Chevette to Corvette No. 3: The 2003-04 Detroit Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 54-28
  • Pythagorean record: 59-23
  • Offensive Rating: 102.0 (18th of 29)
  • Defensive Rating: 95.4 (2nd of 29)
  • Arena: Palace of Auburn Hills
  • Head coach: Larry Brown

Playoffs

  • Beat the Milwaukee Bucks in first round, 4-1
  • Beat the New Jersey Nets in Eastern Conference Semifinals, 4-3
  • Beat the Indiana Pacers in Eastern Conference Finals, 4-2
  • Beat the Los Angeles Lakers in NBA Finals, 4-1

Leaders

Top player

Ben Wallace

Wallace was voted into the All-Star Game as a starter and won his second straight Defensive Player of the Year award in 2004. Wallace shot the ball poorly (42 percent), but new Pistons coach Larry Brown began to actually involve Wallace in the offense more. Wallace averaged a then-career high 9.5 points per game. He would best that the following season under Brown as well.

Wallace’s touches didn’t always result in great possessions for the Pistons, but involving Wallace on offense often had an impact on the game. In 2006 under Flip Saunders, Saunders’ offense frequently ignored Wallace, causing Wallace to feel left out and sometimes affecting the energy level he played with. Brown’s reasoning seemed to be that even a bad offensive possession from Wallace was a good result if it caused Wallace’s intensity level to remain constant at both ends of the court.

Key transaction

Traded Zeljko Rebraca, Bob Sura and a first round pick to Atlanta for Rasheed Wallace; Traded Chucky Atkins and Lindsey Hunter to Boston for Mike James

The rebuilding Hawks only wanted veteran Rasheed Wallace, who they acquired from Portland, because of his expiring contract, so they gladly shipped him to Detroit for the Sura/Rebraca expiring deals and a first round pick. Wallace was Joe Dumars’ second high risk/high reward move to pay off just before winning the 2004 title. He parted ways with successful coach Rick Carlisle and replaced him with the talented but unstable Larry Brown and then just before the trading deadline, he added the talented but unstable Rasheed Wallace.

Wallace and Brown, both UNC alums, got along together great and Brown still might be the only coach Wallace ever had in the NBA who understood what buttons to push with ‘Sheed and when to push them. Wallace gave brown the best defensive frontcourt in basketball as he and Ben Wallace combined to swallow up anyone who got near the basket (they combined to average 5 blocks per game after the trade). And Detroit gave ‘Sheed a stable, veteran environment with no pressure on him to be the face of the team.

Much like the Lakers trade of Kwame Brown and the draft rights to Marc Gasol for Pau Gasol, this is a trade that looks slightly better with age. Both deals at the time were incredibly uneven, but Marc Gasol turned into a stud and the Hawks used the late first round pick acquired from the Pistons to take Josh Smith, who has developed into an All-Star. But making this move gave the Pistons the defense, depth and momentum needed to win a championship, so it was a win even if it would’ve been nice to have the chance to take Smith in the draft.

Trend watch

Unreal defense

Beginning March 4, 2004, the Pistons played one of the best stretches of defensive basketball in recent NBA history. The team held eight straight opponents under 80 points. The first four opponents in that stretch failed to score 70 points. The Pistons were simply suffocating. Their wing players were physical and adept and funneling their men into the lane at poor angles to get shots off over the Wallaces. Defensive subs like Lindsey Hunter and Mike James relentlessly pressured the ball when they came in. Larry Brown loved using energy guys like Darvin Ham and Tremaine Fowlkes as situational perimeter defenders as well. And big men like Elden Campbell and Mehmet Okur, while not as solid defensively as the starters, could still hold position, rebound and play with toughness on D. This season’s Pistons were the most complete defensive unit we’ve seen in the last decade or so of NBA basketball.

Why this season ranks No. 3

This championship came out of nowhere. The Pistons had successfully built themselves into a contending team with shrewd moves. Joe Dumars had great success finding players who were undervalued elsewhere who excelled when their roles were expanded in Detroit. Larry Brown was exactly the right coach to mold this already good defensive team into a great defensive team and to teach Chauncey Billups to be a full-time, halfcourt point guard. Most fans probably expected the build into a championship contender to continue. But I don’t think anyone would honestly say they expected everything to come together as quickly as it did for the Pistons. What made this season truly amazing was the slow but steady realization that this team had everything needed to win a title. There are numerous iconic moments from 2004 that are worth remembering, but after the two plays below, it felt like a foregone conclusion that Detroit would win.

The Pistons didn’t even win the playoff game vs. New Jersey when Billups sunk a halfcourt shot to force overtime, but that play still made the team seem invincible:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tktEtiOQb2A&version=3&hl=en_US]

Losing a three overtime game at home to fall behind 3-2 in the series after hitting a shot like that should’ve been devastating. Instead, the Pistons just went out and won the next two games against a team that had been to two straight NBA Finals.

And in the Eastern Conference Finals, Tayshaun Prince provided the moment of his career by catching Reggie Miller:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lGYXuD1lwwk&version=3&hl=en_US]

(Doc Rivers’ commentary on that play is seriously fantastic too)

That block — Prince completely selling out to make a play — is the lasting symbol of the 2004 team. Subsequent teams were good, but none could quite match the level of passion, work, talent, toughness and commitment to a singular cause that we saw in the title run.

Previously

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Tags: Ben Wallace Richard Hamilton Tayshaun Prince

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