Lucid Memories of the Piston’s Past Decade, Pt. 1: The Building of a Champion

Don't Mess w/ the Fro

The shorter abstract has become a much longer entity, so it is being broken up into parts. Here is part one, which focuses on the the rise of the new Bad Boys. They weren’t as dirty as the originals, but both versions were an unconventionally built teams who stressed a commitment to rugged defense.

Entering the new millennium, the Pistons were coming off a semi-successful, strike-shortened, season. Finishing at 29-21, good for 3rd place in the Central, they received a 5th seed and match-up against Mt. Mutumbo’s Atlanta Hawks. Taking them to a do or-die 5th game in the first round was as far as the talent-challenged Pistons could go. The team was appeared to be solid, coming in at 10th and 9th respectively at offensive and defensive efficiency. However, the roster had a few good players, and was atrocious if you look twelve deep.

Lacking a real post presence, point guard, and bench, the Pistons were a limited team. If it weren’t for the skill of Grant Hill, I can’t imagine the carnage in the loss column. Explosive, rounded, gentlemanly, and extremely gifted, Grant only lacked a consistent outside jump shot, which was something he was working on. Unfortunately, injuries had to prematurely limit his abilities. One of the better players in the league, he was surrounded by a soon to retire Joe Dumars, Bison Dele, Jerry Stackhouse, and not much else. Jerome “Junk Yard Dog” Williams was a scrappy, energetic bench player who could rebound well came off the bench and is worth a mention, but otherwise most of the bench consisted of never beens.

The 1999-2000 season, under coach Alvin Gentry and then interim George Gervin, saw the return of Detroit-area native and one of my favorite Piston players, Terry “T-Three” Mills, who made the second most amount of threes while shooting a respectable 39% from long range during the season. This was during a time where it was less common for big men to shoot threes. The impact of European migration had not yet approached full realization. I remember Sam Perkins and Bill Laimbeer being other big men long range shooters, although in a different way than Dirk.

The lack of a true big man, especially on the defensive end, was again a problem. This situation wasn’t really remedied until Ben Wallace came in. Brian Williams, aka Bison Dele, was a solid offensive player, but even he was gone after the 1998-1999 season. Becoming a swingman dominated team, Hill and Stackhouse put up numbers; however, the lack of big men contributed glaringly to the porous defense and rebounding. Ending the season at 42-40, they earned a 7th round playoff seed against the Heat, whose big men were too much, and were promptly swept.

Who picked out this color scheme?

Who picked out this color scheme?

At one point during the season, Grant Hill was out for a bit and Jud Buechler actually started five games at SF. Grant was going to be a free agent after the season, so he was traded after the playoff loss to Miami to Orlando for Chucky Atkins and Ben Wallace. Unfortunately for Grant, and the Magic, the ankle injury he had sustained and played through during the playoffs was more serious than initially thought. The trade, engineered by Joe Dumars, worked out well for the Pistons though. Ben Wallace blossomed into a dominant defensive player and leader. Joe had been brought in as the President of Basketball Operations right after the postseason. He wasted no time building a team in his image.

George Gervin, who had replaced Gentry as head coach during the previous season, retained the position for the 2000-2001. He did not fare well as the team finished 30-52. Sporting the not so fearsome PG trio of Chucky Atkins, Dana Baros, and local hero Mateen Cleaves, the team lacked a game plan capable of masking the limitations of the roster. Cleaves was Joe Dumars first first-round pick. To be fair the team needed a PG, although it was clear Cleaves was not going to the be answer and was a hometown hero. Joe grabbed another Big Ten player, Brian “The Janitor” Cardinal, who turned out to be a serviceable, albeit extremely overpaid, bench player, in the second round.

“Big Nasty” Corliss Williamson was brought over from Toronto for Jerome Williams. I remember Corliss and Scotty Thurman running Nolan Richardson’s “40 Minutes of Hell” defense to the Final Four. He was a pretty efficient low-post scorer off the bench, who would bang and could draw some fouls. Although, he was too small to guard most players he was matched up against in the post.  He would win the Sixth Man of the Year, being an important member of the dynamic bench unit, dubbed the “Alternatorz” by Jon Barry.

