Some teams are simply destined to be champions. The 2004 Detroit Pistons were one of them.
They didn’t win with luck. They didn’t win because the competition was inferior. They sure as hell didn’t win because they were the most talented. The reason the ‘Going To Work’ Detroit Pistons were able to convincingly rout a Lakers squad full of Hall of Famers and shock the world was actually a combination of all of those factors and more. Leading up to their championship run one decade ago this month, the Pistons needed everything to go their way and somehow, that’s exactly what happened.
A decade removed from Motown’s last NBA title, in which they defeated a Lakers squad bursting at the seams with Hall of Famers, the only plausible explanation is this: the blueprint was already created for a rag tag bunch of guys who loved playing together, but never received a brunt of the notoriety.
Whether they recognized it or not, the Pistons didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. They had already created it 15 years earlier.
Ten years back, the NBA was almost completely different. Amidst a season were LeBron and Carmelo duked it out for Rookie Of The Year, the MVP reigned in Minnesota and Oklahoma City didn’t even have a franchise, the landscape of the league was in somewhat of a transitional phase.
Instead of super teams being led by young superstars, favored squads like the Lakers and Timberwolves were helmed by aging veterans, some of whom were on their last leg and trying to pool their dried up resources for a greater good. Indiana had the best regular season record and possibly the deepest team, but faulty leadership and mismatched personalities would prove too difficult to overcome down the stretch. From the East to the West, each conference was full of talented teams with regional stars, but most were either past their prime or not quite experienced enough to take the next step as a franchise.
The Pistons, on the other hand, had slowly been climbing their way up the latter for three or four years, crawling towards the top with gritty team play and feared defense. Yet, after losing to superior Eastern Conference foes like the Nets and Boston for numerous years, the purveyors of The Palace headed into their would-be championship season with a chip on their shoulder the size of Michigan’s upper peninsula.
The Pistons franchise had been rather mundane ever since the Bad Boys dynasty ended at the beginning of the ’90s. The only thing the Pistons had done since the glory years was draft Grant Hill, who never took the team beyond the first round of the playoffs and eventually made the franchise trade him to the Orlando Magic in 2000. Still, despite the forced hand, that trade triggered the tipping point for their would-be return to the top four years later, by bringing an unappreciated and undersized center named Ben Wallace to the Motor City.
Although Dumars had apparently originally wanted Bo Outlaw instead, the man who would eventually bring back the afro came into his own almost immediately in Detroit. Under coach Rick Carlisle’s defensive-minded schemes, Wallace quickly turned the paint into a no fly-zone and became one of the NBA’s brightest defensive stars.
Yet Big Ben wasn’t the only unheralded player to make a surprising splash upon diving into Detroit. When Rip Hamilton was traded to the Pistons in 2002, it was for the face of their franchise, Jerry Stackhouse, which made everyone reluctant. Plus, Rip was really only known for his role in the 1999 UConn NCAA Championship team, since much of his early NBA career was overshadowed by playing alongside Michael Jordan in Washington. Yet, his Road Runner-esque game eventually fit perfectly with Detroit’s go-hard mindset.
Tayshaun Prince also came to the team in 2002 – drafted 23rd out of Kentucky (he chose number 22 to represent every team that passed him up) – yet didn’t blossom until 2003. Thanks to a bold roster move by Coach Carlisle, he excelled against Orlando in a revitalizing upset that made Tracy McGrady eat his words.
Then, there’s Mr. Big Shot, Chauncey Billups. After playing on five different teams in three years, the free-agent signee and former number three draft pick (behind Tim Duncan and Keith Van Horn in 1997) had become a nomad of sorts, which allowed him to settle in perfectly as the floor general of a Pistons squad comprised of cast-offs.
With that calloused nucleus and two full seasons to gel, the Pistons seemed primed to rebound back from a tough loss in the 2003 Eastern Conference Finals to Jason Kidd and the Nets, where they entered as a top seed and exited in an embarrassing sweep. Yet, knowing full well what a determined core can do, Dumars got his executive on before the 2004 season and shook things up a bit.
Despite bringing the team out of its rut and seeing only winning records, Coach Carlisle was surprisingly axed, in favor of rebellious 76ers coach and Hall of Famer, Larry Brown. The move immediately gave Detroit more soul. Brown wasn’t the second coming of Chuck Daly with debonair suits and near perfect hair. Similar to Daly, however, he connected with his tattered team and brought them together like never before.
