Arron Afflalo steps quickly backward, shifting side to side as his opponent dribbles up court. As he senses the ball handler gearing up to make his move, Afflalo's hand snakes out and strikes the ball away to his teammate Rodney Stuckey. Stuckey dribbles on the run as he scans the defense. He cuts toward the basket, slipping between opponents like a shadow skittering in and out of a car's headlights. As defenders converge on him he whips a bounce-pass to a teammate on the wing. Afflalo gathers it in, goes straight up and launches the ball toward the basket like a smart bomb homing in on its target.
Before the ball hits the floor, the two players slap hands and run down court, ready to defend.
We've seen flashes of this kind of play off and on from Piston rookie guards Stuckey and Afflalo so far this season, adding a bit of spice to the savory gumbo that is the Detroit Pistons. Both youngsters from the West Coast (Stuckey from Washington, Afflalo from California) are getting used to heating up things fast in our Michigan winter.
And although we'll see less and less of them as the team gears up for a championship run in this year's playoffs, Stuckey and Afflalo are key to the Pistons' championship potential next year and beyond as they grow into the system and become attuned to each other as a backcourt of the future.
"Yes, you would like to think that," says Pistons player-coach Lindsey Hunter. "I think they have great potential to be that. They work hard. They're highly touted and highly skilled guys, and there's no reason why they shouldn't be."
Younger players have had their impact on the Pistons more this season than in recent years. But even as the youth movement for the future takes shape, the Pistons organization is looking back with a yearlong celebration of 50 seasons in Detroit with ceremonies, charity events and television retrospectives. It's striking to see that the most storied players in Pistons history are guards. And with Stuckey and Afflalo, both picked in the first round of last year's college draft, it looks like team President Joe Dumars is putting up his guards to help guide the team's future.
Looking back you can argue whether Isiah Thomas, the gritty point guard who led the team from nowhere to two world championships with amazing skill and sheer force of will, was the greatest Piston past. Or is it Joe Dumars, the quiet assassin?
The only thing that argument proves is that when it comes to the Pistons past and present, this is a team mainly built around guards. And when it comes to the future, it looks like Stuckey and Afflalo embody the hope of keeping that legacy proud and storied. The kind of guys future basketball fans will tell lies about as they drink beers and remember great players of days passed.
So far we've had a taste of what Stuckey and Afflalo have to offer and what they'll build upon for the future.
In fact, Afflalo surprised fans early in the season — after the highly touted Stuckey broke a bone in his hand during the last exhibition game — and he held his own while getting more playing time than expected, including a couple of starts. Off the court, there's little to say about them. They seem serious about their craft. So far, neither is known for partying or getting in trouble with the law. They're character guys.
"I'm impressed with both of them," says former Piston Greg Kelser, now a television analyst for the Pistons on TV 20 and local Fox broadcasts. "Stuckey's strength right now is his ability to get in the paint, his pull-ups in the lane for the little short jumper. He has to become more consistent in making the right decision. There are times when he challenges guys looking for contact and he doesn't get it and he has to take an awkward shot. He'll learn what he can do and what he can't do. ...
"The thing that impresses me about Afflalo is his fearlessness. He's being asked to guard one of the toughest spots in the opposing shooting guards. He does not back down from anybody. He's physical. He has the ability to lock up on people. From time to time he can give you scoring. That mostly comes from sheer hustle, scoring in transition."
Neither of them is about to put starters Chauncey Billups and Richard "Rip" Hamilton, all-star guards for a championship-contending team, on the bench. And when the playoffs start in April, the starters will command even more playing time than they do now. Hunter, who has spent more game time this season sitting at courtside wearing a suit and tie than sweating on the court, will be active and possibly the most important backcourt player off the bench. But part of the reason those guys will be fresh and ready to put in the grinding playoff minutes is because Stuckey and Afflalo gave them time to sit on the bench during the regular season as the team fought its way to the second-best record in the National Basketball Association.
Two years ago it was widely held that the Pistons faltered in the playoffs because the starters were tired from putting in too many minutes on their way to the best regular season record in the league. This year that can't be the excuse. They're logging fewer minutes in the regular season because rookie players Stuckey and Afflalo have stepped up and held their own, along with young front-court players Jason Maxiell and Amir Johnson.
This is no knock against the big men. Maxiell's dedication and hustle have made him a key player this season, and Johnson, drafted directly out of high school three years ago, could become a Rasheed Wallace-like fixture for years to come. But when you spend two first-round draft picks in the same year on two players at the same position, it shows something deeper in the team's psyche.
"In the past it's always been that way. I think now, with the type of team we have, it's more well-rounded than it ever was with the inside-outside threat," Hunter says. "We've always been known for our guards and will probably always be known for our guards as long as Joe [Dumars] is here and he keeps bringing guys in like Chauncey and Rip and Afflalo and Stuckey."
Dumars played on one of the most potent championship backcourts in NBA history. Thomas, Vinnie "The Microwave" Johnson and Dumars led the Pistons to back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990. Billups and Hamilton were backed up in the 2004 championship season by guards Hunter and Mike James, defensive specialists who were nicknamed the "Bulldogs" for their ability to change the whole tenor of a game by stopping opposing offenses.
"I'm sure there's some influence there," Kelser says, "absolutely. There has to be when you've had the success that Dumars had and you've been part of a solid team as he has been. How many backcourts end up in the Hall of Fame? Probably not a whole lot of them. I think you can say that with accuracy not only about Joe Dumars but also with Isiah Thomas. Joe has found that rare combination [with Billups and Hamilton], Isiah tries in his role as president of that New York club."
