Ben and Jerry’s new flavor

Well, roundball fans, another NBA season bites the hardwood — and here we are watching other cities’ teams in the playoffs. Familiar enough. But those who gave our Detroit Pistons more than a passing glance this winter know that hope rises from the ashes of despair.

For starters, there’s Jerry Stackhouse, second in the league in scoring percentage and an excellent free throw shooter who single-handedly took over game after game (though living and dying with Stackhouse became a liability, until the end of the season when more helping hands stepped up on offense). Stack’s personal goals for next year include greater strength and stamina, to go with his motivation and intensity — you bet he plans on winning more games.

Another pillar for the future is Ben Wallace. An irresistible force at center, he gave Karl Malone fits and took on Shaquille O’Neal without blinking. Wallace finished second in the league in rebounds per game and first in total rebounds. He was 10th in blocked shots and a consistent threat to steal. Once he got an inkling of his real potential on the boards, he raised the bar out of sight: From 10-14 rebounds per game in November, he soared to 20-25 per game by April. Wallace also started to realize that he could score (powerfully) and that if he made better than 50 percent of his free throws, he’d be even more of a threat in the paint.

Chucky Atkins improved at point guard, both as a ball-handler and as a sometimes-torrid shooter from downtown. Yet he could be a dynamic world-beater one night and a real nowhere man the next. When Atkins faltered, rookie Mateen Cleaves got some minutes, showing mucho playmaking savvy and desire, and flashes of an NBA jump shot. Point guard for the Pistons is a project under construction.

Though not popular with fans, the trade of Jerome Williams for Toronto’s Corliss Williamson quickly turned into one of the best front-office moves in years. Nobody wanted to see “Junk Yard Dog” Williams go, but once Williamson got a chance to show what he was made of — as a reliable double-digit scorer and a strong body in the paint — he even got fans wondering about the much-ballyhooed Joe Smith (who had a roller-coaster season at best). Now it’s Williamson who seems like the keeper at contract time.

Other signs of life were delivered by the ageless Dana Barros, rookies Brian Cardinal and Kornel David, the reliable Michael Curry and the intriguing Mikki Moore. At the top of the fantasy wish list, of course, is Chris Webber of the Sacramento Kings, and two or more as-yet-to-be-identified acquisitions to complete the profile of a (dare we say) playoff contender.

But let’s get back down to earth with a little (actually more than a little) unpleasantness. At the end of this frustrating season, the media started sniffing out the demise of Pistons head coach George Irvine. He would be asked, leaked an unnamed Pistons source, to resign ASAP. And, lo and behold, if it wasn’t true, though Irvine made them fire him instead.

Now anyone watching these past seven months might’ve noticed that Irvine preached hard work and defense from training camp on. When the Pistons played tough D and spread the ball around on offense, it seemed they could beat anybody. But when they started standing around watching Stackhouse do his thing or tried to outscore a team or forgot the basic work ethic, they fell apart. Around midseason, with losses piling up, Irvine reiterated his basic philosophy (ironically against Stackhouse’s call for more offense), the team listened and started a little run at the playoffs. But to Stack’s credit, they also acquired Williamson’s 15-20 points per game, Atkins started shooting better and Wallace just came on like gangbusters on both ends of the court. It seemed like a harbinger of brighter days ahead. Maybe, but without Irvine.

The NBA is a tough business. We all know that. But rarely has a Pistons coach been let go that we liked so much — certainly not Doug Collins or even Alvin Gentry. Pistons coaches after the Chuck Daly era usually got what they deserved. But not this time. George Irvine is a mensch, a real student of the game. After 30 years in pro basketball, as a player, administrator and coach, he knows about player development (who else gets the credit for Ben Wallace’s amazing growth; who else would have played him through thick and thin?) and how to win with what you have. Joe Dumars says that it hurts to fire a man he likes so much. If ownership made Dumars dump Irvine, then it’s a damn shame. Because Irvine can’t be blamed for making the best of a thin roster.

The flavor of the future might be sweet, but this nasty business leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

The Hot & the Bothered was written and edited by George Tysh. E-mail him at [email protected]
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