Jerry Stackhouse really went off, averaging 29.8 ppg, with the extra shots provided by Grant Hill’s departure. Sadly, he also led the team in assists with 5.1 ppg. Free throws and offense were never Ben Wallace’s professional forte, but his rebounding and defensive provided an encouraging piece to build around. Averaging over 13 rebounds, 1 steal and 2 blocks a game, he was able to change the game dramatically while doing almost nothing on offense.

During the off-season, Mateen Cleaves, drafted more as a publicity move, was traded for Jon Barry, who provided some long-range shooting and fire. Joe was fashioning a scrappy, defensive minded ball-club built on the model of the original Bad Boys. Jud Buechler was exchanged for Cliff Robinson. Buechler was a solid athlete, and a real good volleyball player apparently, but didn’t bring many skills to the basketball court. “Uncle” Cliffy was known for his headband, perimeter offensive game, and solid defense.

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Restrictive Rick Carlisle was brought in for the 2001-2002 season. His approach fit Joe Dumars vision and the teams’ skill set. Even more importantly, the team returned to its’ traditional uniform colors of blue, red, and white after a couple year sojourn in teal, burgundy, gold and black. Surprising everyone, the Pistons improved to 50-32, winning the Central Division and second seed, with a focus on defense and using the whole clock. The addition of Cliff Robinson helped in numerous ways, but, as expected, he was not a low post offensive presence nor did he help Ben with the rebounding, only averaging 3.8 rpg while playing 35.7 mpg.

He was also the highest paid player at just under $8 million. I remember one game where Cliff actually made a three from the corner spot that bounced off the glass. Let’s attribute that one more to luck than skill. Jerry’s ppg dropped down to 21.4, due to his shots dropping from 24 to 17 a game. The team had a scrappy mentality, played intelligently and grinded teams down. Ben held down the boards with 13 a game again, in addition to averaging 1.7 spg and 3.5 bpg. The heart of team, Ben quickly became a fan favorite due to his blue collar work ethic and ferocious fro. Ben’s dedication to doing the dirty work made him a natural fit in the grimy Motor City.  He won the Defensive Player of the Year for the first time, an honor he would win two more times in the next three years.

Beating the Vince Carter-led Toronto Raptors in the maximum 5 games, the Pistons then beat the Celtics in the opening game of the semi-finals. They lost the next four to the Walker-Pierce-Anderson Celtics. Cliff Robinson was ineffective on offensive and barely grabbed any rebounds. I attended two of those home loses, including game 5, and they were ugly. Ben Wallace was triple-teamed in the paint when a shot went up while the Pistons were forced to shoot difficult shots from the perimeter. The only offensive post presence they had was the undersized Big Nasty. The Celtics controlled the glass while the Pistons built brick palaces. One game ended with a final score of 66-64 with the Celtics emerging victorious. The rims were truly exhausted after that night.

The series against the Celtics glaringly exposed the Pistons’ faults. Joe Dumars had tried adding to the bench by drafting Rodney White, who had the potential to fill up the hoop, the previous year. However, Rodney’s attitude wasn’t appreciated and he was gone after the 2001 season. Joe recouped a draft pick for him. While Joe had not done so well with first round draft picks yet, and would not do so well in the future, he was good at cutting losses and getting a good return. Joe also grabbed a little-known Turkish player, Mehmet Okur, in the second round of the 2001 draft. The “Turkish Tornado” Okur stayed in Europe for 2001-2002, but came over for the 2002-2003 season.

The biggest additions to the team were Chauncey Billups, who was signed in the off season after a solid stint replacing Terrell Brandon in Minnesota, and Rip Hamilton, who came over from the Wizards with spare parts. The Pistons sent over Jerry Stackhouse and spare parts. With a new starting guard combination, the Pistons’ transformation under Joe D continued. Recognizing Ben as his piece to build around, Joe was filling in the rest of the team around Ben.

