The 1999-2000 season would continue the revolving door process. In the middle of the season, GM Rick Sund fired Alvin Gentry and replaced him with assistant coach George Irvine. The Pistons would finish one game over .500 at 42-40. The Pistons faced the Miami Heat in a first round playoff series that would begin the franchise’s lowest point since winning the NBA Championship in 1991. During Game Two, Grant Hill fractured the medial malleus on the inside of his left ankle and was done. The Heat swept the hapless Hill-less Pistons. In June, Joe Dumars would take over as president of basketball operations. His first acts of business were to keep Grant Hill and try to restore pride to a franchise no one seemed to care about.
Dumars could not convince Grant Hill to remain a Piston. The responsibility to save a franchise and had become too much for Hill, and he decided to join Tracy McGrady in Orlando with the Magic. Instead of simply letting Hill go, Joe completed a sign and trade deal to bring Ben Wallace and Chucky Atkins to Detroit. Dumars would use the 2000-01 season to retool the club for the future, by making moves to increase salary cap flexibility and gathering draft picks. Dumars made 21 roster moves during the season, including replacing Irvine with rookie head coach Rick Carlisle. Dumars would also approve the team uniform changes, scrapping the teal and burgundy for the traditional red, white, and blue colors and a new logo.
Cliff Robinson, Zeljko Rebraca, Jon Barry, and Damon Jones were adder to the roster before 2001-02 the season. Rick Carlisle would lead the team to a 50-32 record, an 18-game improvement, and the Central Division crown. The Pistons would defeat the Toronto Raptors before succumbing to the Boston Celtics in five games of the second round. The league would recognize the team’s success through various awards: Sixth Man of the Year (Corliss Williamson), Defensive Player of the Year (Ben Wallace), and Coach of the Year (Rick Carlisle).
The 2002-03 season dawned with a surprising sense of optimism. Dumars traded Jerry Stackhouse to the Washington Wizards for Richard Hamilton as part of a six-player deal, signed Mehmet Okur and Chauncey Billups, and drafted Tayshaun Prince. The team would respond with another 50-win season and another Central Division title. The Pistons would defeat the Orlando Magic in a tough seven-game series before disposing of the 76ers in six games to reach the Eastern Conference Finals. Unfortunately, the Pistons fell to Jason Kidd and the Nets in four games. The good news, however, was that the Pistons had finally received their pick from the Grizzlies from the 1997 Otis Thorpe trade. It would be the second pick in the 2003 Draft. Dumars, the 2003 Executive of the Year, had developed a talented, unselfish team without a superstar. After drafting Darko Milicic in June, Dumars fired Carlisle, even though the head coach had won 100 regular season games in his two years at the helm. Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown had become available and was hired.
Coach Brown would take over a team that had been to the Conference Finals and added the second pick in the draft, and free agents Elden Campbell and Bobby Sura. The team began buying into Coach Brown’s plan of defense, rebounding, and unselfish play. The Pistons were an acceptable 34-22, including a club record tying 13-game winning streak, when Dumars changed the balance of power in the Eastern Conference. In a three-team trade, Dumars stole All-Star forward Rasheed Wallace. The addition of Wallace allowed the Pistons to turn up the defensive intensity, finishing the season winning 20 of their last 24 games, including a streak of five straight games holding opponents under 70 points. They entered the playoffs with a record of 54-28, the second best record in the Eastern Conference. After disposing of the Milwaukee Bucks and the New Jersey Nets, the Pistons would face a division rival, the Indiana Pacers and former coach Rick Carlisle in the Eastern Conference Finals. The series was filled with physical defensive intensity, highlighted by a play by Tayshaun Prince that will forever be known as “The Block.” The Pistons would defeat the Pacers four games to two and advance to the NBA Finals for the first time in 13 years to face the two-time defending champion LA Lakers.
An easy Lakers win in the 2004 NBA Finals was the foregone conclusion of most, but someone forgot to tell the guys in the Pistons’ locker room. From the opening tip of Game One, the Pistons played the game “the right way,” out-passing and out-hustling the mighty Lakers. The Pistons would complete the unthinkable on June 15, 2004, beating the Lakers 4-1. Coach Brown became the first coach in history to win NBA and NCAA titles. Joe Dumars had taken the franchise that took a chance on him as a player from a 32-win team to the World Championship in four short years. The team still had no real superstar, but instead was a collection of men who worked hard, had fun, and played the game as a team. Hard work had truly paid off.
