Cohen: Acceptable Model or Pure Accident?

By Josh Cohen
December 26, 2013

ORLANDO -- It was nearly a decade ago that the Detroit Pistons accomplished something that had never been done before and has since not been duplicated. They architected a championship-roster without obtaining a legitimate top five NBA talent that season.

It’s quite shocking, actually. The Pistons of 03-04 are the only team to capture an NBA title without carrying a surefire future Hall of Famer. They found a way to rise to the top despite the odds against them. They had exceptional balance, chemistry and leadership. They were poised and resilient.

Also fascinating is that Detroit’s core from that season were all acquired via trades and free agent signings. The Pistons acquired Ben Wallace in a trade in 2000; signed Chauncey Billups and landed Richard Hamilton in a trade in 2002 and obtained Rasheed Wallace in a trade-deadline deal in that championship season.

But the point of this article is not to reflect back on that Pistons team or explain how and why they achieved so much success. Rather, the purpose is to evaluate whether Detroit’s winning model from that season is a helpful message to current rebuilding teams or is more of a tease and a malfunction.

In many cases, teams tend to try and cover up an absent superstar with a collection of reputable names. Today’s Pistons are actually a great example. Though they hope a burgeoning talent like Andre Drummond will evolve into a superstar, acquiring Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings was a tactical approach to conceal something that is missing.

Because there are generally only a handful of players (maybe two handfuls) that can lead a team to a championship each season, most teams are incapable of winning it all. There just simply aren’t enough upper-echelon players to go around.

So what is the resolution? What can a front office do to try and win a title if there is no A+ talent left on the market? Should the 03-04 Pistons model be applied?

The rational response is NO. It almost always results in disappointment and regret. Countless teams through the years have tried to replicate what Detroit accomplished and it has led to failure.

When you look at every championship team since 1980 you notice a common trend. Just about all these teams featured a future Hall of Famer that was drafted by that same team or was signed as a free agent at a very specific time in their careers.

Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki own 32 of the 34 NBA titles that have been claimed since 1980 and were all drafted by the franchises they earned rings with. In most of those years, those aforementioned players were the best players on their teams and were all top five in the league at the time.

Julius Erving, Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James were signed as free agents by the team they eventually won titles with and were also top five players in the NBA when they won.

So what does this explain?

It expounds on the reality that teams probably shouldn’t rely on mixing and matching to try and become legitimate championship contenders. The Pistons of 03-04 are the exception to the rule. They defied enormous odds and managed to have tremendous success without obtaining a superstar, particularly through the draft.

It’s imperative for teams to remain patient and realize that you can’t throw a hail mary into the end zone and expect a touchdown.

Of course luck is involved. Would the Spurs be marveled at if they hadn’t won the draft lottery in 1997 and landed Duncan? Would the Bulls have the same history if the Blazers selected Jordan instead of Sam Bowie in the 1984 Draft? What if LeBron James stayed in Cleveland rather than bolt for South Beach?

It’s important to learn from history and realize there is a proper formula to success. Those 03-04 Pistons will dispute that notion. But until there is more proof, it’s hard to understand their point of view.

Yet, if you glance around the NBA, it seems that more and more teams are hoping to become the “next” franchise to convince me and anyone else with my philosophy that Detroit’s triumph was no accident.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by Josh Cohen are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.