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Injuries Force Pistons to Speed Up Rebuilding Plans

Nov 9, 2009 – 9:40 PM
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Matt Watson

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Tayshaun Prince and Rip HamiltonUntil last week, the last time the Detroit Pistons played a game in which neither Rip Hamilton or Tayshaun Prince started was the 2001-02 season -- when Prince was a senior at Kentucky and Hamilton still coming into his own playing alongside Michael Jordan in Washington.

Needless to say, adapting to life without those two mainstays -- Hamilton suffered a high ankle sprain in the season opener, and Prince joined him on the trainer's table with a back injury two games later -- has been an unexpected hurdle for first-year head coach John Kuester, who's now tasked with helping a starting lineup featuring four new additions to the team develop chemistry.

The Pistons haven't offered an official prognosis for either player, but given that Hamilton is still wearing a walking boot 11 days after originally suffering the injury, it seems likely his continued absence will be measured in weeks, not days.

Fortunately, Ben Gordon (24.0 points per game), Rodney Stuckey (16.0) and Will Bynum (11.0) have helped shoulder the scoring load, although the offense has become noticeably more one-on-one oriented without Hamilton's trademark ability to move without the ball.

On average, NBA players are assisted on 55.6% of their made shots -- and Hamilton was assisted on 70.2% of his makes last season. But more often than not, Gordon (assisted on just 41.5% of his buckets through seven games this year), Stuckey (26.2%), and Bynum (14.8%) create their own shots by taking their man off the dribble. There's nothing inherently wrong with that style of play, but less ball movement obviously makes it more difficult for the rest of the players on the floor to get going.

Rodney Stuckey, John Kuester and Will Bynum While high ankle sprains can take a long time to heal, Hamilton should be as good as new one he does finally return. Unfortunately, the same is not certain about Prince, who's sidelined indefinitely with a ruptured disk in his back.

Back injuries are always scary, but what makes Prince's ailment especially worrisome is the fact that it looks like it may be a recurring condition. Although he didn't miss a single game in 2008-09, he played through soreness in his back late in the year, which contributed to his absolutely abysmal showing on both ends of the court in Detroit's embarrassing first-round sweep at the hands of the Cavs.

Is last year's soreness related to this year's ruptured disk? It seems plausible, especially given the wear and tear Prince's rail-thin frame has absorbed over the years, which featured an iron-man streak of not missing a single game over six full seasons, not to mention 118 playoff games and two summers playing with Team USA.

The Pistons haven't publicly admitted a connection, but it's possible Joe Dumars suspected Prince might have a chronic condition when he drafted three small forwards (Austin Daye, DaJuan Summers and Jonas Jerebko) in June. It's unclear how long Prince will remain sidelined, but if simple rest and rehabilitation doesn't provide relief, surgery is a possibility. Either way, his return is likely several weeks, if not months, away.

In Prince's absence, Jerebko and Daye, the 39th and 15th overall picks, respectively, have played the bulk of the team's minutes at small forward, with Jerebko starting the last four games and Daye coming off the bench. While they lack experience, they have no shortage of confidence -- if you recall, they each served a one-game suspension in the season opener after separate incidents with opposing veterans in the preseason.

"Jonas, you see him get those extra possessions ... things that can change the momentum of a basketball game," Kuester said after Sunday's win over the 76ers. "Both of those guys are not afraid to mix it up. You think Austin's going to get broken in half, but this kid, he's mentally tough and physically he'll take the challenge."

On Sunday, the duo combined for 17 points and five rebounds. Summers, the 35th overall pick, has appeared in only one game so far, but that's primarily because the Pistons are already playing with a nine- or 10-man rotation on most nights.

There were already questions about whether the Pistons would be able to make the playoffs before Hamilton and Prince went down, so it will be crucial for this team to at least tread water in their absence if they're going to make a postseason push. So far, they've been able to do so, splitting their last four games, including a pair of contests with the Orlando Magic, while sitting 3-4 on the season.

Follow NBA FanHouse With so many new players still learning how to play together (and rookies learning how to play in the NBA), inconsistency remains a huge problem -- both from night-to-night as well as quarter-to-quarter. But regardless of the situation, Kuester is encouraged by the fact that his players never stop competing -- no matter who's healthy enough to take the floor.

"We had been in control of the game [on Sunday] pretty much the entire time and then all of a sudden [Philadelphia] took the lead," Kuester said, "and probably for certain guys it would be gloom and doom, but this team is sort of figuring it out that, hey, they're never out of anything."

As a result, the Pistons rode a 16-6 run to close the game, earning the actual victory as well as the moral one, and prompting Kuester to quote his college coach after the game. "Dean Smith always said something that was very important and stuck with me. He said, 'It's always better to win and learn from your mistakes than lose and learn from your mistakes.'"

• Will Bynum's left eye, which was accidentally poked by Marcin Gortat on Nov. 3, is still noticeably red, but he said after Sunday's game that it doesn't affect him on the court -- only when the team goes on the road. "It feels OK, [except] when we get on planes -- the air pressure can get pretty painful," he said. "But, I'm getting better."

Bynum did admit to being scared for a few moments after the injury, in part because he's already had two surgeries on the eye -- one for Lasik, and another for a detached retina two summers ago. Just don't expect him to start wearing goggles -- he said he tried a pair on but wasn't happy with the reduced peripheral vision. The vision helped Bynum find his teammates on Sunday; he finished with a season-high eight assists to go along with a career-high eight rebounds.

• Speaking of rebounds, Ben Wallace's surprising revival continues: he tallied 16 boards in 30 minutes on Sunday. It's the most rebounds he's had in a game since Feb. 12, 2008 with the Bulls -- a span of nearly 21 months. Ben Gordon, a teammate of Wallace's in Chicago, thinks Wallace is simply more comfortable at the Palace.

"It seems like he's at home here in Detroit," Gordon said. "Playing for those last two teams the last two years, he never really seemed like he was at home. Big Ben is definitely at home here -- he plays with energy, he seems like he's rejuvenated."
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