I had forgotten what 2004 felt like until watching this year’s Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Playoffs.
Meaningful basketball hasn’t been played in Detroit in a few years now, and with the team still a work in progress that is likely not close to returning to championship contention any time soon, it’s easy to forget just how amazing it was to watch the Pistons at their peak in the 2000s, particularly their improbable run to the championship in 2004.
When Dallas beat Miami in this year’s Finals, the Mavs seemingly picked up bandwagon fans all over the country not because they all suddenly realized how good Dirk Nowitzki has been all these years and wanted to cheer him on as he captured that elusive title, but because they hated LeBron James and wanted to see him lose. But I don’t hate LeBron James. Actually, I hope he does win a championship or three at some point in his career. He’s one of the most uniquely talented individuals to ever play the game, and as a basketball fan, I generally root for guys as talented as he is to figure things out and achieve their full potential. I don’t think it’s particularly funny to see people fail to accomplish their goals and I certainly don’t understand how people can revel in it. On-court success for LeBron James is ultimately good for the league as a whole.
My Dallas fandom had nothing to do with the Heat and everything to do with the Pistons. Dallas advancing, round after round, just strangely felt more surreal with each step the Mavs took and yet also like destiny at the same time, like we should’ve been paying attention to this possibility all along. That’s exactly how I felt in 2004 with each step closer to a title the Pistons got.
The obvious connection between the teams is Rick Carlisle. Carlisle, of course, wasn’t coaching the Pistons in 2004, but as Dan Feldman pointed out, his coaching and personality molded that team into contenders before Larry Brown took over. The similarities, however, are not simply about styles of play, although the noticeable commonality between the two teams was the hard-nosed, physical defense they played.
In the first round against Portland, a team that many in the media predicted would beat Dallas, Portland used a 35-15 fourth quarter advantage to erase what looked like an insurmountable lead, win the game and tie the series 2-2. It was the kind of crushing defeat that can quickly spiral into two or three defeats in a row. Except it didn’t, the Mavs confidently bounced back and won the next two games to advance to round two.
In the second round in 2004, the Pistons were playing New Jersey, a team that had been to two straight NBA Finals and swept Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals the previous season. Despite a miraculous shot by Chauncey Billups in a triple overtime game five, the Pistons lost and fell behind 3-2 in the series. The Nets had a chance to close it out at home in game six. They didn’t, of course. The Pistons won the next two games of the series, quietly and confidently bouncing back from a loss that would’ve been devastating to less mentally tough teams.
In the Western Conference Finals this season, the Mavs faced a young and talented Oklahoma City team that gave the eventual champion Lakers an incredibly tough series in the first round last year. The Thunder worked their way to the conference finals this season and, despite their youth, seemed capable of advancing to the Finals, eschewing the several years of progression it typically takes teams to go from barely in the playoffs to title contender. The Mavs, who most believed had a championship window that closed a few seasons back, proved the Thunder aren’t ready and won the series in five.
In the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals, the Pistons faced an up and coming Indiana Pacers team that played defense, had young All-Star caliber players in Jermaine O’Neal, Ron Artest and (pre-injuries) Jamaal Tinsley. They also still had Reggie Miller, one of the best clutch performers in playoffs history. The Pacers were really good, and despite the fact that they were relatively new to “contender” status, they were viewed as capable of beating a Detroit team that, although good, was really looked at as a patchwork group of vets who play defense. The Pacers, at the time, probably appeared to be the team better positioned for long-term dominance at the top of the conference. The Pistons won in six.
We all know the story with the Mavs in the Finals. The Heat were assembled to win championships. Their top three is unquestionably better than any top three in the league. The Mavs have a superstar talent in Dirk Nowitzki, but he’s not an attention-grabbing, marketing superstar. The rest of the roster is full of end-of-the-line veterans and very good role players. The Mavs won games by playing efficient offensively with solid defense. The Heat won games with flash, with speed, with athleticism and by having superior talent. The Heat sold jerseys. Few thought the Mavs had any chance of winning this series. The Mavs simply played the way they’ve played the entire season — confident, efficient and tough. Their confidence never rattled. The fact that they were so unflappable severely rattled the Heat. At different times in the series, all of the Heat big three appeared to lack confidence, to pass up shots they normally take, to be unsure of when to attack and when to defer.
If it sounds familiar, it is. The 2004 Pistons did the exact same thing to the Lakers, a star-studded team that everyone expected to win another title. Kobe Bryant shot horribly in four of the five games. The Lakers role players — a collection cobbled together, much like this year’s Heat, around the Shaq-Kobe duo, hoping those two could propel mediocre supporting talent to one last title — were non-existent. Bryant, bothered by suffocating perimeter defense, became unsure of when to create for himself or when to involve teammates more.
When it was over, when the beating was delivered, it was like everyone who had been predicting a Lakers blowout momentarily woke up. “Hey! Basketball is a team game! Toughness, defense and execution matter! You can’t just throw every Tom, Dick and Mike Bibby out there next to a star and expect to win!” The Pistons reaffirmed some foundational elements of basketball that often get lost in the shuffle, and the Mavs are having that same effect now. As we saw with the Pistons, it was only a fleeting thing. The team fell just short in 2005 and never made it back to the Finals. Now, they’re looked at as more of a fluke than a revolution in basketball ideals.
It remains to be seen what becomes of the Mavs. Their old at some key positions. They have some key free agency decisions to make. Although having Mark Cuban’s money and competitiveness is always nice, the Mavs don’t have the luxury of building through the draft since they pick late every year. While that Pistons team was just starting its run, the Mavs got their title towards the end of their run of really good basketball.
But for me, this was the most rewarding NBA Finals not involving the Pistons that I’ve ever watched as a basketball fan. The Mavs were fun for all the reasons the 2004 Pistons were memorable. If they made any impression on the league, particularly on Detroit’s decision-makers, I hope they reaffirmed some things.
Joe Dumars famously blew up his core group of players because he was worried they’d get too old and their window to contend for titles would slam shut. Contrast that with Cuban. Despite calls for years for him to do something drastic like trade Nowitzki because of the team falling short in the playoffs, he remained patient. He continued to add complimentary pieces. He was meticulous in coaching hires, grooming Avery Johnson for the job for two years on Don Nelson’s staff, the hiring the best available candidate in Rick Carlisle to replace Johnson. He resisted the urge to change the culture that he believed in.
More importantly, the Mavs reaffirmed that the traits it takes to win in this league are still the same: toughness, intelligence, defense, efficiency, not necessarily in that order. There is no need to ever waver from those principles. Players of many different styles come and go all the time, but the foundation of winning NBA basketball is the same in this era as it ever was. Hopefully, after experimenting with more finesse/offensive-minded players the last few years, the Pistons get back to realizing they had the right formula all along.