There's a bit of déjà vu in the drafting of Stuckey and Afflalo. In 1993, the Pistons drafted guards Hunter and Allan Houston in the first round. They were then seen as heirs apparent to Thomas and Dumars.
"I looked at their situation the same way as when I was a rookie and I had a fellow rookie come in with me," Hunter says. "You go through a lot of growing pains together. The good thing about coming into an organization like this is it's a lot like family and guys here really take you in and take you under their wings and try to help you develop. That's a great situation for those guys to be in. Of course, Allan and I had Joe and Isiah, which, of course, was a tremendous help for us. But collectively, from top to bottom, guys here really try to help them, and that's a big plus for any young kid."
Dave Bing, drafted by the Pistons in 1966, became the first in the line of guards who are respected and revered in Pistons history. John Long followed him. Then there were Thomas and Dumars, along with their triumvirate partner "The Microwave" Johnson, who earned the second nickname "007" for throwing down the winning shot in a 1990 championship series game against Portland with only 0.07 seconds left on the clock. Then came Hunter and Allan Houston, Jerry Stackhouse, Chucky Atkins, Mike James, Billups and Hamilton.
"If you think of the Pistons, first and foremost, it's Joe and Isiah, second Rip and Chauncey," Kelser says. "Both groups won championships and spent a lot of time together. Their strength to support each other and the chemistry between them is very consistent. To a lesser degree, Dave Bing and Jimmy Walker, although they had a shorter time together and they did not win championships.
"With Hunter and Houston, the thought was there and the idea was there but unfortunately they did not have the tenure of playing together. Allan left and went to New York. We can only speculate what might have happened if they could have spent six, seven or eight years together."
Of course, in 1993, the Pistons had fallen from their championship form. General Manager Jack McCloskey had bet the team's future on 7-foot center William Bedford, a supposedly reformed crack user who fell off the wagon and knocked the franchise off track. Thomas retired the next year. Hunter and Houston, along with forward Grant Hill, drafted in 1994, needed to produce immediately. They produced, but never gained that elite status for the team. In 1996, New York looked like a team on the verge of a championship; Houston signed with the Knicks. Hill and Hunter toiled through the '90s without much team success in the playoffs. Both left the Pistons in 2000, the year Dumars really took hold of the reins.
What a different situation it is for Stuckey and Afflalo. Nobody expects them to save a falling franchise. Billups and Hamilton are still in their prime. Hunter, who returned to the Pistons in 2003 after winning a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers, is a wise, older head who can still step on the court and pull a few tricks out of his bag. The rookies still have to have game, but nobody's putting the weight of the franchise on their shoulders just yet.
And although the Pistons have mostly been a guard-oriented team, there are some awesome big men around to hold down the fort. Let's not forget the big guys.
"They've been a guard team in part, but when I think of the Pistons I think of [Bob] Lanier, [Dennis] Rodman, [John] Salley, [Bill] Laimbeer, Grant Hill, on down the line," Kelser says.
Sure, we've had great big men on this team who'll be fondly remembered: Including Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, Rick Mahorn and James "Buddha" Edwards.
If the Pistons win a championship this year, Antonio McDyess will join that group. But look at the Pistons who have had their numbers retired — Bing, Lanier, Thomas, Dumars, Laimbeer and Johnson. The Hall of Famers are Bing, Lanier, Thomas and Dumars. On this team, guards consistently outnumber the big men for the highest honors.
Lanier, a Piston from 1970 to 1980, is hands-down the best big man to ever put on a Pistons uniform. They called him the "Dobber," and game after game he went into the paint and battled it out among the trees, winning a lot more than he lost on the way to scoring 15,488 points in his Pistons career.
But you can spend an evening chewing the fat over whether Rodman or Ben Wallace was the better defensive big man — although both were ... ahem ... offensively challenged. You don't hear those caveats about Dumars. He excelled on both ends of the court.
"Joe Dumars is the best defensive guard of the group from the two-spot," Kelser says. "Joe could score on anybody."
And in looking back over the years, Kelser sees how the Bad Boys guards changed the way basketball was played in the NBA.
"The strongest guard moment to my mind came over the course of championship years with Joe Dumars named MVP of the Lakers series in 1989, and then Isiah was the Portland series finals MVP, Vinnie Johnson hitting the shot to seal the win in Game 5 of the championship series against Portland. Those two years with those three guards to my view are the strongest guard moment. In my mind, while Isiah and Joe were two of the very best tandems, I don't know any team in the league that could march out a trio of guards like the Pistons could when you throw Vinnie Johnson into the equation. Teams were trying to find that third guard, trying to mimic what the Pistons were able to do successfully — and I don't recall anybody ever doing it quite to that level."
The Pistons came close with the Bulldogs in 2004. Maybe they've done it again with the new guys. Stuckey has already turned heads with his quickness and passing ability. Afflalo seems to be another Bulldog in the rough. Neither of them has yet earned a nickname that rolls off the lips of fans while discussing the game. When that happens, we'll know that they've entered the pantheon of their forebears. It's an area crowded with guys from the shorter end of the basketball spectrum.
The bottom line is, when it comes to the Pistons, it's time to get your guard up.Larry Gabriel is a columnist and former editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]