Grant Hill never lived up to Isiah Thomas' achievements in Detroit, but he'll be a Hall of Famer nonetheless

Grant Hill never quite lived up to the immense expectations that came with being the superstar talent who just happened to land in Detroit on the heels of the most successful superstar talent in franchise history, Isiah Thomas. Several factors, including less than competent personnel moves, declining fan interest after the Bad Boys golden age and — not least of all — teal jerseys, Hill’s Pistons tenure, despite its brilliance, is an easy to ignore period in franchise history. In fact, because the team was able to build a championship contender almost immediately after he left, even Hill’s free agent defection is a relatively minor footnote in team history. Players of his caliber who leave teams in free agency are typically vilified as the franchise they moved on from is left in ruins. Because of the Pistons 2004 championship, as well as pretty universal sympathy from everyone who follows basketball because of his devastating injury problems, Hill didn’t even really return to Detroit on visiting teams as a major villain as so many stars in the free agency/forced trades era have.

Despite, at times, toiling away on teams off the national radar, and despite the devastating injuries, Hill will someday give the Pistons another Hall of Famer. Though his peak years were short, they were extremely good — he was one of the league’s top players for a four(ish) year period. He was an All-Star, All-NBA player, Rookie of the Year, Olympian … the list goes on. And remember, the Naismith Hall of Fame is not just for NBA accomplishments. It’s for basketball accomplishments. Hill’s college career at Duke was legendary in itself and will be part of his case for enshrinement.

Hill’s teal era is undoubtedly one of my favorites as a fan of the Pistons. Not because the basketball was particularly good — it often wasn’t and was occasionally unwatchable (though not unwatchable by the standards of today’s Pistons). The team was having an identity crisis. They were, for some reason, trying to ‘re-brand’ and move away from their storied and successful past with quite possibly the worst logo and color scheme redesign in the history of pro sports. They had a legitimately good 1-2 combination in Hill and Allan Houston, but the two players reportedly weren’t that fond of each other and Houston quickly bolted to the Knicks as a free agent. The Pistons continually tried to make sure Hill was happy, and made a variety of roster moves to bring in players who never quite performed around Hill the way those running the team envisioned they would. It was all insanely frustrating to watch as a fan, but still fascinating.

Because of my affinity for this particular era, Dan Feldman asked me if I’d like to write a post about Hill and his Pistons career after Hill announced his retirement over the weekend. I’ve already actually written about Hill at length in the book I wrote in 2011, so I’m just going to re-publish that chapter below (and if you like what you read, the book is available through Amazon).

Grant Hill, model superstar … everywhere except for in Detroit

Isiah Thomas retired in 1994. The Pistons’ Dennis Rodman-for-Sean Elliott trade, which was supposed to give the team the transitional All-Star it needed as it rebuilt post-Bad Boys, was a colossal failure. Joe Dumars, the lone holdover from the Bad Boys era, was a nice, well-respected player who simply didn’t have the dominant game or personality to be a franchise player. With apologies to Lance Blanks and Fennis Dembo, the Pistons’ run of playoff success also cost them the opportunity to add young talent through the draft since the team was picking late every year. So when Grant Hill, a polished, superstar-ready, marketable talent fell into the lap of the Pistons at No. 3 in the 1994 NBA Draft, he couldn’t have come at a better time for a franchise whose future prospects looked pretty dismal prior to Hill’s arrival.

Despite Hill’s fantastic production during his Pistons career, the team never succeeded in building a competent roster around him and fans in Detroit never seemed to fully appreciate how great a talent Hill was when he was here. To put it simply, Hill was too perfect to succeed in Detroit.

Spoiled by the Bad Boys

In the 1980s, Detroit fans got to watch a team come together piece-by-piece, share in the agony of getting close but not close enough to a title, finally breaking through in back-to-back seasons, then watched the team decline, age and get dismantled. It was so easy to feel connected to that team because we watched everything it went through to get where it did — Pistons fans grew up and became winners with that team. Detroit had never seen consistent, winning pro basketball before that era. But because their journey was so compelling, it’s easy to overlook that they had an insanely deep roster of really good players who were acquired and developed over time using the draft, free agency and trades.

Thomas might not have been everyone’s favorite player during that run, but it’s doubtful you’d find many Pistons fans who wouldn’t call him the most important player to the team. He was their star, a guy who had more signature moments than anyone on the team. He was vital to the team’s success, of course, but like many star players, his heroics, his big moments, sometimes overshadowed the fact that he had really good teammates who helped put him in position to become such an iconic player. Consider this: during Detroit’s three trips to the Finals, Thomas had three teammates (Adrian Dantley, Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman) who, like him, are Hall of Famers. He had another (Bill Laimbeer) who has a legit and underrated case for Hall of Fame inclusion and another who is one of the greatest sixth men of all-time (Vinnie Johnson). He also was coached by a Hall of Fame coach (Chuck Daly).

Why do I bring up the greatness of Isiah’s teammates? Simply to compare to the shittiness of Grant Hill’s. Hill had to live in the shadow of Thomas during his Pistons career. Making All-Star or All-NBA teams was nice, but the true measure of a superstar basketball player in Detroit will forever be tied to how many championships they win because Thomas is the model. Thomas made All-Star teams, All-NBA teams AND won titles. Hill would be expected to do the same and, unfortunately, was often held to that expectation without the benefit of ever having the caliber of supporting talent that Isiah had.