As the 2004 season progressed, Motown’s basketball franchise quickly became the talk of town. The former cast-offs had become local stars, embodying the blue collar nature of Detroit and embracing the love they received as a result. By the time Joe Dumars somehow finagled Rasheed Wallace and Mike James from Atlanta for Chucky Atkins, Bobby Sura and Zeljko Rebraca at the trade deadline, the attendance at the Palace Of Auburn Hills was at an all-time high and the move only fueled the franchise further.
Much like the Bad Boys Pistons team fifteen years earlier, it was never about one man shouldering the load. Teamwork was the recipe for success. No player on the team averaged more than Rip’s 17.6 The only All-Star in 2004 was Ben Wallace, much like how Dumars represented the lone Piston to receive the honor during Detroit’s run to close out the ’80s and kick start the ’90s.
In fact, the only teams since Detroit’s first title in ’89 to include only one All-Star were: ’89 Pistons (Dumars), 1994 Rockets (Hakeem Olajuwon), 2003 Spurs (Tim Duncan) and 2004 Pistons (Wallace).
At one point, the team was gelling so well, they held five straight opponents to under 70 points. That’s an NBA record and also a string of games that was so brutal to watch, only a Detroit fan or strict NBA purist could appreciate them. When the New Jersey Nets finally broke the streak with a last-second lay-up to get them to 71, the ‘White Mamba’ Brian Scalabrine actually stood up from the bench and applauded – despite the fact they were still losing by nearly twenty. The sheer disrespect the Pistons’ defense had for other teams was eventually one of the main reasons they would go all the way.
When the playoffs came, Detroit was primed as ever and made quick work of Michael Redd’s Milwaukee Bucks. The second round however, proved to be their toughest in the postseason, pitting them in a rematch against their rivaled Nets. Yet, after seven back and fourth bouts that saw the home team victorious in each of the first six games, the Pistons spanked Jersey in Game 7 and essentially proved to themselves they could overcome any obstacle in their path.
Considering Reggie Miller and the favored Pacers were up next, the adamantium approach served Brown’s squad well. After a tough Game 1 loss, Detroit was about to upset Indy at home, when Chauncey slipped up and almost let Reggie Miller steal a crucial victory. Yet, in well-oiled operations, when one arm lacks the other picks up the slack.
That’s exactly what happened when Tayshaun Prince teleported to out of nowhere and somehow blocked an uncontested lay-up from Miller that would’ve tied the game with one possession left. From there, the momentum pretty much shifted altogether. To the surprise of everyone but those in the Motor City, Detroit went on to win the series 4-2 and move to their first NBA Finals since defeating the Trail Blazers in 1990.
Somewhat surprisingly at the time, their unwavering swagger remained, even as the underdog Pistons were pitted against an unbelievably hyped Lakers – a team built around four Hall of Famers in Shaquille O’ Neal, Kobe Bryant, Gary Payton and Karl Malone, who were rightfully favored by nearly every media outlet on the planet. Still, despite the cache of their opponents, Detroit’s no nonsense mentality on and off the court proved to be too much for the Lakers in the end.
The Pistons’ dominance of Kobe’s crew was evident immediately, as they won Game 1 easily in LA and then trounced them by 20 again for Game 3. By the time they were back in The Mitten for Game 4, Los Angeles was no longer the favorite and Detroit had the upper hand. When they finally sealed the deal with another lopsided victory in Game 5, the Lakers looked deflated and the Pistons looked ready to play another series. Instead, they took a step back, realized their glory and showered the Palace locker room with champagne.
Chauncey Billups was named Finals MVP posting averages of 21 points, 3.2 rebounds and 5.2 assists on 51-47-92 shooting splits. “Mr. Big Shot’s” honor marked the first time since Dumars in 1989 the award was given to a player who was not named an All-Star the same season.
By forcefully exiting out the league’s hottest commodity, the scrappy Detroit Pistons completely caught David Stern’s superstar-centric league off-guard and showed fans there are other ways to win championships. Although today’s league is talented as ever, it thrives on super squads, while small market teams can’t re-sign their stars and falter as a result. The 2004 Pistons proved spending boatloads of money on big names isn’t always a clear path to success.
More importantly, that leather-tough Detroit team and their hard hat approach proved a combination of teamwork, guts, luck and determination can allow the little guy to come out on top – even if only for one brief moment in time.