The Goin’ to Work Pistons: the most unique champions the NBA has ever crowned
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
DETROIT – Even as the Pistons were winning the 2004 NBA title – the “five-game sweep” of the Lakers – they were considered an anomaly. Fifteen years later, and about to be remembered when the Pistons honor them Sunday at Little Caesars Arena on a day the present-day Pistons could use a win to inch closer to a playoff berth, that’s even more the case.
Perhaps someday Ben Wallace will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame and there’s a chance Chauncey Billups joins him. But nobody would bet the farm on it. And even if one or the other gets there, it won’t alter the reality that the Goin’ to Work Pistons never had a player considered a superstar.
Find another team like that in recent NBA history – or, for that matter, any NBA history.
When they won the 2004 title, they had not a single player make the All-NBA first team. Ben Wallace made second team because after Shaquille O’Neal the center position was pretty thin. Nobody – not Chauncey Billups nor Rip Hamilton nor Rasheed Wallace nor Tayshaun Prince – made the third team. In a star-driven league, that just doesn’t happen.
They were a thoroughly unique group of thoroughly unique parts brought together through a thoroughly unique set of transactions. Here’s a look at how the five fingers inside a fisted glove were wedded into the Goin’ to Work Pistons that captivated their fans with a lunch-pail mentality and an iron will, the symbols of Detroit.
Back then, free agents could get seven-year deals from their own teams but six years if they switched franchises – unless the teams could agree on a sign-and-trade deal. When Orlando balked at a sign and trade, Hill’s camp said, OK, we’ll go talk to Phoenix and see what happens.
Properly mortified, the Magic got on the phone with the Pistons, who pressed for Wallace. After four seasons in the league, he’d established himself as … something. He’d averaged 4.8 points and 8.2 rebounds in 24 minutes a game for the Magic in 2002-03. The Pistons figured they were getting a young, tough, energetic player. They had no idea they were getting a four-time Defensive Player of the Year who would lead the NBA in rebounding and blocked shots in his second season with the Pistons.
The shine had long since faded from Billups since the Celtics made him the No. 3 pick in the 1997 draft. He was traded midway through his rookie season – Rick Pitino never forgave him for not being Tim Duncan – and traipsed through Toronto, Denver, Orlando and Minnesota before hitting free agency in ’02. The break for Billups came when Timberwolves starting point guard Terrell Brandon was injured, giving him the season’s final 50-plus games to audition for free agency. He averaged 12.5 points and 5.5 assists as a 25-year-old and Joe Dumars saw enough to target Billups over McInnis and Best.
To this day, it’s considered the best mid-level exception signing in NBA history.
But the Pistons were wary of Stackhouse’s impending free agency, unenthusiastic about meeting his expectation for a mega-deal. In Hamilton, the Pistons were getting a player three years younger – though one most renowned in the NBA for being browbeaten in Wizards practices by the end-of-the-line version of Michael Jordan.
The genius of the Hamilton acquisition was in the ideal complementary fit he enjoyed with Billups. By the end of their first season together, the Billups-Hamilton backcourt was considered best in the Eastern Conference by those paying attention.
Prince played in only 42 regular-season games and didn’t get off the bench in two of the first four games of the first-round playoff series with Orlando. But with the Pistons down 3-1 after Game 4 and Carlisle desperate to find someone – anyone – to slow down Tracy McGrady, Prince rode to the rescue. And in their Game 7 win, he stamped himself as their no-doubt future at small forward with 20 points.
Pretty good for the 23rd pick in a historically weak draft. Why did he last that long even after four years as a starter on college basketball’s loftiest stage at Kentucky? Mostly because he was painfully thin and gangly. In today’s game, with more emphasis on movement and skill and defensive versatility, the doubts wouldn’t have been nearly as pronounced.
The Pistons, too, wondered. Dumars told Scott Perry, now Knicks general manager but then his ace college scout, to find the toughest, meanest defender to go up against Prince when the Pistons brought him in for his predraft workout. Perry invited San Diego State’s Randy Holcomb, a 6-foot-9 and 225-pound ball of fury, to Auburn Hills. At one point, Holcomb drove Prince into the basket stanchion and collapsed him. Prince bounced up, dusted himself off and completed the workout.
Dumars called Prince’s agent on the spot and told him, “If your guy is there at 23, I’m drafting him.”
Brown’s first order of business was connecting with his point guard, Chauncey Billups. It was, predictably enough, a turbulent relationship – Billups finally feeling he’d established himself with the Pistons and now needing to bend to Brown’s exacting standards for what comprised sound leadership at point guard. Brown studied at the knee of Dean Smith at North Carolina. There was no compromise in Brown when it came to fundamentals. Billups could put up dazzling statistics only to see Brown exasperated for judgment that fell short of perfection.
But Billups was never recalcitrant, only confused. That gave Brown the opening he needed to keep pushing without fear of pushing away. And once the indoctrination was complete, the ascent of Billups as an elite NBA point guard promptly ensued.
What really made the hiring of Brown perfect for those Pistons, though, was tied to the final piece of the puzzle.
Dumars had tried to get Wallace, whose reputation was in tatters as one of the poster boys for the Portland “Jail Blazers,” a few years earlier. And he’d been working on getting him for a few months ahead of the Feb. 19 trade deadline that season. On Feb. 9, Portland dealt Wallace to Atlanta, but it was widely understood the Hawks would sell him to the highest bidder if someone wanted him badly enough.
The Pistons did. But there was no common ground between the two teams. They needed a third party to facilitate the deal. Dumars pressed Boston’s Danny Ainge as the days and the hours dwindled, but Ainge didn’t have much incentive. Finally, with less than 10 minutes to go, a deal was struck.
Brown was giddy. The shared North Carolina roots of Brown and Wallace gave them instant rapport. Wallace was deferential and a model citizen under Brown, who called Wallace one of the NBA’s top five talents. Rasheed Wallace next to Ben Wallace next to Tayshaun Prince gave the Pistons an impossibly tough, long and agile frontcourt. Over five consecutive games a few weeks after the trade, the Pistons held their opponents under 70 points – a record unlikely to be challenged.
The rest is history. The Pistons beat Milwaukee in five games in a first-round series, then won an epic seven-game slugfest with New Jersey in the second round – needing to win the last two games after a triple-overtime Game 5 loss at home. In the Eastern Conference finals, they beat Indiana – coached by Carlisle – in six games, the winning team only twice breaking 80 points and never scoring more than 85.
And then the five-game sweep over a Lakers team dripping with Hall of Famers – Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton, coached by Phil Jackson. The Lakers went off as heavy favorites, but by the end they were bickering and overwhelmed. The team without a sure-fire Hall of Famer – a team that epitomized the meaning of the word to the highest possible degree – stamped itself as the most unique champion in NBA history.