The 2004 Detroit Pistons weren’t supposed to beat my beloved Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. No way that a star-less, workman-like, no frills team like the Pistons could beat the star-studded, four-future-Hall-of-Fame-roster with a 9-time NBA coaching champion at the helm, right? Right. And I was more wrong than ever…
Some pundits even went as far to speculate that the 2003–2004 Lakers could compete for the best single-season record in NBA history. Yet, this is why championships are won on the hardwood and not in the newspaper. The 2003–2004 Pistons were ready for the challenge, even if the world didn’t know it.
Boy, did they win in emphatic fashion! Not only did the “Motor City” Pistons earn the right to kiss the silver-gilded and gold Larry O’Brien championship trophy, they nearly swept the Lakers 4–1 in a more-than-convincing manner. As I just recently finished watching their NBA Finals highlights on YouTube, an interesting concept sprouted in my imagination — what if I was in charge of building a start-up team?How would I construct a team that was built to win despite the odds?
Let’s examine the starting lineup of this Pistons team and compare how it would apply to a potent, talented workforce that would glamorized teamwork over star power.
Point Guard — Chauncey Billups
“The Journeyman Leader”
As the third overall pick of the 1997 NBA Draft, the storied Boston Celtics franchise believed that they landed on the player who would lead Beantown back to championship glory. However, his time would not last long as he was traded to the Toronto Raptors and to subsequent teams in the following years. NBA executives and analysts were unable to label his true position on the court and because of his draft position, chatter was ongoing about Billups being a “bust” — a player that failed to live up to draft expectations. Eventually, with his sixth team in six years, he was able to rewrite the history books and arguably orchestrated the biggest upset in sports history as an All-Star, Finals MVP and NBA champion in 2004.
The journeyman endured many trials, tribulations, self-doubt and criticism on his ascent to the mountaintop. His unique route gave him the conviction and faith that overcoming these challenges were the key to Success’s closed doors. His collective experience and failures laid the foundation for leading his team through the improbable. I mean, you don’t get the moniker of “Mr. Big Shot” for not being clutch, do you?
Shooting Guard — Richard “Rip” Hamilton
“Mr. Perpetual Motion”
The masked, mid-range assassin from Coatesville, Pennsylvania always found a way to get open on offense. If you have ever witnessed Hall of Famer Reggie Miller run around single and double screens to find a slither of space to shoot, then you can imagine Rip Hamilton’s route to three All-Star appearances and a championship with the Detroit Pistons.
He never stopped moving. He honed his craft as a lethal, mid-range jump shooter with the range to extend competently to the three-point line. Over time, he developed capable, go-to moves off the dribble. His work ethic and his will to find his spots on the court fatigued his defenders. Whether they were running around to shadow Hamilton or they were absorbed into bone-crushing screens by the Wallaces, Elden Campbell or Mehmet Okur, the wiry player would be spry enough in the fourth quarter to continue his perpetual motion.
Small Forward — Tayshaun Prince
“The Defensive Condor”
In college, Tayshaun Prince developed a noteworthy reputation at the University of Kentucky for his defensive prowess. As a former SEC Player of the Year and All-American as a Wildcat, Prince was drafted late in the 1st round by the Pistons. In a seemingly perfect fit, he became a staple in the starting lineup during their championship run as their chief defensive perimeter stopper and the epitome of a dependable, team player. With his quiet, lead-by-example approach, he held the team together through his selflessness; he was the quintessential “glue guy” that every high-caliber team wanted and needed.
The Defensive Condor knew his role well and did not engage in the frivolity of ego and individuality within a team concept. He spread his wings and swallowed the defense whole with his pride, attention-to-detail and love for playing alongside his band of brothers.
Power Forward — Rasheed Wallace
“The Wild One”
On a fairly balanced NBA roster, Rasheed Wallace’s history can be viewed through the lens of technical fouls, hot-headedness and unmitigated intensity, but it can’t be debated that he was the missing cog to Detroit’s championship puzzle. As a savvy trade deadline acquisition, Philadelphia’s own Wallace showed his brotherly love for the organization by bringing an adept low post game, floor-spacing jump shot and more-than-capable defense paired with his interior teammate with the same surname, Ben Wallace. The “chemistry-killer” with the propensity to facetiously earn 375 technical fouls per season transformed into a special player with enough self-control to channel the focus necessary to win out in the brutal Eastern Conference and smack the self-imploding LA Lakers on its back for the franchise’s first NBA championship since the Bad Boy era of the late ‘80’s.
Center — Ben Wallace
Undrafted. Athlete at a private historically black college. Too small for his position. An add-in player in a one-sided trade. One of the best defensive players of his generation.
His fanfare-less arrival to stardom in Detroit “went from 0 to 100 real quick” (thanks Drake). Wallace delighted the fans of the Palace of Auburn Hills with his lunch pail mentality, underdog approach and “less talk, more work” approach. Individually, he blossomed almost overnight as he set career-highs in points, rebounds and blocks. Wallace’s sustained success led to multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards (4), various All-Star appearances (4), numerous All-NBA First Team nods (5) and a 2-time NBA rebounding crown during his time in the D. Indeed, it was an amazing era for a player that just needed a longer window of opportunity to show what he could do.
Wallace anchored a Pistons team (keyword “team”) that reigned victorious over a Lakers squad that was riddled with tension between their two superstars while sporting a questionable fit of players with varying motivations and egos. Therefore, the Pistons, a collection of players that served as the archetype of team basketball, defeated the antithesis of this very notion.
There is so much power in a team working together towards a common goal. The championship run of the 2004 Detroit Pistons seemed so unlikely because the conventional thought was that if you want to win big, you need to have a superstar(s) paired with complimentary players. However, the Pistons went to the NBA Finals in back-to-back seasons with a core that truly played in the blue-collar manner that the city espoused. Let’s not forget the outstanding leadership of Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown and player-turned-executive Joe Dumars at the helm of these championship-constructed; their visionary direction and ethos trickled-down to the players. If a group with diverse backgrounds, ethnicity, nationality, experience, skills, motives, competitiveness and beliefs can push these factors aside and opt-in to a more synergistic and harmonious nature, then it is highly possible for the improbable to eventually become… probable.