NBA.com takes a look back at the top moments that define the history of the NBA.
When Joe Dumars was hired by the struggling Detroit Pistons to be team president after the 1999-2000 season, he couldn’t have predicted what awaited his team four seasons later. The Pistons had not advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs since 1991 and had missed the playoffs in four of the previous eight seasons prior to Dumars’ hiring.
Everything was about to change.
In the epitome of team-ball over star power, the Pistons would become one of the most unlikely champions when they defeated a Los Angeles Lakers team sporting four future Hall of Famers 4-1 in the 2004 Finals. The victory is considered one of the greatest upsets in U.S. pro sports history.
The groundwork for the Pistons historic championship began in Dumars’ first offseason as president. In what was considered a lopsided trade at the time, Dumars re-signed and sent All-Star forward Grant Hill to the Orlando Magic in exchange for two unheralded pros: second-year guard Chucky Atkins and center Ben Wallace.
With Hill planning on leaving the Pistons as a free agent, Dumars tried to recoup a little talent to help ease the sting of losing Detroit’s franchise player. Atkins was the player Dumars had targeted in the deal; Wallace was the throw-in.
It was Wallace, however, who would become the centerpiece of a defense that fueled the Pistons to their first championship since 1990.
Wallace immediately showed vast improvement over his first four seasons, averaging 6.4 ppg, 13.2 rpg and 2.3 bpg in his first season with Detroit. He would go on to average at least 10 rebounds and two blocks a game for seven consecutive seasons while becoming a four-time All-Star and four-time Defensive Player of the Year.
Bringing Wallace aboard was just the beginning though. In 2002, Dumars would trade Jerry Stackhouse to the Washington Wizards for guard Richard “Rip” Hamilton, sign journeyman guard Chauncey Billups and draft forward Tayshaun Prince.
Hamilton became one of the league’s top shooting guards following the trade, leading Detroit in scoring during the team’s title run. Billups, who became the 2004 Finals MVP, was a bit of a late bloomer. He found his form in Detroit, though, earning the nickname “Mr. Big Shot” for his penchant for hitting game-winners. He and Hamilton would each be named to three All-Star teams as Pistons.
While Prince was never an All-Star, the lanky forward from Kentucky was a pest on defense and a perfect glue guy for Detroit.
The final pieces of the Pistons improbable run to a championship came in 2004 though. First, Dumars hired Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown to take over for the fired Rick Carlisle. And then, when he acquired forward Rasheed Wallace at the 2004 trade deadline.
A solid all-around big man who would stretch the floor on offense and play into Detroit’s pressure defense system, it turned out Rasheed Wallace was the final piece to the puzzle.
The Pistons finished the season at 54-28, easily handled the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round and rallied from a 3-2 deficit against the defending Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Nets in the semifinals to advance.
In an East finals series in which no team would score more than 85 points, Detroit made the Indiana Pacers play a style they weren’t comfortable with. The Pistons would win the series in six games to make their first trip to The Finals since the days of the “Bad Boy” Pistons in 1990.
Facing a heavily favored Lakers team, the Pistons were no match for Los Angeles — on paper. With All-Stars Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant as well as future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton — both in the twilight of their careers in search of their first championship — the Lakers were expected to easily dispatch the Pistons for their fourth title in five years.
However, the situation was more complicated than it appeared on paper. O’Neal and Bryant’s relationship was on the brink of crumbling and, with a cast of ill-fitting supporting talent, the Lakers were in reality a grouping of individuals. Detroit was a team in the truest sense.
“They may have had better individual players, but we always felt we were a better team,” Billups would say after Detroit’s championship-clinching Game 5 victory.
Detroit swarmed the Lakers throughout the series with team defense and a pass-first offense Los Angeles simply couldn’t match. The Pistons would take three of their four victories by double-digits and easily closed out the series with a 100-87 victory.
“It’s about players,” said Brown after winning his first NBA championship after 21 years of professional coaching. “This sport is about players playing the right way and showing kids that you can be a team and be successful and it’s great for our league.”