Pistons hope championship window is still open

DETROIT -- Coat hangers clanging in the Detroit Pistons' locker room provided just about the only sound shortly after the two-time defending Eastern Conference champions were dethroned by Miami.

The Pistons won a league-high and franchise-record 64 games during the regular season, had four All-Stars for the first time in franchise history, and were favored to win a title for the second time in three years.

"We said coming into this season that anything less than a championship, then it's been a wasted season for us," center Ben Wallace said. "So that's what we're looking at right now."

Detroit did, however, become the first NBA team since the Chicago Bulls of the early 1990s to make four straight conference finals appearances.

"We got to the [NBA] Finals twice, won it once," point guard Chauncey Billups said. "I think that is a great run."

The question is whether it is over.

Most players said it wasn't, but reserve Antonio McDyess isn't quite sure he will ever win a ring after falling just short in Game 7 at San Antonio last year -- and taking a step back by losing in the East finals against the improved Heat.

"My best chance came last year, and now it seems like it's faded away," said McDyess, who signed with the Pistons after they won the 2004 title.

President of basketball operations Joe Dumars built a unique championship-caliber team after taking over the team he used to play for in 2000. A sign-and-trade deal five years ago that brought Wallace to Detroit, and sent Grant Hill to the Orlando Magic, laid the foundation.

Now, Dumars has to decide whether to reinvest in him as an unrestricted free agent this summer.

"He is the Pistons," Billups said. "Hopefully, we come back and Ben Wallace is on our team."

When Ben Wallace won the Defensive Player of the Year award last month for the fourth time in five years, Dumars said the No. 1 priority for the offseason would be re-signing him.

The Pistons would likely be willing to give him a four-year deal, maybe five years if they had to, starting at $12 million-plus dollars to make him the highest-paid Piston.

Few teams have the salary cap room to pay Wallace more than the Pistons, but the Chicago Bulls could try to snag him away and keep him in the Central Division.

Wallace fired an agent and hired a new one, instead of representing himself as he once said was a possibility, sparking speculation that he will shop his services aggressively in what will be the most lucrative contract of his career.

"I'm pretty sure everybody knows where my heart is at," Wallace said in Miami after Game 6.

In Detroit, he was asked?

"It's in my chest," Wallace responded coyly.

For the first time in six years, Detroit might not return its top six players, but it would be stunning if Tayshaun Prince was not on the team in six months because he's perhaps the only starter not exempt from blame after the Heat series.

The lanky forward, who the Pistons drafted 23rd overall in 2002, averaged nearly 17 points in the playoffs. He led the team in scoring in five of the final nine games -- including a career playoff-high 29 points in Game 5 against Miami. Prince was also one of Detroit's top players on 'D for the fourth straight postseason.

The Pistons have most of their roster under contract for next season, and they might trade seldom-used reserve Carlos Delfino.

Kelvin Cato, who was acquired in February from Orlando along with a future No. 1 pick for Darko Milicic, the second pick in the 2003 draft, will provide salary-cap relief to help re-sign Ben Wallace or add a player to replace him.

Reserve guards Tony Delk, who can become a free agent, and Lindsey Hunter, who might retire, could be re-signed.

Detroit's starters -- Prince (312), Billups (305), Ben Wallace (303), Richard Hamilton (300) and Rasheed Wallace (293) -- have played more games during the past three regular seasons and postseasons than any other player.

"They've had a lot of big games and mental games, and it can wear you out as much mentally as physically," said coach Flip Saunders, the Pistons' third coach in four years.

Rasheed Wallace scored 29 points in Game 2 of the second round against the Cavs, and his right ankle buckled in Game 4 of the series. That's just about when the Pistons, not coincidentally, lost their "mojo" as Saunders said.

Rasheed Wallace could not provide his potent combination of 3-point shooting, low-post baskets and stellar defense after he was injured.

The Pistons followed his tailspin, averaging 107 points before he hurt his ankle and 82 points a game after he did.

Dumars refused to make fatigue or Rasheed Wallace's injury an excuse.

"First and foremost, Miami played great and they deserve to be in the NBA Finals," Dumars said. "We didn't play at the level we needed to play at, and they did. No excuses."