R.I.P. Pistons (2002-2009)
In case some of you were worried about not having anything to talk about over the weekend, I wanted to assure you all that I did not come down with swine flu. After following Gilbert Arenas and Flip Saunders the past month, a brother just needed a break.
Nothing new to update on the Washington Wizards, but I happened to watch the former team of the current Wizards' coach on Sunday and it was quite depressing. It's bad enough that the Pistons had their worst regular season in more than eight years, but it was more disconcerting watching that once proud team simply roll over against the Cleveland Cavaliers. There is no shame in losing to an obviously superior Cleveland team, but in getting swept in a 99-78 whimper on Sunday, the Pistons didn't even bother to muster the energy to wave a white flag. Even worse, they watched Cavaliers fans take over the Palace of Auburn Hills and serenade LeBron James with humiliating chants of "MVP! MVP!"
Tayshaun Prince's eyes appeared to be watering as he watched the final seconds click down. He understood what was happening. Detroit wasn't just losing a game or a series. After reaching the conference finals six consecutive years, winning one championship and making two trips to the NBA Finals, the Pistons, as we once knew them, are done. Bad Boys Part II to just plain bad.
The anti-superstar, five-fingers-forming-one-fist movement is officially over.
From 2002-09, the Pistons gave us DeeeTroit Basketball, raucous sellout crowds, Ben Wallace's unkempt Afro, Chauncey B-b-b-billups and his big shots, "Gauransheed" Wallace and his gaudy championship belt, masked man Richard Hamilton running around screens, elastic armed Tayshaun Prince chasing down Reggie Miller and Larry Brown showing how to "play the right way."
Through that amazing run, the Pistons were able to withstand a few coaching changes and the departure of Ben Wallace, the former 'fro of the franchise. But trading Billups to Denver for Allen Iverson was like the removal of that final Jenga block that brought the whole wooden tower down. Now Joe Dumars is facing the difficult task of taking the team on a new, uncomfortable course.
Rasheed Wallace probably played his final game in Detroit as a member of the Pistons. His contract and the one belonging to Iverson are coming off the books this summer, leaving the Pistons about $17 million in cap space to start rebuilding in a hurry. Dumars will also have to consider blowing up the whole thing and dealing Prince and/or Rip Hamilton.
(If the Pistons are truly about to rebuild/reload, the Wizards should look long and hard into finding a way to bring Antonio McDyess to Washington. Miggedy-miggedy-Mac-Dyess is a bit up in age, but he is a solid, professional veteran and was the only guy who brought it every night against Cleveland. He'll be a free agent, and there is the obvious connection with Saunders and Wizards Vice President of Basketball Administration Tommy Sheppard, who worked with McDyess in Denver. McDyess was one of three forwards Ernie Grunfeld considered acquiring in the summer of 2004 -- Antawn Jamison and Al Harrington were the others -- before Gilbert Arenas suggested he go with Jamison).
ESPN's Chris Broussard wrote an excellent column about how it all crumbled this season, with Iverson providing no answers and first-year Coach Michael Curry unable to extort confidence from his veterans, most notably Hamilton (The story also had this interesting line about Flip Saunders: "Detroit's management had watched the players blatantly disrespect and curse out Saunders for years ...").
The Pistons semi-renaissance was largely the result of some former Wizards. And, while Dumars made the first bold move by plucking Ben Wallace in that sign-and-trade deal involving Grant Hill in 2000, the Pistons didn't become perennial conference finalists until the Wizards shipped Hamilton to Detroit in exchange for Jerry Stackhouse in the September 2002. They didn't win a championship until Dumars swindled Rasheed Wallace from Atlanta. In between, the Pistons also drafted Prince and signed Billups, building an Eastern Conference fixture.
Drafting Darko Milicic instead of Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will stand out as the most glaring Blunder that Dumars made (I use a capital B because it was that huge). But playing devil's advocate here, if Milicic hadn't turned into a major, major project (um, bust), Dumars may not have felt the need to trade for Rasheed Wallace in February 2004, the move that put the Pistons over the hump.
If the Pistons hadn't taken Milicic, they likely would've selected Bosh over Anthony and Wade, given their need for frontline frontcourt talent. But Bosh wasn't going to lead the Pistons to a championship his rookie season, and he's still struggling to get Toronto out of the first round. Rasheed Wallace, however, came at the perfect time in his career. He was in his prime, healthy, a free-agent-to-be and playing with a Liberty Bell-sized chip on his shoulder.
Those three straight Eastern Conference finals exits under Saunders exposed Detroit's lack of a superstar and the difficulty of winning a title without one. And the Pistons surely would've captured a star in 2003 draft. But it's a tough thing to consider: Would you trade in a guaranteed championship ring and several years of being good for the hope of several years of being good and a championship or two some day?
I think most will take the ring.
But to me, the reason Detroit was unable to win another championship wasn't necessarily because it lacked a marquee superstar, but more because of complacency, arrogance and an over-inflated sense of accomplishment. After winning the title in 2004, the Pistons didn't display that same hunger that drove them to dismantle the Los Angeles Lakers in that NBA Finals upset. And it showed during some playoff moments (Rasheed Wallace leaving Robert Horry wide open; the Dwyane Wade and LeBron James explosions) when they let down their guard and expected that championship swagger to just kick in.
Unfortunately for them, it never did. And with an uncertain future ahead, it never will for that group. But the memories were great, to say the least.
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