Requiem for the Detroit PistonsThe Detroit Pistons' championship contending window slid open six years ago when Rick Carlisle coached them to their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance since the Bad Boys' era and that window probably slammed shut on Friday when the Boston Celtics overcame a 70-60 fourth quarter deficit to beat the Pistons 89-81 in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals. Next year, the Boston Celtics figure to again be a serious contender, Cleveland’s revamped team will have had a full training camp together, the young Orlando Magic and Toronto Raptors will likely be even better than they were this season and rising squads in Philadelphia and Atlanta may be ready to make some postseason noise.
The path back to the Eastern Conference Finals will be more treacherous than ever for Detroit—and after three straight losses in that round of the playoffs it is likely that if the Pistons make it that far in 2009 they will do so with a roster and/or coaching staff that has been altered by team President Joe Dumars. Now is a good time to look back on what these Pistons have accomplished and talk a little bit about why they never quite became the dynasty that they acted like they were.
Before the 2002-03 season, the Pistons signed free agent point guard Chauncey Billups and traded for shooting guard Richard Hamilton, building the All-Star backcourt that would play such an integral role in the team’s success in the next half dozen seasons. Two seasons earlier, the Pistons acquired defensive stalwart/rebounding phenomenon Ben Wallace by trading Grant Hill to Orlando. Those three players were the cornerstones as Carlisle’s 2002-03 squad posted the best record in the Eastern Conference (50-32) and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals before being swept by the defending conference champion New Jersey Nets.
After that season, the Pistons replaced Carlisle with Larry Brown. Under his tutelage, The Pistons improved from 13th to third in the league in defensive field goal percentage. With the midseason acquisition of Rasheed Wallace and the emergence of second year forward Tayshaun Prince, the Pistons now had a starting lineup of five excellent defensive players who played unselfishly on offense. Former Sixth Man of the Year Corliss Williamson and future All-Star Mehmet Okur provided good depth. The Pistons improved to 54-28 and although that was only good enough for the second best record in the East they beat top seeded Indiana 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals to earn the right to play the star-studded but injury depleted L.A. Lakers in the NBA Finals. With Karl Malone hobbling, Gary Payton unable to stay in front of Billups or Hamilton on defense and looking completely lost in the Triangle Offense and Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant nearing the end of their partnership, the Pistons beat the Lakers in what was termed a "five game sweep."
Detroit’s top five players were 29 or younger, so it seemed like the Pistons could make a run at winning multiple titles. In 2004-05 the Pistons again won 54 games, finishing five games behind the East-leading Miami Heat, who they beat in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Pistons led the San Antonio Spurs 95-93 near the end of overtime in game five of the NBA Finals and were about to take a 3-2 series lead when Rasheed Wallace committed a terrible error, leaving Robert Horry wide open for the game-winning three pointer. The Pistons won game six but lost game seven. Coach Brown departed after that season and the Pistons let Ben Wallace sign with the Bulls as a free agent, believing that they could make up for his defensive presence and would be a better offensive team without him, particularly now that new Coach Flip Saunders would run a looser ship than Coach Brown did, implementing what some would later term the "liberation offense."
At first, these changes looked good as the Pistons raced to the best record in the NBA in 2005-06 (64-18). However, serious chinks in the Pistons’ armor became evident during the playoffs. After Detroit took a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals versus an inexperienced Cleveland team, the Cavaliers ripped off three straight wins and very nearly captured game six as well. The Cavs fell apart in a 79-61 game seven loss on the road but it was obvious that the Pistons were not the same team that had made it to the Finals for two consecutive years. Sure enough, the Miami Heat seized home court advantage with a 91-86 victory over Detroit in game one of the Eastern Conference Finals and the Heat eventually won the series in six games.
