The Detroit Pistons were one of the NBA's most consistent teams from 2003-08, making the Eastern Conference finals every year with players who understood their roles and blended as well as any group in the league.
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - The Detroit Pistons were one of the NBA's most consistent teams from 2003-08, making the Eastern Conference finals every year with players who understood their roles and blended as well as any group in the league.
So it's a little jarring to see Richard Hamilton's team battling through the preseason, trying to figure out who will play where while its coach juggles the lineup again because of injuries.
"It's a whole lot of uncertainty," Hamilton said. "I think the years that we did win and competed for a championship, everybody knew it coming in. Everybody knew exactly what each other was doing. I think right now we're still trying to find ourselves. Guys are really trying to find how they can help the team win."
Hamilton is one of three players on the roster who were with the team during its run to the 2004 championship, part of a six-year streak in which Detroit reached at least the conference finals.
Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, and Ben Wallace experienced the other end of the spectrum last season, when the Pistons stumbled through a 27-win nightmare and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2001. Detroit is trying to rebuild.
Eleven players started at least 10 games for Detroit last season, in large part because the team dealt with so many injuries. The Pistons would love a little more stability, but it's not clear when that might come.
"More than the injuries, I thought it was the chemistry that we were missing last year, just having to play certain guys major minutes because guys were out," guard Will Bynum said. "We weren't used to playing with each other at the time."
Detroit has already dealt with bad news this preseason. Forward Jonas Jerebko, who started 73 games as a rookie in 2009-10, went down with a torn Achilles' tendon. He's expected to miss several months, and rookie guard Terrico White is out with a broken foot.
This is nothing new for Detroit. Prince missed more than 30 games in 2009-10 because of back and knee problems. Hamilton played in only 46 games as he nursed a sprained ankle and other injuries.
The Pistons didn't lose any key players from last season's team and drafted center Greg Monroe out of Georgetown with the No. 7 pick. They also signed veteran Tracy McGrady to a one-year,
$1.3 million contract.
That low-risk deal could be a bargain if McGrady even approaches his former status as one of the league's top players, but he is a question mark after two seasons ruined by knee problems. If he plays well, Detroit will have a logjam of players with similar abilities on the perimeter, and there's speculation somebody could be traded.
For now, it's up to coach John Kuester to figure out a rotation with a roster that has plenty of depth but no real superstars. Point guard Rodney Stuckey averaged 16.6 points per game last season, and Bynum is a capable backup at that spot. Hamilton, McGrady, Prince, and Ben Gordon will compete for minutes on the perimeter, and center Ben Wallace is back after starting 67 games in 2009-10.
Power forward is a bit of a mystery. The versatile Jerebko can play there but will be out for a while, and Kuester appears to be grooming second-year player Austin Daye for Jerebko's role. The 6-foot-11, 205-pound Daye is comfortable on the outside, which makes him hard for big men to defend.
"Austin, he's a problem," Bynum said. "Especially at that four position, the way he shoots the ball."
Charlie Villanueva, who averaged 11.9 points in his first season with the Pistons, is back for another chance to earn more playing time. His performance could be crucial, because at 6-foot-11, 232 pounds, he might be more suited than Daye to bang inside.
For some teams, the preseason is little more than a chance for players to work their way back into shape before the games count. It's a lot more meaningful for Detroit this year because of all the uncertainty over playing time.
"Every game is important to us," Kuester said. "I'm hearing the players talking during the game and expressing things that we have discussed throughout practice, that it's carried over into our game situation. When you do things like that, we'll give ourselves a chance."