Leading the NBA in attendance, the Pistons again finished 50-32, which was good for first place in the Central Division and Eastern Conference. Led by a stellar defense and playing at the slowest pace in the league, the Pistons won ugly. Starting off the year with a starting lineup of Billups, Michael Curry, Hamilton, Zeljko Rebraca, and Wallace, the Pistons featured a lineup that had two players with almost no offensive ability (Curry and Wallace) and with little game and no NBA experience. Rebraca, initially drafted in the second round of the 1994 draft by Seattle, made his first NBA appearance with the Pistons in 2002. It didn’t take too long for Cliff Robinson, an experienced NBA scorer to replace Rebraca in the starting lineup. Although, the Pistons were 7-3 with the opening tip lineup. Cliff spent almost as much effort handing out more assists (3.3) than reeling in rebounds (3.9). Sadly, his 3.3 apg almost topped PG Chauncey Billups’ team-leading 3.9 apg. Ben was again a boarding beast, sucking in over 15 rpg, including 4 offensive. Plus, he put up over 3 blocks and 1 steal.

The bench was restocked with some younger talent. Mehmet came over from Turkey; Tayshaun Prince was drafted in the latter stages of the first round in the 2002 draft. Plus, Chauncey’s addition pushed Chucky to the bench where he was teamed with inside-outside combo of Barry and Big Nasty. Even with the additions, Detroit was strictly a jump shooting team, and not a very consistent one. On the year, their FG% was 43.8%. Ben Wallace led the significant players in FG efficiency at 48%, while Corliss finished second at 45%. They won by hitting threes, limiting turnovers, and tenacious d. But their offensive lapses were hard to overcome. Rip led the team in scoring at a shade under 20, but the limited offensive games of Ben Wallace (6.9 ppg) and Michael Curry (3 ppg) could make scoring difficult.

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When the playoffs rolled around, I remember anticipating a chance to return to the Eastern Conference finals. Granted, back then the East was garbage, but being the best of the worst is better than being the worst of the worst. Then, the Pistons decided to take the underdog Magic lightly, losing the opening game at home as TMac tossed in 43 and Drew Gooden, then a rookie I was already highly irritated by, added 18/14. Cliff Robinson actually grabbed 6 rebounds. Poor shooting was just too much too overcome, even though the Pistons made 40 of 47 free throws. Chauncey and Rip attacked the basket much more during their younger days. Ben Wallace even made 7 of 8. I attended this game and TMac was unstoppable. After a sequence in which T-Mac dropped back to back dagger 3 pointers, a respectable looking, sober individual of 40 years or so stood up and gave McGrady an emphatic double bird. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone with a tucked in shirt ever give a double bird.

The Magic had added Grant Hill in the off-season and were expected to be major factors, but Hill went down to an ankle injury that dated to his last Detroit days. Looking back, the Pistons were just being true to themselves. Tossing away home-court advantage and taking opponents lightly were two traits that would become more prominent as the team experienced more success. Seriously, the Magic’s squad was garbage. They had used 21 different starting lineups during the season because of injuries. Missing Grant Hill and Mike Miller, they had to start Jaque Vaughn, Andrew DeClercq, and Gordon Giricek (another rookie who only saw action in 25 games), in addition to McGrady and Gooden (19 games NBA experience) against the Pistons.

They brought a little firepower off the bench. Darrell Armstrong raced around, looking like Tommy Davidson in Ace Ventura. There was a reason for his energy, he drank strong coffee loaded with sugar (think 10 plus packets) before games and at halftime. Pat Garrity was firmly settled into his impression of a big man. Best of all, they had Shawn Kemp. One of my favorite players as a youth (that big man could jump, I won’t forgot this one particular oop he threw down) Kemp was well on the slide toward donut-abetted . Finally tamed by Gravity, Kemp was a shell of his former shelf. How do you gain so much weight when you are a cokehead professional athlete?

