By Patrick Hayes
Detroit Free Press Special Writer
For better or worse, and sometimes reluctantly, Tayshaun Prince was whatever the Pistons needed him to be.
Because it’s fresh in everyone’s minds, it’s easy to remember how things ended for Prince in Detroit. Stuck in a losing situation as the players he won a championship were slowly subtracted from the roster in favor of younger (and let’s be honest, worse) players, Prince was the sometimes ornery veteran presence, the player suddenly thrust into a leadership role out of necessity who never quite looked entirely comfortable in that capacity despite his obvious knowledge of the game.
When you think of how Prince started his Pistons career, it’s easy to see why he was sometimes appeared uneasy (or downright annoyed) with the youthful mistakes of some of his teammates over the last three or four seasons. As a rookie, Prince found himself buried on the bench behind a player in Michael Curry who, statistically, was arguably the worst player in the league. He barely played during the regular season and only managed to get in in the playoffs that season when the Pistons were nearly knocked out of the first round by the lower seeded Orlando Magic.
We will always remember Prince for his famous block of Reggie Miller in the 2004 playoffs, but his 2003 performance was more impressive. Being tossed into the rotation in an impossible situation, an untested scrawny rookie became both a defensive stopper and a reliable offensive option on a team that was severely limited offensively. He saved Detroit’s season, helped the Pistons get to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first of six straight appearances there and laid claim to a starting spot for the foreseeable future, so much so that the Pistons passed on taking Carmelo Anthony in the 2003 NBA Draft simply because Prince’s playoff performance had the team sure they were set at small forward.
Prince took a small, desperation opportunity on a team full of veterans and busted through the door, earning minutes in an impossible situation and never looking back. He’s been a model of consistency ever since. When you contrast that with how some of the young players the Pistons have had in recent years have played, it’s easy to see how frustration could mount. The Pistons have featured several young players who have had opportunities to earn spots and they’ve responded with inconsistent play, on-court mistakes and occasional sulking.
Since 2009, it seems, the Pistons have been on a quest to find a replacement for Prince. That task shouldn’t be hard -- Prince, though solid, is hardly a star. It’s not asking a lot for a young player to simply out-play him, and yet despite a steady stream of young players taken in the draft and capable of playing the small forward spot -- Austin Daye, Jonas Jerebko, DaJuan Summers, Kyle Singler -- no one has been able to surpass Prince’s modest production enough to take his job.
In that context, it’s easy to sympathize with Prince. He earned his way into a lineup, he had a solid career for some great Pistons teams and he’s held off yearly attempts to find younger replacements by simply being the consistently decent, durable player he has always been. Not only did he hold off the ‘competition’ from those players, he was also asked to serve a sort of mentor role to the very players the team was hoping would replace him in the lineup.
He was also asked to be a primary option on offense when he’d spent his entire career being a fourth or fifth option. The results weren’t pretty -- no one enjoyed the ‘Isolayshaun’ offense -- but Prince did the best he could. He worked for good shots and he rarely turned the ball over.
With Prince leaving, many fans will rightly remember the highlights Prince provided during the years the Pistons were a contending team, but he deserves some respect for the lean years as well. If nothing else, we have him to thank for coining the ‘buffoonery’ phrase that has come to define this era of Pistons basketball. But beyond that, he did the best he could despite not being altogether comfortable as a No. 1 option or as a team leader. The results weren’t great, but that’s less Prince’s fault and more the fault of an organization that should’ve known his limitations well enough to not ask him to be those things in the first place.
Prince is at his best as a jack of all trades on a good team, and he’ll be a perfect fit for a talented Grizzlies team. He’ll get the chance to play meaningful playoff basketball this season for the first time in a long time, and that should give Pistons fans a reason to tune into the NBA Playoffs even if the Pistons themselves are not in them.