During the 2000’s, the NBA was dominated by superstar-led Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs. Between 1999-2010 these two franchises combined for nine NBA titles.
Amid these two dynasties, one team was able to emerge from the rest of the league as NBA champions. The Detroit Pistons beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2004 Finals, leading to the breakup of the Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal duo.
This Pistons team has a unique place in history and deserves a closer look.
Building the Team, 2002-2003 Season
The Pistons acquired a trademark starting five during the early-mid 2000’s through a series of trades. The first piece they acquired was center Ben Wallace, in a deal that sent All-Star Grant Hill to the Orlando Magic in 2000.
Wallace would become popular among fans for his defensive play and signature afro alike. Wallace would go on to win the Defensive Player of the Year Award four times with the Pistons.
In the 2002 Draft, the team would take Kentucky forward Tayshaun Prince with the 23rd pick. In his rookie year, Prince would get minimal playing time. He would become a starter the very next season as the Pistons made their title run.
The 2002 offseason was huge for Detroit, and would earn GM Joe Dumars, a former Piston from the ‘Bad Boys’ era, Executive of the Year. They would sign Chauncey Billups to a six-year contract, as well as trading for Richard Hamilton in a deal that sent Jerry Stackhouse to the Wizards.
This backcourt would be the team’s offensive catalyst for years to come. Prince, Billups and Hamilton would go to six-straight Eastern Conference finals together.
The trio, along with Wallace, would propel the Pistons to the best record in the Eastern Conference during the 2002-2003 season. Hamilton and Billups would average 19.7 and 16.2 points per game respectively. Clifford Robinson, who started at power forward a majority of the season, as well as Corliss Williamson off the bench, would both average double figures in scoring.
The first-seed Pistons would defeat the Orlando Magic, led by a young Tracy McGrady, in the first round. Following the seven-game series, the Pistons would beat Allen Iverson’s 76ers.
In the Eastern Conference finals, the Pistons would get swept by the New Jersey Nets, who would advance to their second-straight NBA Finals behind Jason Kidd and Vince Carter. They would go on to lose to the San Antonio Spurs.
The Pistons would enter the 2003-2004 season with new head coach, the veteran Larry Brown, who coached the 76ers the year before. The Pistons had fired head coach Rick Carlisle over internal disputes, despite his good record with the team, and winning the 2002 Coach of the Year award.
Pistons rookie and second overall pick Darko Milicic would make his debut with the team this season. Picking Milicic over Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh, he would go on to become one of the biggest busts in NBA history.
Detroit started out the season strong, winning 14 out of their first 20 games. While the team remained at a steady winning pace, Dumars made a move around the trade deadline to acquire Rasheed Wallace from the Atlanta Hawks.
Wallace, then two-time All-Star, played just one game for the Hawks after being dealt from Portland. The Pistons gave up Chucky Atkins, Lindsey Hunter and a first-round pick in exchange for the charismatic Wallace, who would become a fan favorite in Detroit.
Ben Wallace was the only Piston selected to the 2004 All-Star Game, where he would be a starter.
With their revamped starting five who didn’t have much experience playing together, the Pistons would still have a great regular season.
Detroit would finish with the second best record in the Eastern Conference behind Indiana, who excelled behind Jermaine O’Neal and eventual Defensive Player of the Year Ron Artest. However, New Jersey would claim the second seed. In the West, Minnesota would edge out San Antonio and L.A. for the first seed.
Minnesota’s Kevin Garnett would win the MVP award, with McGrady winning his second straight scoring title.
Eastern Conference Playoffs
The Pistons would face the Bucks in the first round, who were led by shooting guard Michael Redd. Despite his 22 points per game that season, the Bucks would fall to Detroit in five games. The next round would prove to be a bigger challenge.
The second round was against the Nets, who had swept Detroit the year prior in the Eastern Conference finals. The teams split the first four games, each team winning at home. While the momentum swung in New Jersey’s favor after a triple-overtime Game 5 win, the Pistons would win the next two games and advance.
The Eastern Conference finals was a matchup between the best of the Central Division. The NBA-best Pacers had swept Paul Pierce’s Celtics, and beat a Lamar Odom-Eddie Jones-Dwayne Wade Miami squad in six games in the second round. The Pistons were their biggest challenge yet.
The Pacers won the first game of the series. Detroit won Game 2, behind one of Tayshaun Prince’s most memorable plays, blocking Reggie Miller’s would-be-game-tying layup from behind.
Indiana and Detroit would be tied 2-2 after four games. In after a Game 4 blowout Indiana win, the Pistons would return the favor in Game 5, taking a series lead. Detroit would edge out Indiana in a low scoring Game 6, 69-65. The series was highlighted by strong defenses on both sides, with low scoring averages of 75-72. ‘Rip’ Hamilton would lead the Pistons in scoring with 24 points per game.
2004 NBA Finals
The Pistons would go on to face the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2004 Finals. Following the Lakers’ three-peat from 2000-2002, tensions would begin to grow between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. The team’s eventual loss to the Pistons grew the divide between the two superstars, eventually breaking the pair up, as Shaq was traded to Miami that offseason.
The Lakers’ offense, primarily its two superstars, and championship experience was expected to beat Detroit. The Lakers had also signed veterans Gary Payton and Karl Malone in the offseason.
Despite combining for 59 points, Shaq and Kobe fell short to Detroit in Game 1. All of the Pistons’ starting five would score in double-figures, besides Ben Wallace who had nine.
The Lakers would take Game 2 in an overtime finish, 99-91, despite Billups and Hamilton scoring 26 and 27 respectively. Game 2 would turn out to be the only victory for Los Angeles in the series.
The Pistons’ strong defense would cause issues for the Lakers’ duo, as Shaq and Kobe both struggled to score up to their usual standards in Game 3. In the first game in Detroit, the Pistons would rout L.A. 88-68 behind Hamilton’s 31 points.
Game 4 in Detroit was another win for the Pistons, this time with Rasheed Wallace leading the way with 26 points and 13 rebounds. The Lakers’ supporting cast once again struggled to put points on the board in the 88-80 loss.
On June 15, 2004, the Pistons won their third NBA Championship. Game 5 ended with a final score of 100-87, and all five of the Pistons’ starters scoring in double-figures. Ben Wallace grabbed 22 rebounds in the close-out game, and Hamilton once again led the team in scoring with 21.
Chauncey Billups was crowned Finals MVP, ending the series with averages of 21 points and five assists.
While the core of this Pistons team would have continued success, reaching the Finals again the next year, 2004 cemented them as champions for the city of Detroit.
Compared to today’s NBA, where ‘super teams’ are in fashion, the ’04 Pistons showcased a different kind of basketball. There were no superstars, just great players who complimented each other well.
There was a little bit of everything on this Pistons team. Billups, the team’s leader, and Hamilton provided scoring at the guard position. Prince and Ben Wallace provided on-ball and post defense, while Rasheed provided great power forward play.
Off the court, these Pistons had a special relationship with the fans. Fans would often wear Ben Wallace afro wigs, ‘Rip’ Hamilton face masks, and chant “SHEEEED” when the newest Piston knocked down a three.
Billups, Hamilton, and Ben Wallace have all had their jerseys retired by the Pistons, in large part due to the 2003-2004 season.
The 2004 champion Detroit Pistons embodied defense and teamwork. Looking back, this Detroit Pistons team should be recognized by NBA fans as one of the most unique teams in the modern era.