In game 2, the Pistons focused on shutting down everyone but TMac, who had an efficient 46 but no help. Michael Curry’s inability to handle TMac/contribute anything offensively led to Prince getting some time guarding TMac. He showed the high basketball IQ and cool under pressure demonstrated during his collegiate days at Kentucky. Joe Dumars took strong notice to . I think marks the beginning of his habit of pushing his coach to play certain players, which has led to tension with multiple coaches. The Pistons’ franchise is professional, but Joe does go through coaches. Uncle Cliffy (“They call him uncle because he has a lot of nieces and nephews” Rick Mahorn) managed to grab 6 rebounds again.

Heading to Orlando for games 3 and 4 with the series tied, the Pistons really could have used a a victory, but lost both games. Cliff grabbed 3 rebounds each game. TMac had an efficient 29, Darrell Armstrong had an impressive game 3 with 20 points, 8 assists and 6 boards . Ben Wallace grabbed 46 rebounds, including 18 offensive, to go with a respectable 20 points, 6 assists, 4 blocks, 8 steals, and only 2 turnovers. He was a monster, almost single handily controlling the paint and glass.

When Ben left, I wasn’t bitter. He took the money, that is the way sports and life too often work. It puzzled me that some fans turned so bitter at Ben’s departure. His contract would have killed the Pistons’ future, his decline was about to start, and his head was starting to become too big. Some of his actions, such as refusing to come off the bench near the end of a game and complaining about his offensive role were questionable. After being intentionally ignored on offense under Larry Brown, Ben wanted a chance to do more offensively. I felt it was time for him to go, as did Joe D. Ben is still a serviceable player, but not worth anything close to what he is paid.

Still, the animosity some felt was interesting to me. When Ben returned for his first game as a Bull, I remember there being talk as to the negative response he would receive. Big Ben had given me the best Piston moments of my life. How could I be mad at someone who had delivered a championship, and whose new contract would have been an albatross. Coming over as minimally used backup with good rebounding and defensive potential, Ben became one of the best defensive players in the NBA. But then again, the Pistons bandwagon really blew up after they won the title, and bandwagon sports fans think shallowly. How many of the pissed off were fans who had not been around during the building of the championship team. Ben’s early Piston days were fun to watch. Unleashing a ferocious hunger, Ben made up for his lack of size, at best he is 6’7, with tenacity, quickness, great timing, and a nose for the ball. Plus, his fro was awesome. When he puffed that thing out before a big game, I would get tingles.

His one-on-one defense wasn’t nearly as strong as his weakside d, but he was still an active, solid one-on-one defender. Shaq put up numbers on everyone. Big Ben was able to cover a lot of ground, so he was good at covering holes formed by ball movement and penetration. He changed many more shots than he blocked. Versatile, he could guard multiple positions. His abilities were really unleashed when Rasheed came aboard. Combined with Tayshaun’s long reach and bball IQ, they were one of the best defensive front lines in the history of the game. Chauncey is solid at defense (unless he is guarding a quick with handles), but when you are backed up by that six-armed monster you look a lot better. But more on all of that later, when I get to those years.

I remember feeling pretty grim when the Pistons entered game 5. I was sure they would win that one at home, but winning the other two was another matter. Applying the defensive clamps, they choked the Magic’s offense . Drew Gooden was thankfully rendered inefficient. Ben delivered another 20 board game (21 to be exact) to go with 4 steals, 3 blocks, and 14 points. More importantly, he brought an infectious tenacity. After not playing in the previous game, Prince erupted for 15/6/2/1/1 while playing good defense on TMac. Due to the blowout, Mehmet Okur was able to get some run and gave a glimpse of what he was capable of delivering. Rip had a real efficient 24, and was demonstrating his prowess at the short-range game. Rip didn’t add the three pointer to his game until a few years later. Cliff grabbed 3 boards.

After winning game 5, I remember feeling a lot more confident about the Pistons’ chances. The Pistons finally had demonstrated their will. The Magic were a young, mediocre team. The kind prone to folding when hit with a crushing blow. Game 6 showed Game 5 wasn’t a fluke. The Pistons controlled the game as Billups went for 40, hitting 7 of 14 from downtown. Ben scored 20 to go with 17 boards, 4 steals, and 5 blocks. Granted, he shot an atrocious 8 for 22, or 36%, from the free throw line as the Magic resorted to Hack-a-Ben. Cliff topped previous performances getting 1 rebounds.

