Woodson, O’Connor Reflect On Title Run In Detroit

Rowan Kavner

DETROIT – Brendan O’Connor looked up at the rafters at The Palace of Auburn Hills, his gaze fixated near the ceiling of the arena.

It took no time at all for him to answer what comes to mind first when he returns to Detroit.

“2004,” the Clippers’ assistant coach said. “That’s it. That big banner up there. That was a heck of a ride.”

O’Connor and Clippers assistant coach Mike Woodson both played a role in turning one of the NBA’s best defenses of all-time into a champion as staff members of Detroit’s 2003-04 title team.

The Pistons held their opponents to 84.3 points per game and just 92.5 points per 100 possessions during their run, then proceeded to hold the Lakers to 16 points below their regular season average in sealing the deal as champions.

O’Connor got his start in the NBA as an advance scout with the Pistons in 2000 before becoming an assistant coach. In the NBA, coaches tend to run into each other at some point. O’Connor worked for two years in Grand Rapids for Mark Hughes in the Continental Basketball Association.

“And actually, Doc (Rivers) worked with us over there for a month during the lockout, the first lockout,” O’Connor said. “But Mark had been with the Pistons for a couple years on and off, so he was tight with Joe Dumars, who had come over to meet for training camp. So I developed a relationship with Joe.”

Dumars became the Pistons’ president of basketball operations in 2000, when O’Connor got his start in the NBA. The future Clippers assistant was in Detroit through the days of George Irvine, Rick Carlisle and, eventually, Larry Brown, who coached the team to a championship. 

Through Brown, O’Connor met assistant coach Mike Woodson, whose only season in Detroit included a title.

Much like O’Connor, more than a decade later, when Woodson comes back to Detroit, he thinks of that team. 

“That was a special season,” Woodson said. “When I came in, expectations were high. It’s a team that had done very well the two previous years, but they couldn’t bring it home.”

Woodson said Brown’s mindset entering the year was that the Pistons had a legitimate shot at getting out of the Eastern Conference, and from there, anything was possible. But as Woodson remembered it, the biggest piece to the puzzle wouldn’t happen until February of that season, when the Pistons traded for Rasheed Wallace.

After some bumps in the middle of that month, the Pistons proceeded to win 20 of their final 24 games of the regular season.

“When we got Rasheed, we were pretty good defensively,” Woodson said. “But we were just kind of peddling along. When Rasheed came over, it just changed the dynamics of our ball club.”

Austin Rivers was still just a kid when the Pistons made that run, but he remembers the stifling defense from that group. He recalled what Richard Hamilton did off screens; the effort Ben Wallace played with defensively; what Tayshaun Prince did as a slasher and deep shooter, and what Rasheed Wallace and Chauncey Billups did as clutch shooters.

“That was just a bad, bad group,” Austin said affectionately.

Behind the scenes, O’Connor and Woodson were helping guide those players to a championship, and they were learning about what it takes to do that.

“It shows you can take a team and build it,” said Woodson, who added that it took a little while to get head coach Larry Brown’s system in place. 

Woodson remembers “peddling along” as he put it. Then came the Wallace trade, and the already strong defense became nearly impenetrable. 

“We went through one stretch where nobody could score against us,” said Woodson, who parlayed that season into his first NBA head coaching job in Atlanta. “It was so beautiful to watch. Our defense has got to rank as one of the best defenses ever in the history of the game. That carried into the playoffs. They say defense wins championships, and we were a prime example of that.”

The Clippers are trying to experience that feeling of winning it all for the first time, and Doc Rivers isn’t the only one on the coaching staff who knows how it feels.

When O’Connor returns to Detroit, he still sees people who work in the arena back from those days more than a decade ago, and it’s a different feeling than other stops.  

“There’s a different relationship with all the people involved with that team, just because it was such a special year,” O’Connor said. “It’s been a great ride, and this was certainly the highlight of it.”

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