A Big Deal: A late-summer stunner swapped out Stackhouse for Hamilton

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Pistons.com continues its periodic look at some of the most significant personnel moves – trades, free-agent signings, draft picks – in Pistons history. Next up: The September 2002 trade, on the eve of training camp, that sent leading scorer Jerry Stackhouse to Washington for Rip Hamilton.)

No matter when news had come that the Pistons traded their leading scorer, it would have been a “whoa” moment.

But the timing of the Jerry Stackhouse-for-Rip Hamilton trade – a few weeks before the start of training camp, Sept. 11, 2002 – made it especially stunning across the NBA.

September, after all, is typically the slowest month on the NBA calendar. If there’s anything done, it’s adding a veteran free agent to a minimum deal or inviting the last few NBA hopeful to training camp on non-guaranteed contracts. Trading an All-Star, as Stackhouse was in 2000 and ’01, in the prime of his career from a 50-win team and the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, as the Pistons were in 2001-02 – and for a player at the same position, no less?

“When you have the opportunity to add an All-Star player of Jerry’s caliber, you can’t hesitate on the chance to strengthen the team,” said then-Wizards general manager Wes Unseld, who died last month. “We had to part with several players we were very high on, but we feel we have improved.”

The deal involved six players, three a side, though Stackhouse – a year removed from averaging 29.8 points, a single-season Pistons record that still stands – and Hamilton were the only players of consequence. To be sure, it was easier to see the trade from Washington’s perspective. The Wizards – trying to do whatever they could to win with a certain 39-year-old named Michael Jordan on their roster – were getting the more proven player.

“We think Rip Hamilton is one of the best young two guards in the NBA and we expect him to be here for a long time,” Pistons president of basketball operations Joe Dumars said. “I see us having tremendous depth on our team. You can stand pat and say, well, we had success last year and it’ll automatically carry over into next year. That’s just not the case.”

Hamilton, more than three years younger than Stackhouse, averaged 20.0 points as a 23-year-old for the Wizards, playing most of his minutes at small forward to accommodate Jordan, who averaged a team-high 22.9 in 2001-02.

Both teams were motivated, in part, by coming contract negotiations. Stackhouse was expected to opt out of the final two years of his contract after the 2002-03 season and made rumblings of wanting a maximum contract, which would have paid him as much as $103 million over seven years.

Dumars, whose playing career had overlapped Stackhouse’s early days with the Pistons, liked Stackhouse – they were actually neighbors, as well – but balked at committing more than $13 million in first-year salary at a time the salary cap was about $42 million per team. Dumars had just seen the Pistons ousted in the second round of the 2002 playoffs by Boston, losing four straight after winning the opener at home and struggling mightily to score. With Stackhouse at the core of the offense, the Pistons averaged 75 points over the last four games.

Hamilton, meanwhile, had turned down a contract extension from the Wizards that same summer, though not for nearly as much money. There was also speculation that Jordan, who held sway in Washington’s front office after taking over as head of basketball operations in January 2000 before deciding to return as a player for the 2001-02 season, merely wanted Hamilton gone and preferred Stackhouse given their shared North Carolina pedigree.

Years later, in a 2020 interview, Hamilton talked about approaching Jordan regarding a sneaker endorsement deal with the exclusive Jordan Brand of Nike.

“ ‘Hey, Rip, my sneakers (are) for All-Stars,’ ” Hamilton remembered Jordan telling him. “You just had to have thick skin with him.”

In any case, Hamilton seemed genuinely thrilled to be traded to the Pistons, where he joined a younger team that had just drafted a slender small forward, Tayshaun Prince, and added a young point guard in free agency, Chauncey Billups, to slot into a lineup anchored by center and defensive stalwart Ben Wallace.

“I love the pressure,” he said at his introductory press conference the day after the trade. “I love playing basketball. For me, this is the opportunity of a lifetime, coming to Detroit. They have young guys who like to get up and down the floor. They have veterans who know how to play the game. They have big guys who can finish like Ben Wallace and they have another Connecticut guy in Cliff Robinson.”

He seized that opportunity of a lifetime with both hands, too, going on to lead the Pistons in scoring for the next eight seasons and playing on teams that went to five straight Eastern Conference finals, winning the 2004 NBA title and coming within a Game 7 loss of a ’05 repeat. Hamilton was a three-time All-Star and currently ranks No. 6 in franchise history for points scored (11,582) and No. 10 in games played (631).

And in February 2017, with the Pistons playing their final games at The Palace of Auburn Hills where Hamilton plied his trade, his No. 32 was retired by the Pistons. That night, Hamilton told the story of writing his goals as a kid on a piece of cardboard he kept above his bedroom door. Every time he accomplished one goal, he would cross it off his list.

“I said I wanted to be an NBA player,” he told The Palace crowd during the halftime ceremony. “I wanted to be an NCAA champion. I wanted to be an NBA champion. But not once did I write on that board that one day that jersey would be going up in the rafters.”