NBA experts polled recently said they still count the Pistons as one of the league's elite teams -- even without Ben Wallace -- but they expect a less intimidating, more offensively oriented, evolving team to emerge next season.
Though some agree Detroit still has a chance to win a title, it's not an odds-on favorite anymore.
"I definitely think they're one of the best teams in the East," said Pat Cassidy, editor of Dime Magazine, which chronicles the NBA lifestyle. The magazine put Detroit eighth in the league in a power ranking released last week. "But suddenly, they're not quite the same. ... They seemed invincible. And I'm talking in past tense, but this was just last year."
Last season the Pistons won 64 regular-season games, more than any other team. They then fell apart in the second round of the playoffs and couldn't recover even after advancing to the Eastern Conference finals. Then Wallace took the money to play in Chicago.
Now, with center Nazr Mohammed and guard Flip Murray added to the mix, the Pistons prepare for a season in flux. They will surely lose some of their defensive prowess without Wallace, a four-time defensive player of the year, the experts say.
What they become instead remains to be seen.
"They're still an elite team," said Steve Kerr, a TNT analyst and former NBA player. "But there will be a hangover effect from this year. They had a great regular season and were so dominant, and then it ended so abruptly. That's a major psychological blow. Then they lose their best defender, a guy who defines their team. So I think they'll go through an adjustment period. They're really changing their identity."
But that doesn't mean they're down for the count. Kerr and Cassidy both ranked the Pistons with their new lineup near the top of the Eastern Conference, saying they expect the Pistons' offense to jell eventually and improve even over last season's increased output of 91.7 points per game.
Some of that will come from Mohammed, who -- though not an offensive record-setter -- at least offers more scoring opportunities than his predecessor.
But Mohammed's increased offense doesn't quite make up for Wallace's defensive dominance, the pundits said.
"Nazr Mohammed is serviceable," Cassidy said. "But he's not Ben Wallace."
One writer went a step further last week. FoxSport.com's Charley Rosen called Mohammed an "excellent third-string center." Ouch.
Murray is heralded as the Pistons' answer to their lack of bench scoring, and the experts agreed he adds important athleticism and depth to their reserves. Cassidy and Kerr both see Murray as an important building block, a key in the new more offensively centered Pistons lineup.
"With Flip in the mix, he can get you 20 any given night," Cassidy said. "That will go a long way for them, and they could get a little more up and down. They're still a very good team, especially with the East what it is. There's a lot of mediocre teams."
But Rosen called Murray a "strictly one-dimensional player who must shoot 50% to justify his defenseless playing time."
The experts agreed that the Pistons' competition will come from the obvious places. The Miami Heat, after winning the title last season, will start the season with the highest expectations. The Bulls, with Wallace anchoring their frontline, will emerge as more than just a bottom-rung playoff team.
And the Cavaliers can't be counted out. "With LeBron (James) there, he can win a series by himself," Cassidy said. "But they also have some things to address."
No elite team in the East will have to find a new identity quite like the Pistons, though.
"I can see them going small, playing Rasheed at the five and Tay at the four," Kerr said of Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince. "But across the board, they have speed and quickness, and they should score more points. They could be much better offensively."
SIGNED, SEALED: The Pistons gave rookie point guard Will Blalock a two-year contract Monday, a coup for a player picked No. 60 overall in June's draft. The first year of the deal is guaranteed, with the second a team option.
NBA NOTEBOOK: As expected, Indiana point guard Anthony Johnson was traded to Dallas for point guard Darrell Armstrong, forward Josh Powell and former Oakland University swingman Rawle Marshall. ... Toronto signed forward Jorge Garbajosa of Spain to a multiyear contract. ... Guard John Salmons signed a multiyear contract with Sacramento after four seasons with Philadelphia.
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