The 2004-05 season began with the team and the city engulfed in the euphoria from the 2004 championship. Joe Dumars and Coach Larry Brown essentially returned the same team that won the championship. The big addition to the team was former All-Star Antonio McDyess. The season began just as the previous one had ended, a raucous crowd filling The Palace watching the Pistons receive their rings from NBA Commissioner David Stern and the championship banner raised to the rafters of The Palace. The Pistons were off to a 4-3 start, when the Indiana Pacers came to town on November 19. The Pacers maintained a comfortable lead and were cruising to a 15-point victory, when the entire sports world changed. After an on-court scuffle with Pistons center Ben Wallace, Pacers forward Ron Artest was hit with a cup thrown from the crowd. Artest and several other Pacers players charged into The Palace crowd igniting one of the worst events in sports history. Four Pistons players were suspended a total of nine games for their participation in the event. Four Pacers players were suspended a total of over 130 games, including Artest, who was suspended for the remainder of the season and the playoffs. The event would change the course of sports security and image-making for years to come.
After the events of November 19th, the Pistons showed moments of brilliance through the first half of the season, hitting the All-Star break with a record of 32-19, and winning nine of ten games going into the break. The team hit its stride after the break, going 22-9, including winning streaks of four, five, and eleven. The 54-28 record was good for another Central Division crown and the second seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
The 2005 run to repeat would begin with a three games to one victory over Coach Brown’s former team, the Philadelphia 76ers. Up next were divisional rivals, the Indiana Pacers. Even without Ron Artest, one of the most dominant and underrated players in the NBA, the Pacers had fought through Reggie Miller’s final season. The Pistons won another defensive series four games to two. Their next opponent was arguably the best team in the NBA, the Miami Heat. After three titles in Los Angeles, Shaquille O’Neal had moved to South Beach to join second-year sensation Dwyane Wade. The two best teams in the Eastern Conference engaged in a back and forth seven game series. Down three games to two, the Pistons returned to The Palace and defeated the Heat 91-66 to force a Game Seven. No team had ever won a Game Seven on the road, but these Pistons were like no other team. The Pistons prevailed 88-82 to reach their second consecutive NBA Finals, where they faced the San Antonio Spurs, a team that had cruised through the West.
The series was epic. The Pistons did not start the series as they had hoped, losing the first two games in San Antonio by a combined 34 points. Fortunes changed, however, with the change of venue. The Pistons won Games Three and Four in Detroit, including a 31-point blowout in Game Four. Game Five went to the Spurs, who won a 96-95 overtime thriller. As the series switched back to San Antonio, the Spurs and their fans were poised to celebrate another championship. But someone forgot to tell the Pistons, who won Game Six 95-86 behind Richard Hamilton’s 24 points. The season had come down to a final 48 minutes, winner take all. Only one team had ever won a playoff Game Seven on the road; and that team just happened to be these Pistons in the 2005 Eastern Conference Finals. The first three quarters were tight. Entering the fourth quarter, the score was tied at 57. The season had now come down to 12 minutes. Early in the fourth quarter, the Spurs took control behind good outside shooting and defensive adjustments. The Pistons fell 81-74.
The Pistons would spend the summer reflecting on what they had experienced. Being so close to something you had worked so hard for left a bad taste in their mouths. As the players took time to recover from a long season, President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars made a coaching change. Dumars replaced Larry Brown with Flip Saunders, who had coached the Minnesota Timberwolves for nine years. His free-flowing offensive philosophy had the Pistons and their fans excited about another run to the title.
Coach Saunders enters the 2005-06 season with the highest of expectations. He is taking over a team that has won a championship and gone to the Finals in the last two seasons. Saunders inherited an experienced team that knows how to win and does the little things that matter.
To date, the Pistons have the best record in the NBA. The team’s progression is as advertised. The offense is more open, while the defense is just as stingy as it’s been in the past. The players seem to be having fun, while the fans are definitely enjoying the success. This is all well and good at his early point in the season, but this season has only one mission… RECLAIMING THE TITLE.