These were Hill’s best teammates in Detroit:

  • Dumars, who was noticeably in decline. He averaged 18 points per game during Hill’s rookie season, then 12, 13, 15 and 11 during his final four seasons.
  • Lindsey Hunter, who never shot better than 43 percent or averaged more than 14 points per game playing with Hill. Hunter could defend, but he never had a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) higher than a not so good 13.9 playing with Hill).
  • Allan Houston’s career started slowly, he never got along with Hill particularly well, he had only one good season in Detroit, then left as a free agent.
  • Terry Mills had two seasons of averaging better than 15 points per game with Hill. As more of a stretch four than a true power forward, though, he also averaged more than four 3-point attempts per game in two seasons.
  • Otis Thorpe was acquired to give Detroit an inside presence during Hill’s second season in the league. He was solid for the two seasons he played with Hill, averaging about 14 points and 8 rebounds per game. Unfortunately, he was also 33-years-old when the Pistons traded for him.
  • Jerry Stackhouse played two seasons with Hill. In one of those two seasons, Stackhouse had one of the worst shooting years of his career, shooting 37 percent from the field.

We could delve into the merits of Negele Knight, Mark West or Don Reid if you’d like, but suffice it to say, Hill didn’t play with a single All-Star-caliber teammate during his career in Detroit, let alone a Hall of Fame-worthy one.

And unlike Thomas, who had constant whispers follow him that he helped get teammates he didn’t want to play with out of Detroit, Hill always remained steadfastly positive (some would say annoyingly positive) about the seeming lack of an organizational plan to add talent during his Pistons career. It would’ve been nice to see Hill use his clout a little more to put pressure on what at the time was a stagnant, directionless organization.

Hill was an unselfish, great player with the Pistons. He was an All-Star each season he was in Detroit. He improved, and despite the goofy roster that often surrounded him, he led the Pistons to four playoff appearances. Twice, his Pistons teams stretched a first round series to five games (remember, this was before the seven game first round series in the NBA) and nearly made the second round. Three times, Hill led the Pistons in scoring, rebounding and assists in the same season (only Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor did that more than once). But despite Hill’s exemplary body of work on the court, despite the Pistons never having a competent front office or good talent evaluators during the Hill era, the fact that Hill never led a Pistons team that came reasonably close to contention made his Detroit tenure a mostly forgettable one.

More appeal outside Detroit than in?

Hill was one of the league’s most popular players in the 1990s. He had a fantastic college career at Duke at the height of the program’s success, so he was already an established star prior to entering the NBA. He was voted into the All-Star Game as a starter all six seasons in Detroit, including leading all players in votes as a rookie, the first-ever rookie to do so. Hill, as an intelligent and popular player, also became a pitch-man, endorsing shoes, soft drinks and other products in national ads. He was so popular that he was one of a parade of stars billed as ‘The Next Michael Jordan.’ Here’s what the Hoops Doctors wrote about Hill in their ‘Nextology’ series that looked at all of the players who were dubbed as possible heirs to Air:

So why was the media so quick to announce that Grant Hill was “The Next Jordan”? Simple: Marketability. Grant Hill was smart both on and off the court, he was well-groomed, good looking, and was perceived as “a good guy”. It was a time when the NBA needed to improve their image to one of a more family oriented game with broader appeal. Grant Hill was the guy the media and the league both loved, and he was certainly a guy that sponsors and Corporate America could stand behind. And all of this reminded the world of only one other basketball player who had been able to do all that and more from a marketing stand point. Michael Jordan.

So, even with all of this popularity, why did Detroit fans seem so bored by Hill? Despite the appeal of Hill on a league-wide scale (he was actually a bigger ‘star’ in the marketing/celebrity sense than Thomas, who was not very well-liked as a player outside of Detroit), the team never drew well at the Palace of Auburn Hills with Hill as the focal point. Superstar players generally sell tickets, even on teams that aren’t great, but the Pistons only drew more than 20,000 fans in a season once during Hill’s six years with the team.

Two factors were largely out of Hill’s control. As documented above, he didn’t have the benefit of long playoff runs in Detroit to help him establish his identity as a superstar during the postseason. He was also the victim of the most unconscionable marketing decision ever, the team switching to a teal/gold/brick red color scheme and flaming horsey logo that robbed the Hill-era Pistons of their connection to the previous era. Blame the Charlotte Hornets and San Jose Sharks. They started the theory that cartoonish animal logo + teal = through the roof sales of Starter pullover winter jackets. Don’t get me wrong, I still bought the Hill teal jersey (and later the alternate red one) and Pistons Starter coat as soon as they went on sale. I wanted desperately to believe in and support Grant Hill. But let’s just say the switch in logo and color scheme didn’t vault the Pistons to the top of merch sales the way team leadership must’ve thought it would.

The biggest issue with Hill, though, and his inability to have the fan support in Detroit matching his star power outside of Detroit was simply his personality. Hill was really nice. The Bad Boys marketed themselves very successfully because, frankly, they were dicks (and I mean that in a positive, loving way). They had a very well-known and established brand. The poor behavior of some of our favorite players became endearing here, so much so that Hill was viewed as flawed for not having that same type of Bad Boys persona. Hill gradually stopped smiling on the court so often. He started more demonstrably directing teammates. He grew a goatee and furrowed his brow sometimes. All of it seemed a bit forced on the naturally nice Hill.

The sad thing is, it’s not like Hill lacked leadership. He wasn’t a Thomas or Laimbeer style, in-your-face guy. He wasn’t going to punch a teammate. That didn’t mean Hill lacked passion. It certainly didn’t mean he didn’t care as much about winning (his Duke career and the fact that he returned to school for his senior year show just how much he loved winning). He was just a different kind of leader than we’d been used to as Pistons fans. Because we watched the Bad Boys grow, saw their struggles, saw their occasional in-fighting and saw their passion manifest itself as an outward display of aggression, physicality and sometimes dirty tactics, we became conditioned to believe that there is one way to achieve basketball success here: their way. ‘Their way’ became our way. Just not Hill’s way.

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