The mantra for the Pistons in 2006-07 was that they had worn themselves out by winning too many regular season games the previous year so this time they would simply use the regular season to get tuned up for the playoffs. Funny, but winning 72 and 69 games in back to back years did not tire out the Jordan/Pippen Chicago Bulls in 1996 and 1997 and the great Lakers and Celtics teams in the 1980s were able to win 60-plus games a year without flaming out in the postseason. The Pistons dropped to 53-29 but that was still good enough for the best record in the Eastern Conference. They once again took a 2-0 lead over the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals before losing three straight games. This time, the Cavaliers won game six to eliminate the Pistons.
The Pistons improved to 59-23 in 2007-08 but that was only good enough for second in the East behind the resurgent Celtics. Still, many people assumed that the experienced Pistons would be able to beat the Celtics in a seven games series, an impression that was only reinforced by Boston’s road woes in the first two rounds and the fact that both Atlanta and Cleveland extended the Celtics to seventh games. Frankly, I thought that such a superficial “analysis” ignored several technical reasons that Boston would win—rebounding, points in the paint and the tendency of the "liberation offense" to bog down in crucial moments: I predicted that Boston would eliminate Detroit in six games and that is of course exactly what happened, for the very reasons that I listed.
It is impressive that the Pistons have made it to the Eastern Conference Finals for six straight years but a resume of one championship, one other NBA Finals appearance and four losses in that round suggests "Atlanta Braves" more than it does dynasty. Keeping together a stable corps of outstanding veteran players is supposed to be a significant advantage come playoff time but in each of the past three seasons the Pistons have lost to teams that had much less collective playoff experience together than they did. What enabled the Pistons to have their initial championship level success and why have they not been able to duplicate it since then?
Great teams have an identity. The San Antonio Spurs are anchored around Tim Duncan’s presence in the paint at both ends of the court, stingy field goal percentage defense and the dribble penetration capabilities of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The Phil Jackson Lakers run the Triangle Offense, play better defense than people think and of course they have Kobe Bryant—as Charles Barkley says, it is nice to be able to detonate a nuclear weapon in the fourth quarter of a close game. The Mike Brown Cleveland Cavaliers rely on rebounding, team defense and the brilliance of LeBron James. The Boston Celtics play suffocating team defense and have three All-Star players who share the offensive load.
The Larry Brown Pistons were known as "The Defenders," as the cover of their 2005 playoff media guide declared. Brown is one of the greatest coaches in basketball history and, except for his brief and unfortunate tenure in New York, his teams have always been known for playing to their maximum potential. What are Flip Saunders’ Pistons most known for doing? Lacking focus, not playing up to their potential and taking off quarters, halves and sometimes complete games.
For a few years now, the Pistons have been living off of the defensive reputation that they built during Brown’s regime--and don’t tell me about their regular season statistics: as we saw in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals when LeBron James drove to the hoop at will—most notably in his epic game five performance--and in this year’s Eastern Conference Finals when the Celtics outscored the Pistons 206-130 in the paint, the Pistons do a poor job of defending the paint against elite playoff teams.
While James ran wild in the Eastern Conference Finals against the 2007 Pistons, truly elite defensive teams San Antonio and Boston held him down in the 2007 NBA Finals (.356 field goal shooting, 5.8 turnovers per game) and 2008 Eastern Conference Finals (.355 field goal shooting, 5.3 turnovers per game) respectively. Coach Brown instilled a defensive mindset in the Pistons and he made sure that there was no slippage in that department. Also, Ben Wallace’s presence as a shotblocker alongside Rasheed Wallace made it very, very difficult for teams to score in the paint against Detroit. Until the Suns lost to the Spurs in this year’s playoffs, the last three times that Shaquille O’Neal-led teams lost in the playoffs Ben Wallace anchored the opposing team’s defense (the 2004 Pistons beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals, the 2005 Pistons beat the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals and the 2007 Bulls swept the Heat in the first round of the playoffs). Ben Wallace’s game did not markedly drop off until this year and the Pistons have never adequately replaced him, so it certainly looks like the Pistons let him walk at least two years too soon.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:15 AM