November 21, 2011
Stripes Without Stars: 2004 Pistons were the NBA's most unlikely champions
When building a team to win an NBA championship, there seems to be a tried and tested and perfectly agreeable formula: 1 or 2 Superstars + 5 or 6 sturdy role players + 3 or 4 tough backups + intelligent coach. The management that helps stir up this combination behind the scenes and the professionalism of the support staff are a major factor, too, but the on-court performances ultimately depends on the player and the inspiration of their head coach.
Most, if not all, of the NBA championships (at least those in the post-merger era) have been won by teams that succeeded in following this formula. The Mavericks ('11), the Spurs ('04) and the Rockets ('94-'95) had 1 great superstar - Dirk, Duncan, Olajuwan - respectively, surrounded by a deep supporting cast. The Lakers of 2009-10 (Kobe, Gasol) and that of 2000-2002 (Shaq, Kobe) each had two legit All Stars on their way to the championship. The 2008 Celtics had the big three and Duncan had legit star help in his three other championships - Robinson, Tony Parker, Ginobili. Jordan, Pippen, and later Rodman won multiple rings, and of course, all of these teams had great role players too.
But there is one major example that bucks this trend, where a team won a championship without having any glittering superstars. Without having anyone with big names and bigger salaries. This team was the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons, who destroyed the formula to win the most unique championship of them all, and then continued to buck the trend for the next few years, as their previously-unheralded non-stars were finally given their due.
So here is the story of this unique team: You may or may not remember this, but the Eastern Conference, for the lack of a better word, were shite after Michael Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls in 1998. Between 99-2005, only 1 NBA title was won by the East, the 2004 Pistons. The balance of power only returned to the East when Shaq left the Lakers for Miami in 2005, and a little bit more when Garnett and Ray Allen joined the Celtics in 2007. The parity during the horrid 1999-2005 period was so awful that, more often than not, the Finals were always easy for the eventual champions from the West (Lakers or Spurs), whether it was against the Knicks, Pacers, 76ers, or Nets. This was a period when the best players in the Eastern or (Least-ern) conference all stars were Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, and Stephon Marbury, and Tracy McGrady, while the west had Shaq, Garnett, Duncan, Kobe, Webber, Malone, Payton, Kidd, Robinson, etc, etc. However, if All Star Game results are any real measure (they're not), than the East were mostly competitive in this period.
It was sometime in this period that the Detroit Pistons started their dominance over the weakened East, until there came a point that they were so dominant that they became the only team in the East that Western Conference teams were afraid of. From 2002-2008, the Pistons finished in the top three of the East.
Their resurgence began in 2001-02, when they finished as the best team of the season in the weak East despite having any all stars. Jerry Stackhouse, meh!. They were on the top of the East a year later again, and this time they had a bonafide all star: Ben Wallace - who, really, only got named to the team because the other 'best' big men in the entire conference were Jermaine O'Neal, Brad Miller, and Zydrnas Ilgauskas.
But that off-season was supposed to change it all. In one of the dumbest off-season trades ever, the Memphis Grizzlies traded their SECOND PICK for Otis Thorpe to the Pistons. But just when we thought that the dumbness couldn't be overtaken, the Pistons walked into the draft with the second pick in one of the greatest drafts in NBA history. It's 2003, and on the board are LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade, not to mention decent other players like Chris Kaman, Kirk Hinrich, David West, and Josh Howard. LeBron was a lock to go to Cleveland with the first pick. And who do the Pistons take at second place? A relatively unknown Center from Serbia & Montenegro named Darko Milicic. Yes, him, over Wade, Melo, or Bosh. Darko played less than five minutes a game that season, but also became the first member of his draft class to win an NBA championship thanks to his illustrious teammates.
If that championship at the end of the season hadn't been won, we would probably be talking about the Darko pick as one of THE WORST picks on NBA history. Which it is, but we're not, because the Pistons convinced us that, instead of a superstar, all they needed was a system.
And that system was starting to take shape. The Pistons, under the tutelage of the legendary coach Larry Brown, continued to dominate the weak East. Coach Brown is famous for two things: incredible defense, and making below average teams above average. That is exactly what he was doing with Detroit. Their starting lineup was an underwhelming group to say the least: Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace, and either Mehmet Okur or Elden Campbell at the power forward.
No championship material, this, but Brown and his Pistons weren't fazed. But mid-season, they made the real splash that took them from good go great: A three-team trade close to the deadline in February 2004 brought Rasheed Wallace to Detroit. Rasheed was no superstar himself, but he was, at that point, the biggest name in the team, and they had to give up nothing but draft picks and role players to get him.
The best part of Rasheed slipping into the Pistons starting five wasn't his contribution on court, it was how he seamlessly fit himself into a well-oiled machine. The starting lineup of the Pistons now was about to go into basketball lore, starring only one current All Star: Ben Wallace. These were the modest averages of these five players that season:
Chauncey Billups: 16.4 ppg, 5.9 apg
Richard Hamilton: 21.5 ppg.
Tayshaun Prince: 9.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg
Rasheed Wallace: 13.0 ppg, 7.8 rpg
Ben Wallace: 10.3 ppg, 14.3 rpg.
