The Detroit Pistons and the Need for the X Factor

Under the March Madness Radar Screen, the Detroit Pistons are setting a historical standard for dominance and making the Bad Boys look like the Vienna Boys Choir. They set an NBA record for consecutive wins by at least 15 points, holding teams on average to less than 70 a game. Their defense is the NBA equivalent of the way 'Hoya Paranoia' and 'Arkansas' 40 Minutes of Hell', traumatized college opponents. Detroit's trade for Rasheed Wallace has transformed a contender into a dominator. Seeing Sheed and Ben Wallace standing side by side under the backboard, is an awesome sight of muscle and intimidation. They resemble a classic 1980s WWF tag team, like they are about to go to war vs. King Kong Bundy and the One Man Gang.

No NBA team, East or West, can match the Pistons when they are in their groove. But no one is picking them to win it all for a simple reason: Detroit is 6-13 in games decided by 3 points or less. They lack that X factor, the person who can create a shot when the game is close.

If the 2004 Pistons are going to make any playoff noise, they will have to find that X factor. An X factor has three components: he has to present a physical mismatch for defenders, he has to be able to step out and shoot, not just drive to the hole, and he has to claim the stage - the way Bird, Jordan, or even Kobe seem like they would rather shave their heads with a cheese grater than see anyone else shoot the ball with the game on the line. Chauncey Billups has shown flair for the dramatic buzzer beater, but the 6' 4" 'tweener' guard has trouble when defended by bigger foes (see Artest, Ron). Rip Hamilton, a gifted shooter, still looks like the child of Kate Moss and a cycled off Jason Giambi. Ben Wallace's shots have the backspin of a knuckle ball, and Tayshaun Prince, with the game on the line, has the tendency to trip over his own rubbery arms. (Snarling Pistons fans will remark that their X factor scorer happens to be a rookie who plays for the Nuggets). This need for an X factor is critical in the playoffs when the game slows down, and possessions are at a premium. Last year's conference finals against the Nets saw the Pistons blowing two close games by having the walking shampoo ad known as Mehmet Okur take the shots with the game on the line.

Coach Larry Brown needs to face the facts: history shows that a dominant defense can't cover for this lack of X. The Pat Riley teams of the 1990s, the Knicks and the Heat, modeled themselves after the thuggish, Bad Boy Pistons, but never got over the hump because they never had that X factor. The Knicks had Ewing, but it was John Starks who was 2-17 in their game seven melt down in the 1994 finals against the Rockets, and aging Point Guard Derek Harper was the Knicks MVP in that series. Riley's Heat had the swagger but his best player Alonzo Mourning would pass out of the post with playoff games on the line, once dishing to the legendary Clarence Weatherspoon when the heat turned up.

The Pistons have one person who is a mismatch for any defensive player and has a sweet shot, but is a question mark on every other level: Rasheed Wallace. Unfortunately, sensing the stage seems to go against every basketball instinct in Wallace's body. Most people assume that just because Rasheed treats officials like Donald Rumsfeld would treat a baby seal, he must be a team cancer. But he is beloved around the league by coaches and teammates for deferring shots to other players. In college at UNC he doffed his cap toward Jerry Stackhouse at crunch time; at Portland, everyone from JR Rider to Zach Randolph, to Tommy Chong, took the big shots before Rasheed. His philosophy of 'take one and pass' made him popular among team mates and is causing him to fit in seamlessly with the Pistons, yet this will be the team's undoing if Rasheed doesn't recognize a basic fact: he has the skills to score on any player in the league from any position on the floor. He is stronger than Garnett, jumps higher than Duncan, and is a better shooter than Webber. And by the way, unlike Shaq, Sheed also makes his free throws.

This is rarely said about the modern athlete, but Rasheed Wallace needs to be more selfish. Unless his claims his place among the game's elite, the Pistons will sputter toward the finish line.

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