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DETROIT - The Detroit Pistons seem to be slipping from great to good, leading to questions about a nucleus that has been kept together since winning a title in 2004 and a coach that had a tough act to follow.

Detroit dropped out of the playoffs on the road in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals for the second straight year after consecutive trips to the NBA finals.

"The season's a failure," Rasheed Wallace said after the Cleveland Cavaliers eliminated Detroit with a 98-82 win Saturday night.

Wallace's teammates and the rest of the franchise would probably agree with his blunt assessment.

The Pistons earned top seeding in the Eastern Conference playoffs for the second straight year and seemed to be rolling with a 7-0 start, matching a franchise record.

Then, they lost two of the last three games against the Chicago Bulls in the second round and collapsed against the Cavs, blowing a 2-0 lead in the conference finals for just the third time in NBA history.

"I don't really care about that," Chauncey Billups said. "I'm just mad we lost four straight games to a team that I felt wasn't better than us.

"But obviously, they were better than us this week."

Next year, the up-and-coming Cavs and Bulls will likely improve.

To keep up with their Central Division rivals, the Pistons might be forced to shake up a roster that has had a lot of success. Wallace, Billups, Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince created the kind of continuity rarely seen in professional sports.

The Pistons won a championship, fell just short of repeating, and advanced to the conference finals five straight years - a streak trailing only one team over the past 20-plus years.

"I think its unbelievable," New Jersey Nets coach Lawrence Frank said during this postseason. "They've had three different coaches. Their core has stayed together for the most part. They lost (Ben) Wallace, but it is such a tremendous credit to that organization to be at such a high level year in and year out."

But Pistons president of basketball operations Joe Dumars was unhappy about the way the season unraveled in the playoffs, and he's an executive with a history of making bold moves.

Dumars fired Rick Carlisle after two successful seasons and bought out Larry Brown following two straight trips to the NBA finals.

Coach Flip Saunders set a franchise record by winning 117 games in his first two regular seasons, beating Brown's mark by nine games and Carlisle's by 17. But the Pistons fell short of expectations and their goals in both of their postseasons with a coach that struggled in the playoffs with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

"He's in a tough situation," Billups said. "Could he have done some things differently? Probably so. Could I? Yeah. So could Sheed and Tay and go down the line. It's unfair to point the finger at one person."

Billups was the NBA finals MVP three years ago and an All-Star in each of the next two seasons, but his lackluster play in the conference finals the last two years was tough for the team to overcome.

"I played as hard as I could, but I didn't play that great," he said after averaging 15.3 points, 3.5 assists and 3.8 turnovers against the Cavs. "I'm sure some other guys in this locker room could say the same thing."

Billups, who will be one of the NBA's top free agents this summer, wants to return to Detroit if its offer is competitive with other offers.

"Everyone knows I love this team, this town, being a Piston," he said. "I really grew up here, made a name for myself: All-Star, champion, MVP. We'll see how it works out."

Dumars will also have to decide if he wants to re-sign free agent Chris Webber, who hinted that retirement might be an option.

"I don't want to be in a situation where I'm just going through the motions, letting everything be said about me," said the 34-year-old center, whose skills and health have diminished in recent years.

The Pistons have a young player, forward Jason Maxiell, on the verge of contributing consistently, and they have a chance to add more youth with the 15th and 27th overall picks in the draft later this month.

While significant change seems to be certain, Billups said a few more great years are possible if the nucleus is kept together.

"We're definitely an elite ballclub," he insisted. "It's just crazy how thin of a line it is from being one of the best teams in the league to people looking at you like, 'They're done.' I'll still take my chances with anybody in this league in a series."


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