It's becoming harder and harder to get a read on the Pistons. Ever since they upset the LA Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals they have been on a steady decline each subsequent year. In 2005 they reached the Finals but lost in seven games to the San Antonio Spurs. In 2006 they reached the Conference Finals but were eliminated by the eventual Champion Miami Heat. Then, last season, the team once again reached the Conference Finals, but lost to a team generally considered inferior - the Cleveland Cavaliers -who then got swept in the Finals by the Champion Spurs.
Despite the increasing setbacks, the Pistons are still considered one of the best, if not the best, teams in the East. There is no denying that their core is effective during the regular season, and likewise during the early parts of the playoffs, but they've appeared increasingly vulnerable to teams employing attacking wing players like LeBron James or Dwyane Wade late in the spring. There is no real explanation to be offered here except that, perhaps, the Pistons were never quite as good as everyone was led to believe.
Now, that isn't to say that they aren't a good team, as they have been mainstays in the Conference Finals for the last five years and that is nothing to sneeze at. But each year that goes by seems to crack at the myth that the Pistons truly are title contenders entering each season. At first many believed that complacency might have set it, or that an aging roster is a factor, or that the team simply needs people to doubt them to stoke their competitive juices. Whatever the explanation, the Pistons haven't looked this vulnerable going into a season since Jerry Stackhouse wore the red, white and blue.
The biggest reason for this revolves around the now vacant centre spot. Chris Webber has, at least as of this writing, opted not to return to the Pistons for a second year, and that means that last year's free agent bust, Nazr Mohammed, must return to the spot many felt he was ill-equipped to handle once they saw his production as a Piston. Nothing else about his situation has changed from last year (except the lowered expectations) and there is no reason to believe that he'll be any more effective in that spot now than he was one year ago.
Another reason for concern with this team is age. Not age in terms of a player breaking down so much as age as it relates to boredom. This team has been to the Conference Finals so many times in a row it must be hard to look at another regular season as anything but an annoyance. Last season the coaching staff tried to employ increased bench usage to infuse some excitement into the lineup, and while it helped unearth big-man gem Jason Maxiell, it did little to inspire the longer-serving troops. Rasheed Wallace appears less and less like the impact player that keyed their run to the title against the Lakers and more and more like the player who coasted for games at a time in Portland while racking up the technical fouls. Rasheed Wallace can be as good as he wants to be, and he has made it clear that 65%-75% of his ability sits fine with him.
So what is there to predict for this season? While the East is slowly improving, very few teams have put together enough firepower to worry the Pistons. They knocked off the Bulls fairly easily last season, and that team hasn't added anything to frighten the boys from Detroit. New Jersey and Miami look to be clinging to faded glory rather than reloading to make a run at the crown. Toronto and Orlando are making some noise, but both are still too young to challenge here. That just leaves last years improbable Eastern Conference champs, the Cavs, as the only real concern for this team. Since neither team has made much of a change to their rosters there isn't much of a reason to expect things will end differently should those two meet again next May. We'll check in again then, I suppose.