In the history of the NBA, there has seldom been a more sensational champion than the Detroit Pistons in 2004 – a team without a star, who outgrew themselves in the collective and dominated in the finals against exact counter-team, the Los Angeles Lakers, with almost perfect defense. For the 39th birthday of former Pistons player and NBA champion with that team, Tayshaun Prince, we look back at that special team
There are no guarantees in the NBA if you want to predict the outcome of a game or series. There are a few rules of thumb though. For example: “The team with the best player has the better cards.” This is the simplest way to explain LeBron James’ dominance in the East over the last decade.
The Pistons were 2-1 at that time and did not look back. With a score of 100:87 they ended the Lakers dynasty and made one of the biggest upsets of NBA history perfect – the whole thing hardly surprised them. “We have no fear of them!“, Rasheed Wallace had already announced before the series eloquently.
Chauncey Billups, who was voted finals MVP despite the lack of an All-Star nomination, came to the conclusion after the fifth game: “They may have had the better individuals, but we always felt we were the better team.“
The whole is more than the sum of its parts – rarely did the old Aristotle wisdom (not Shaq!) fit so perfectly with the Pistons. And all started with a happy coincidence.
Joe Dumars faced a situation in the summer of 2000 that no NBA Personnel would want to experience: Grant Hill, the face of the franchise for years, became a free agent and wanted to leave. Not to go out empty-handed, the Pistons-GM did a sign-and-trade deal with the Magic, which sent Hill to Orlando.
Chucky Atkins was the player Dumars had been aiming for, as well as one whom the GM had only considered extra money. It was only later that he would realize that he had received a jackpot in the inconspicuous and undersized Center, Ben Wallace.
Wallace demonstrated in his first Pistons season with 13.2 rebounds and 2.3 blocks that he had previously missed only a real chance. However, Detroit won only 32 games and therefore coach George Irvine left the team – his successor was named Rick Carlisle.
In the next season, the shape curve already showed clearly upwards. Wallace became Defensive Player of the Year for the first time – and Detroit moved into the Conference Semifinals after 50 regular season wins. There was final stop against Boston, but the summer was again the inconspicuous major win. Once again, Detroit got some “undervalued” players: Mehmet Okur, a second-round pick from the previous year, was piloted from Europe to Detroit and surprised everyone there with his good shot and solid rebounding. No.23 pick Tayshaun Prince fell in the hands of the Pistons – and then there was Chauncey Billups.
The No.3 pick of 1997 had already played for four teams in five NBA years so far, but could not call up his potential in Boston, Toronto, Denver or Minnesota. He was considered a “journeyman”, so it was a surprise when Dumars offered him a six-year contract worth $35 million. Similar to Wallace, it should be worthwhile.
But Dumars did not keep his feet still. Among other things, he traded his topscorer of recent years, Jerry Stackhouse, to Washington – in return came, a narrow shooting guard to Detroit. In just one summer, Dumars had taken three of the five players in Prince, Billups and this guard, Richard Hamilton, who would form the starting five of the Pistons in the 2004 finals.
Former MMA fighter Milicic was not the hottest newcomer of the summer of 2003. Although there was much criticism back then, Rick Carlisle was replaced on the bench by Hall-of-Famer Larry Brown.
Play the right way!
Carlisle coached to 50 wins in each of his two years in Detroit and reached successively in the playoffs the second and third round. He was not lacking in references – but today’s Mavs coach is said to have had a difficult relationship with the owners of the team.
So, Brown came, who had ironically lost in the playoffs with his Sixers against Detroit. Despite the initial criticism, this commitment proved to be a wise move. Mr. “Play the right way” put the focus even more on defense and got his team to hold their opponents at a ridiculous 84.3 points per game.
Detroit’s games were not always worth seeing and their defensive dominance later even led to some rule changes to make basketball more open and entertaining. The Pistons of the 2003/2004 season lay down with 54 victories their best season since 1997.
By name, Rasheed Wallace actually barely fit into this sworn troop of sorted out. His talents were never doubted, unlike Billups, Wallace and, to a lesser extent, Hamilton. However, he had squeezed his market value with technical fouls and other escapades so much that Dumars suddenly had a huge opportunity in February.
The Pistons were strong before – but whether it would go against teams like the Timberwolves, Pacers, Spurs, Kings, or of course the Lakers in a series, was doubted. With a motivated Sheed, however, the bill would look different. So Dumars got creative again and steered Mr. “Ball do not lie!” in a 3-team trade to Motown, just 10 days after Wallace was sent to Atlanta by the Blazers. Now the Starting Five was finally complete.
What happened then is known. The Pistons prevailed in the playoffs against Milwaukee, New Jersey, Indiana, and the LakeShow, and surprisingly they had the biggest problems with the Nets. Even Jason Kidd and Co. could not stop the new “Bad Boys”. “