The world’s best basketball team plays in Auburn Hills.

Roshan Reddy

I’ll say it just four games into the season.

You see, the Pistons – despite winning the 2004 NBA Finals and making it back to the championship round last year – might actually be better than ever this time around.

Sure, the Pistons’ season is young, but if you’ve seen any of their contests so far, you’ve probably noticed some changes. Changes, believe it or not, for the better.

This isn’t Larry Brown’s team anymore. The Pistons’ nomadic former coach is mired on the bench in New York, where he’s enjoying his “dream job” at the helm of the hapless 0-4 Knicks while working alongside former Bad Boy and current bad front-office executive Isiah Thomas. In Brown’s old spot is Flip Saunders, who is everything his predecessor wasn’t.

Flip has transformed this team’s personality. While the players remain largely the same, they’re actually – gasp! – putting the ball in the basket at an above-average pace. The Pistons rank fifth in the league in scoring, averaging over 102 points per game. That’s nearly 10 points better than last season’s average. Not exactly ugly basketball anymore.

The defense has remained predictably stellar. The Pistons rank second in defense, allowing just 85 a tilt. The newfound offense and the smothering defense have already combined to produce some serious blowouts. Tuesday night’s road win over the Sacramento King’s was the team’s first in ARCO Arena since 1996. The Pistons aren’t treading water or sinking from their place among the NBA’s elite. Instead, they’re moving forward.

Saunders is a (relatively) younger, more dynamic players’ coach who refrains from ruling with Brown’s iron fist. He’s an offensive-minded student of the game who’s never tried to play the slow-it-down, grind-it-out, overwhelmingly defensive style that characterizes Brown’s teams.

As a matter of fact, the chief complaint from the squad’s critics over the past few years has been that watching a Pistons game ranked somewhere between studying for final exams and eating dorm food on the fun scale. But these detractors – and I know plenty of students who fall into this category – have no reason to whine anymore.

I don’t mean to take anything away from Brown. He’s clearly an excellent coach, and he probably possesses the best X’s and O’s mind in all of basketball. The Pistons might very well not have their diamond-encrusted world championship rings without him.

But something tells me that Saunders is a better fit for this year’s team than Brown would’ve been. Brown has a reputation for molding young players into seasoned veterans and pushing teams over the hump. That’s just what the Pistons needed when the team hired Brown in 2003. Now that the players – most of whom have played together for several years – have extended postseason experience, leadership abilities and exceptional chemistry, the laid-back Saunders has become the other half of a match made in heaven.

Joe Dumars, the team’s president of basketball operations, has continued to further his reputation with a near-spotless record of shrewd and well-timed moves. Acquiring swingman Maurice Evans, a bit player on last year’s Kings, has already paid immediate dividends. When I heard about the signing a couple months ago, I didn’t expect Evans to bring much to the table. Let’s face it: A player who averages six points and three rebounds with an unrecognizable name isn’t usually something to get excited about. But through the season’s first week, he’s scoring more points per game than Rasheed Wallace, and he’s providing energy, effort and stiff defense off the bench. That’s more than you can say about the Miami Heat, a team that underwent a severe face-lift in the offseason. Coach Stan Van Gundy’s group now resembles something completely different – and markedly less cohesive – than last year’s team that took the Pistons to Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals.

When I started following the Pistons closely in the early- to mid-1990s, I didn’t have much to cheer about. Olden Polynice, Gerald Glass, Isaiah Morris and Mark Macon aren’t exactly remembered as NBA greats. I inherited a team in the rebuilding stages after back-to-back championships, and even the arrival of superstar Grant Hill couldn’t push the Pistons past the first round of the playoffs. Suffice it to say that, when the team I love finally won the championship, I – along with all Pistons fans – had plenty of reason to celebrate. You can bet I’ll be riding this wave for all it’s worth.

So the next time you out-of-staters start to get annoyed with the Pistons fans you know, or happen to be standing next to at the bar, or hear on TV or sports talk radio, try not to label them obnoxious or arrogant. After all, most college students around the country say exactly the same thing about Michigan football fans. Consider the possibility that the team they support might actually be worth watching.

I sure think it is.

Gabe Edelson can be reached at gedelson@umich.edu.

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