Over the next few weeks and months, you’re going to read a number of epitaphs about the Detroit Pistons as we’ve come to know them for the better part of the last decade. About how a core that led them to the top of the NBA will be nothing more than a fond memory in the history books by the time camp breaks on the 2009-10 season and the soon-to-be retooled roster makes its debut.
There will be fingers pointed, there will be players blamed, there will be possible solutions floated. Rasheed Wallace phoned it in. Allen Iverson quit on his teammates (again). Fire Michael Curry. Trade Rip Hamilton. Bring back Chauncey! All choruses of criticism we’ve already heard and will likely continue to hear.
GM Joe Dumars, who sits at the head of the franchise table and has had the luxury of feasting on winning seasons, a championship, and six consecutive runs to the Eastern Conference Finals, now finds his plate empty earlier than it has been in a long time. His team was the only team to be swept in the first round of the 2009 NBA Playoffs. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a proud franchise that’s now faced with another superstar, Mr. LeBron James, dominating its division like Michael Jordan did with the Chicago Bulls in the ’90s. (At this point, I’m putting the odds of LeBron bolting Cleveland at just 25% or less.)
But this column isn’t about LeBron or the severe hurting he and his Cavalier teammates put on the Pistons last week. Said hurting was, however, an emphatic slamming of the book shut on the Motown legacy that was in large part authored by Dumars, Wallace, Hamilton, Billups, Tayshaun Prince, and Ben Wallace. There were many actions and decisions that set the wheels in motion towards this day of reckoning for the Pistons, but the one thing that sticks out as I look back on the one-time success and current failure of this squad is how much the uniquely insular mindset of its core players impacted both the positives and negatives.
More on the end of the Detroit Pistons after the break…
Very few franchises these days stay led by a group as tightly knit as this one was for this many seasons. Be it coach or player, once this core opened their arms in welcome, beautiful things often happened. We saw that when Larry Brown came to town and when Antonio McDyess joined the Pistons a year after the title win in ’04 and became like the long-lost brother finally reunited with his family. When at their best, the camraderie of this team exemplified everything that’s good about the NBA. They had each other’s backs, they knew where each other would be on the court and when, and they carried a quiet, unshakeable, and, yes, sometimes arrogant confidence about themselves.
But when they tuned somebody out or outright denied them access into their inner circle, things could get ugly: see Flip Saunders’ dismissal as head coach, the shock at Billups’ trade and ensuing denial to welcome Iverson as one of their own with no strings attached, and the inability of Curry to get through to and resonate with guys like ‘Sheed and Hamilton during this disastrous season.
Whatever the line this core drew in the sand, if/when it was crossed there was usually no turning back despite the happy faces that were often worn for the media’s sake. They thought they knew better than the ones they disagreed with–I have to again go back to Flip Saunders, namely–and honestly, sometimes they probably did.
The special relationship shared within this great Pistons core helped them win countless battles most thought they’d lose, and took them to heights few thought them capable of reaching–most obviously, that stomping of the “mighty” Los Angeles Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals. They found common ground as the underdog, the guys nobody else wanted, the underachievers. And they reveled in the fact that their success often came under extenuating (and for their fans, nailbed-skin peeling) circumstances: “if it ain’t rough it ain’t right” became Hamilton’s mantra midway through this six-year run, a mantra that was clearly also subscribed to by his partners in crime.
And that worked, for awhile, until the rough waters finally started to drown them. For all their success, they blew chances at achieving true greatness: that Game 7 NBA Finals loss to the San Antonio Spurs in ’05, the Conference Finals loss to the Miami Heat in ’06, the Conference Finals loss to a then-beatable Cleveland team in ’07. Not to take anything away from any of those teams, but I maintain to this day that the Pistons are the ones who shot themselves in the foot and squandered away the wins they needed.
It was there for the taking. There should be at least one more championship from this era. But there aren’t, and on some level that’s okay. You can’t win ’em all. But…
So, now, a core that’s already been chipped away at will likely be fully imploded and its pieces swept away into other parts of the NBA machine. Sunday was Rasheed Wallace’s last game as a Piston (and it’s a shame he ended his Motown career by going 0-7 in 29
pathetic scoreless minutes). It’ll likely be McDyess’ Piston curtain call too; he deserves to latch on with a contender. Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince could both hear their names mentioned in trade talk this summer–I think at least one of them dons a new jersey next season.
And that’ll be that.
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