It’s the Pistons’ trophy to lose this year

Kyle Scudilla

With the NBA Playoffs tipping off tomorrow, it’s time to once again glance into The Villanovan’s crystal ball and forecast what to look for over the next few months as 16 playoff hopefuls slowly dwindle down to the ultimate champion. This season, the Detroit Pistons have clearly been the best team in the NBA, and with the postseason finally here, there’s no reason to change the logic that they are the team to beat in the 2006 NBA Playoffs. Here’s a look at five reasons why Detroit may be celebrating its second title in three seasons and the top five contenders standing in the way of the trophy.

Five Reasons the Pistons Will Win It All

Detroit Loves Its Home Cooking: While it’s known throughout sports that playing on your home court or home field is a clear advantage, the 2005-2006 Pistons have taken that fact to an entire different extreme. As of our press date, the Pistons had a sparkling 37-3 record at the Palace of Auburn Hills and thanks to the NBA’s best overall record this season, Detroit will enjoy home-court advantage in every series this postseason, including the NBA Finals. How important is playing at the Palace for the Pistons? Ask some of the guys in uniform and they may tell you that if they, and not the Spurs, had home-court advantage in the 2005 Finals, we might be talking about a potential Pistons’ three-peat this year.

Coach Flip Saunders and the Ignited Offense: Detroit has become a regular deep in the postseason the last three years thanks to former coach Larry Brown’s tough-minded defensive attitude, which made playing against the Pistons a nightmare for opposing coaches and teams. Now, with Brown having defected to the lowly Knicks, first-year head coach Flip Saunders has brought more offensive freedom to the team, and it certainly has benefited. The team’s average points-per-game has increased from 93.3 to 97.0, which is a substantial margin when a team has as good of a defense as the Pistons do. This increase in offensive fluidity is thanks in large part to career-high scoring averages for guards Richard Hamilton (20.3 ppg) and Chauncey Billups (18.5 ppg). This dynamic backcourt duo can now not only be counted on to shut down the opposing backcourt defensively, but also outscore them offensively.

…But Don’t Forget About That Stellar D: The Pistons are still built on defense, which is an excellent mindset to have for the slowed-down, grind-it-out mentality of the NBA Playoffs. For the fourth straight season, the Pistons have allowed the fewest points per game among all Eastern Conference teams. This defense, led by Ben Wallace, the enforcer in the middle, has helped the Pistons beat the almighty Shaq in the last two postseasons, and will give Detroit a big mental edge if the Pistons and Heat meet once again in the Eastern Conference Finals.

They’ve Improved Their Depth: Despite making the Finals in each of the past two seasons, one knock against the Pistons is that their strategy depended too much on their starting five (which isn’t a bad thing when you’ve got four All-Stars in your lineup) and not enough on their bench. This season, however, the Pistons have a second unit that can certainly help keep the team in the game when the starters need a blow. The bench is led by forward Antonio McDyess, who averaged 7.8 ppg and 5.3 rpg to give Detroit a good scoring option off the bench. Another important scorer is guard Tony Delk, who was picked up from the Hawks during the season. He is a veteran with playoff experience who can hit open shots, and has averaged 8.0 ppg with Detroit this season. Fellow veterans Lindsey Hunter and Kelvin Cato, who has just returned from injury, add a helping hand on the defensive end and can help spell Billups and Wallace.

These Guys Know How to Play Together: The continuity in the Pistons starting lineup has been amazing, particularly with all the free agency and injuries in the game today. Detroit knows that Billups, Hamilton, Tayshaun Price and the Wallaces, Ben and Rasheed, will be out there every single night, and it’s been like that for the past few years. They have grown together to the point where all but Prince were East All-Stars this season. These five together play better team basketball than any other lineup in the NBA.

The Top Five Contenders

1. San Antonio Spurs: Champions until proven otherwise, the Spurs are still the team to beat in the Western Conference. They outlasted Dallas for the division title despite injuries to stars Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. While some struggled with injuries, however, point guard Tony Parker blossomed into an All-Star, and is now one of the top floor generals in the game. Health may be the big question for San Antonio, but since they do not have to play back-to-back days at any point in the postseason, their veteran-laden squad should have time to lick its wounds. Featuring battle-tested vets like Michael Finley, Bruce Bowen, Nick Van Exel, Brent Barry, Nazr Mohammed and Robert “Big Shot Bob” Horry, the Spurs will be a difficult out for any opponent in the postseason.

2. Dallas Mavericks: The Mavs, who have featured one of the NBA’s most explosive offensive units over the past five seasons, have finally learned to play some defense. Coach Avery Johnson, the odds-on favorite for this year’s Coach of the Year award, has the Mavericks giving more effort on the defensive end, and it showed in the team’s results, as they challenged the Spurs wire-to-wire for the Southwest Division title. Dirk Nowitzki has taken his game to another level, and is the heart-and-soul of Dallas, averaging 26.6 ppg and 9.0 rpg, using his 7-foot frame to his advantage more often on the defensive end. The Mavericks always have plenty of scoring depth in the starting lineup and off the bench, so they’ll create plenty of match-up problems for opposing defenses. Whether Dallas can finally get over the hump and make the Finals may still, however, rely on how well they can D up in a potential second-round clash with San Antonio.

3. New Jersey Nets: The Nets, who reeled off a fourteen-game winning streak in March and April, enter the playoffs with arguably more momentum than any team in the NBA. This team is headlined by the “Big 3” of Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson, but it has been the improvement of second-year center Nenad Krstic that has taken New Jersey to a higher level. While the team does have some question marks coming off the bench, with Cliff Robinson representing the only dependable option off the bench, if the stars of the team remain hot, they can give a lot of teams some trouble, particularly on the perimeter. With Kidd, the savvy playoff veteran, still leading the charge for the Nets, New Jersey could be the biggest threat to Detroit in the East, especially considering the fact that they swept the Pistons out of the playoffs in 2003.

4. Phoenix Suns: This team could have been the favorite out of the Western Conference if big man Amare Stoudamire had healed up for the end of the season like the Suns planned. Instead, he came back from surgery too early, and is now on the shelf for the remainder of the season. Still, even without their dominant inside force, reigning MVP Steve Nash and the highly underrated Shawn Marion have helped carry Phoenix to a division title and the number-two seed in the West. A supporting cast of highly improved players such as Raja Bell, Boris Diaw, Leandro Barbosa and James Jones have added plenty of scoring punch to the Phoenix attack, but with injuries to Stoudamire and Kurt Thomas, it remains to be seen if the Suns have enough of an inside presence to tangle with the likes of Detroit and San Antonio.

5. Miami Heat: The Heat won their division and had a solid record once again this season, but a lot has changed from last year’s squad that took the Pistons to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals before bowing out. Gone are role players such as sharpshooter Damon Jones and defensive specialist Eddie Jones. New to the team are Jason Williams, James Posey, Antoine Walker and Gary Payton, all players with scoring mentalities on a team that already headlines Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal. This team has potential, and playoff experience, but many questions remain. Shaq has been playing hurt, and may not be able to flip the switch ‘on’ for the playoffs like he has been able to in past seasons. This is a concern with sixth man Alonzo Mourning currently nursing an injury, and may cause Wade to shoulder too much of the load.