By traditional thinking, none of these players were worth big money, but take a look deeper, and you realise that together, they were priceless. Ben Wallace was the best defender in the league back then, winning four Defensive Player of the Year Awards in five years, and he was also mostly the league's leading rebounder. Most of the offense came from their backcourt of Billups and Hamilton, both good shooters and leaders. Tayshaun Prince was one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. And Rasheed, apart from an offensive post presence (but who drifted too often to the 3-pt line), was a great post defender and the team's emotional leader, giving them the edge and the belief that they good really defeat anybody.
This five was then backed up by defensive, team-oriented cogs to the system, like Corliss Williamson, Lindsey Hunter, Elden Campbell, and Mehmet Okur.
Like a lot of weak Eastern conference teams did back in those days, the Pistons reached the NBA Finals. Finishing third in the East, they easily disposed of the Bucks, and won emotional tough battles against the Nets and the Pacers.
But this season - and these finals - weren't supposed to be about them at all. This season was supposed to belong the the Lakers. Because LA had their own, even more eventful off-season, as they added Gary Payton and Karl Malone to join them and bolster their team with a total of four future NBA hall-of-famers. The hype with this Laker side was incredible. Look at that Pistons lineup again, and now look at the Laker lineup: Gary Payton, Kobe Bryant, Devean George (weak link), Karl Malone, and Shaquille O'Neal. This team had just won against sides like the Rockets, the Spurs, and the Timberwolves. This team had the world's greatest coach - Phil Jackson - at its helm.
Sure, they had their problems too - Shaq and Kobe hated each other, Karl Malone had a niggling injury, Gary Payton never accepted the triangle offense, and Kobe was playing with the distraction of a very serious rape case - but even with these issues, it seemed that the Finals were going to be an easy ride. The hard work was already done, the toughest battles already won. Walk in the park, right?
Over the coming weeks, the Pistons pulled off one of the biggest Finals upsets in NBA history, beating the Lakers by 4-1. Even the 1 Laker win came in Overtime after some incredible Kobe heroics. The Pistons dominated the entire series. It was no fluke, they were the better 'team', and one of the greatest 'teams' ever. They had been playing the same way all season, except that they cranked it up a little more in the Finals, and finally, people began to see the genius of the system. Five players on the court, all defending together with incredible intensity, and none of them worrying about who scores the points on the other, just as long as someone does it. Between Billups, Hamilton, Prince, and the 2 Wallaces, a team so unselfish and together, it was even difficult to choose one Finals MVP. It went to Billups for his leadership and clutch play, but really, it seemed that the Pistons didn't really care. The only silverware that mattered was the NBA trophy.
While a team opposite them argued and fought over who was to be their best player, Detroit showed what a team should be: a collection of players all doing what is necessary for the team, not for any one individual. That's why, without any superstar, they won a championship. The only other team to do it in a similar fashion - without the biggest stars - in the last 25 or so years? The '89 and '90 Pistons! Isiah Thomas might've been a legend, but even he didn't average too many points on that squad. The late 80s 'Bad Boys' Pistons were also low scoring and defensive: the 2004 version would've made them proud.
The following season, the Pistons finally got their individual due. Now, four of their five starters, apart from Prince, were named to the Eastern Conference All Star team. This squad continued to dominate the East and scare the West for the next few years. They came agonisingly close to winning another championship a year later in the 7th game of the Finals to the Spurs. One game played a little differently, and we would've been talking about back-to-back champions.
Slowly, the team began to suffer from an ugly break-up. Ben Wallace became a free agent and signed with the Bulls, only to lose his incredible defensive swagger. Billups was sent to Denver in exchange for Allen Iverson, an experiment that failed spectacularly for Detroit. Rasheed Wallace left a declining Pistons squad for the Celtics and went on to the Finals with them. Hamilton and Prince are still in a weak Pistons squad today: Prince is still starting but is defensively a shadow of his prime; Hamilton is seeing his numbers suffer and has seen his relationships with teammates and coaches suffer, too. And in case you're interested, Darko Milicic bounced around the league, from Orlando to Memphis to New York, and is finally settled into mediocrity at Minnesota.
The surge of Miami with Wade and Shaq, and then the coming together of the Boston Big Three put an end to Detroit's dominance of the East, but their legacy remains untouched. Here was a team that earned its stripes without any stars. Here was a team that didn't need an MVP, or an All Star starter, or a scoring leader, to win a championship. Watching the Pistons play back in those days was, depending on your mood, both a beautiful and a frustrating affair. Beautiful for their fans and for those who cherished hard work, teamwork, and defense; frustrating for those who wanted basketball to just be offense and highlights.
The 'championship formula' continues to work in today's NBA. That's why the Mavericks build around Nowitzki, why the Heat got the Wade/LeBron/Bosh triple threat, why the Thunder are basing their future around Durant and Westbrook, and the Knicks around Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire. The Bulls have their own MVP in Derrick Rose to bolster a team around.
But the 2004 Pistons have proved that, with the right mix of talent and selfless egos, a superstar isn't necessary for a ring. So much so that, those same 'non-stars', when looked from a different angle, are bigger superstars from their achievement than those who achieve the fame without deserving it.