball and on most nights about 8,000 of those were empty.

In 1978, the Pistons moved into the Pontiac Silverdome, an even more cavernous facility. It was like moving a mouse into a mansion.

Ten years later, the Pistons inched even further north, into the glitzy Palace of Auburn Hills.

For a time it worked. The team was winning championships—two for two in the first two years in the Palace. The drive north didn’t turn too many people away, as it turned out.

But as soon as the losing returned to a franchise that had been quite used to it—circa 1993-96—the Palace seemed like a faraway place.

The championship of 2004 and the near miss a year later made the Palace seem closer again. Funny how that works.

Today, the Palace is far away, once more.

Lawrence Frank is the Pistons’ new coach. His charge isn’t necessarily just to make a winning team. He has to make people like the Pistons—enough to want to venture to the Palace on a snowy night in January to see them battle the rest of the NBA. On most nights, those battles will likely end up in the other team’s favor.

Some would say that the challenge of making the Pistons likable again is more daunting than that of making them winners once more.

Let’s wind the clocks back to June 2004.

There the Pistons were, championship t-shirts and caps on their bodies and heads, confetti dumping on them from the Palace rafters.

World Champions!

There was no superstar on that Pistons roster, which was greater than the sum of its parts. The Pistons were bucking the trend that said you had to have at least one megastar, if not two or three, to win the whole shebang.

It was all a fluke, as it turned out.

You DO have to have at least one white-hot star on your roster to win an NBA championship. Two would be even better, thank you.

The Miami Heat notwithstanding, that’s the reality of today’s NBA.

The Pistons, who will begin play the day after Christmas to tip-off the truncated 2011-12 season, have no superstars. Not even close. They have a roster full of guys who are 6’8”. No one does anything particularly well.

The Pistons were last in the playoffs in 2008 and that ended in an ugly fashion on a May evening in Boston. The Pistons who had confetti rain on them in the Palace in 2004—Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace, Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince, et al—had turned into petulant, shameful crybabies.

The 2007-08 season was the culmination of four years of almost greatness that instilled an unattractive sense of entitlement into a team whose players felt like all they needed to do was show up, and a return trip to the NBA Finals would be theirs.

The Pistons made it to six straight Eastern Conference Finals, but in the last three they progressively regressed physically and mentally.

It all ended with an ejected Wallace tearing his jersey off and the Pistons imploding in Boston in 2008. Billups was traded early the next season, and the die was cast.

Since then, it’s been three seasons of bad coaching hires, inmates running the asylum, questionable trades, suspect free-agent signings and general disdain.

Lawrence Frank has a rookie point guard, Brandon Knight, who might be something. He has a second-year big man, Greg Monroe, who showed promise in the second half of last season.

He has a healthy Jonas Jerebko, one of those 6’8” guys, but has some potential as an X-factor or a sixth man.

Frank has Tayshaun Prince, newly signed to a four-year pact. Another 6’8” guy that could have championship pedigree.

Frank also has the disappointing free-agent class of 2009—Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva.

Frank doesn’t have Hamilton any longer—but this is addition by subtraction.

That’s pretty much it. Everyone else is either a hard-worker, a role guy, or both, like the ancient warrior Ben Wallace.

From this hodgepodge of a roster, coach Frank has to not only make the Pistons competitive but also make a team that people will want to see perform. He doesn’t have the luxury of a superstar player around whom the rest of the team satellites.

The Pistons' fan base, I suspect, is ready to embrace a kinder, gentler team—even if it’s one that doesn’t produce a lot of wins right away. That’s how bad things have gotten here since 2008.

Frank has dealt with starting 0-16 in New Jersey a few years ago.

The Pistons won't scare him.

The Pistons’ new slogan, to replace the tired and worn “Going to Work,” should be a derivative of Al Davis’s mantra with the Oakland Raiders:

“Just Like Us, Baby.”

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