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Having tied the series, there was no way the Pistons were going to lose at home in game 7. Momentum had swung too much and the Magic were out-manned. Ben came out with the fro in full effect. The gong was ringing and people were screaming. A receptor capable of giving off and receiving energy, Ben seemed to be transformed into the incredible hulk at times. Ben had a solid game 7/12/52/5, but it was Billups who put the biggest stamp on the game scoring 37. Tayshaun came off the bench to score 20 . Rip had an efficient 24, and the Turkish Tornado displayed some craftiness. The Pistons present and future looked promising. With the ineptitude of the Lions’ and malaise of the Tigers, the Detroit area needed a team besides the Red Wings to step up.

If they had lost, they would have been only the third #1 seed to lose in the first round. I remember watching the Nuggets upset the Sonics. It would have been pretty embarrassing, and a potentially devastating blow to the psyche of group of cast aways. Instead, they moved on to face the Larry Brown, who would be coaching the Pistons the next season, and Allen Iverson-led 76ers, whom they dispatched in 6 games. Derrick Coleman, Detroit native, had a solid series for the visitors from the city of cheesesteaks, but Motown topped the Philly sound. Tayshaun and Mehmet both gave solid contributions off the bench.

Chauncey got hurt in game 1. I don’t remember specifics, but I am pretty sure it was an ankle sprain. He tried to return for game four, but was ineffective in the 23 minutes he was on the floor. Returning for game 6, he poured in 28 points as the Pistons advanced to their first Eastern Conference Finals since 1991.

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The series against the Nets was brutal. They barely lost the first two games before being dismissed like gnats in the last two games. If I remember right, the Pistons were getting destroyed in the first quarter of the first game. They couldn’t get anything going offensively. Then they inserted the Turk, who scored like 8 straight points. Prince started a couple of games. That is about all that needs to be said for that series, besides the fact that Joe D realized he needed to add a few more pieces.

The 2002-2003 season was a formative one for this Piston squad. Billups settled into the role of the game controller and end of the game finisher, while Rip ran defenders into screens all over the court. The coming standard of the Eastern Conference was finding their legs.

Small forward was the Pistons weakest position. Michael Curry may have been a solid defensive player, smart, and a good locker room presence, but he was an even bigger offensive liability than Ben Wallace. I remember teams leaving him extremely wide open behind the three line. He was essentially treated as Ben Wallace would have been if he was stationed in the perimeter. In short, Curry killed any chance to spread the defense out. Without a low post scorer to draw attention down low, the Pistons had a hard time creating easy buckets. Thus, they would go through long scoring droughts. Would the situation be remedied during the offseason? Check back to find out.

This ends the first part of my recollections of the Pistons’ 2000-2010 decade. Rambling has extended an already lengthy post into something epic. Reminiscing over basketball memories is always a good time. Come back for parts two and three. Here are a few random notes.

Biggest Waste of a Draft Pick:Rodney White
Best Draft Pick: Tayshaun Prince
Biggest Surprise: Mehmet Okur
Most missed dunks due to small hands: Ben Wallace
Best Fro: Ben Wallace
Master of the Universe: Jon Barry
Least Registered Impact in the Box Score: Michael Curry
Best Dennis Rodman Impersinator: Jerome “Junk Yard Dog” Williams
Oldest looking young player: Brian Cardinal
Most likely to get stupid tech: Jon Barry
Best shaved head: Eric Montross
646502 Most washed up free agent signing: Loy Vaught, Cedric Ceballos (tied)
Smallest white guy: John Crotty 6’1
Best name: Ratko Varda
Best reason to attend a Pistons game: The dancing usher
World’s Largest Baby: Antoine Walker

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One Response to “Lucid Memories of the Piston’s Past Decade, Pt. 1: The Building of a Champion”

  1. Great stuff… Brings me back through the years!

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