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Published: Wednesday, 11/2/2005

Flip the switch: Saunders ready to turn on Pistons offense

BY JOHN HARRIS
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

These aren t Larry Brown s Detroit Pistons anymore.

If you like defense, these Pistons, as always, will go to war with you.

But if you want to run and gun, new coach Flip Saunders Pistons will put on their track shoes and pass the baton.

Now there s a switch.

No one knows yet if the Pistons will regain their NBA championship form of two seasons ago, or if they will return to the Finals for the third straight year. That will be determined over the course of the 82-game regular season and the playoffs.

But we do know that the Pistons under Saunders, whose proclivity for offense is curiously different from Brown s grind-it-out defensive style, will be a diversified team with more ways to beat you than it had under Brown.

Saunders wants the Pistons to be the master of different styles, and he wants the Pistons to play each style at a higher level than their opponents.

In becoming the class of the Eastern Conference, the Pistons have displayed a combination of quickness, savvy and effort, along with the right mix of physical and mental toughness.

Saunders doesn t think that s too much to continue to ask from a ballclub whose starting lineup has been intact since February, 2004.

The one thing about what has happened to our league with free agency, it is tough to keep teams together, said Saunders, who coached the Minnesota Timberwolves for 9 seasons before being dismissed last year. Continuity is always good. I ve always said that the teams that have been able to make runs in the playoffs and win numerous championships are the teams who have been together for a while. That s the one common denominator.

Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace have played in NBA All-Star Games. Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups both play like All-Stars. Tayshaun Prince is a fledgling All-Star.

Rasheed Wallace, a Brown favorite, has vowed to be more of a leader for his new coach, ending speculation that he was unhappy about Brown s messy departure.

Wallace reported to training camp 20 pounds lighter and he has offered advice and support to his younger teammates.

Indeed, Detroit s starting lineup is in good, experienced hands.

It seems almost unfair to the rest of the league that the Pistons starting lineup has been together for so long.

Not only do they have an advantage in terms of familiarity and team chemistry, but they re also smart basketball players who excel in pressure situations.

They re also playing with a chip on their collective shoulders the size of Brown s ego.

There s no chance for a letdown, because the Pistons have plenty of motivation.

Browns believes he can take any team and turn it into a winner.

Some of the Pistons players believe Brown, now coaching the New York Knicks, received too much credit for the Pistons championship season two years ago and too little blame when they failed to win back-to-back titles.

The Pistons believe they can win with any coach. Brown s departure is their motivation.

Saunders, who is Detroit s third coach in four years, wants to be the Pistons salvation.

Like Rick Carlisle and Brown before him, since the key pieces are already in place, all Saunders has to do is win.

The Pistons have a proven track record. The only thing that isn t proven is Saunders, who is taking over a championship-caliber team despite never reaching the Finals with Minnesota.

As far as the Pistons are concerned, the best thing about Saunders is that he isn t Brown.

Saunders will do things his way, which means a greater emphasis at the offensive end, making more use of the bench and doling out more playing time to little-used reserves Darko Milicic and Carlos Delfino, both former first-round draft picks.

Not playing his youngsters, Milicic in particular, was probably Brown s biggest drawback with the Pistons.

Saunders promises to make Milicic, the No. 2 pick in the 2003 draft ahead of Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, an integral part of the rotation.

He s better than I thought he would be, Saunders said of the 7-foot Milicic, who received substantial playing time in the preseason.

And I thought he d be pretty good.

Saunders has his work cut out. The Eastern Conference has never been stronger in recent years.

Indiana and Miami have closed the gap on the Pistons, and New Jersey, Cleveland, Washington and Boston aren t that far behind.

How well and how quickly Saunders meshes with a strong-willed veteran team accustomed to winning big games will determine if he s the right coach for the Pistons.

Contact Blade columnist John Harris at: jharris@theblade.com or 419-724-6354.



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