The early 2000s was a time of great transition for me personally. Graduating from high school and into college, I wasn’t the highest achiever in class, but I was beginning to come into my own and find my feet as a person.
Basketball was also slowly beginning to grow in popularity as a sport in India. At my high school in the city of Chennai, I was part of a small group of friends who started following the NBA more closely.
We took to the court and led the charge when it came to emulating the likes of Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant with his sleek crossover dribbles, fadeaway jump shots, and up-and-under layups.
Those in the group gifted with height made their best impression of Bryant’s teammate, center Shaquille O’Neal, by bullying smaller opponents in the post. Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett was another popular choice with his signature arsenal of jab steps, shot fakes and fadeaways.
We must have looked pretty amusing on the court in those days but we sure made an impact on our juniors and the school’s management.
We played through PE classes, class breaks and after-school sessions all the while, attracting our own set of young impressionable eyeballs.
The sport was gaining popularity in the school, and it didn’t take long for management to recognize that the facility needed renovation. What was once a concrete surface for small-time cricket games among juniors finally regained its status as a real basketball court.
All the lines were given a do-over with fresh paint whilst wooden backboards were taken down and replaced by fiberglass, replete with a brand new pair of rims and nets.
I wasn’t the fittest guy on the court, but I was able to make the high school team as a bench warmer for several tournaments. While traveling with the team, I saw so many other kids, who like us, had all taken a liking to the game after being inspired by their on-screen NBA heroes.
By 2003, images of Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson were all over the local Reebok store, as were motion stills of Orlando Magic guard Tracy McGrady at the Adidas store. I even remember walking into a Nike store with a friend and asking staff about when to expect a batch of the latest Air Jordan kicks or team jerseys.
Regardless of the state of play in the country, it was clear that the NBA and its brand had made an impact. But in a league full of superstars and highlight reels, some of us took pride in recognizing the lesser-known teams—the workhorses, whose efforts often went unnoticed.
The 2003-04 Detroit Pistons exemplified that in spades as they pulled off one of the era’s most (seemingly, on the surface) David-and-Goliath upsets. (In hindsight, perhaps they were as equal a challenger as that season could have produced regardless of their opponent.)
BAD BOYS II
2003 was shaping up to be an exciting year for the league, complete with fresh superstar teams and overhauled rosters. An unprecedented and much-anticipated draft yielded several players that were poised to lead the NBA into the next generation.
Over the off-season, the Los Angeles Lakers had added aging-but-still effective veterans Karl Malone and Gary Payton. It was a last-ditch effort to coax one more championship out of the Bryant-O’Neal led franchise.
The Minnesota Timberwolves had amassed their trio to match when they added all-star swingman Latrell Sprewell to the group led by Garnett and guard Sam Cassell.
The San Antonio Spurs were amidst their golden run and fresh off a championship from the season prior while the small-market Memphis Grizzlies were poised to finally have a strong season powered by Pau Gasol and legendary coach Hubie Brown.
For me, however, the excitement came from watching a group of relatively lesser-known stars work their magic as a team while leading a renaissance of joy in a city that was otherwise going through another decade of decline.
When I look back, there were so many aspects that made those Detroit Pistons both successful and entertaining despite winning on the relatively un-glamorous side of the court.
Per Advanced NBA Stats, the Pistons finished first in regular-season opponent points per game (84.3), third for opposing field goal percentage (41.3) and 24th in points per game with just 90.1.
Powering to a 54-28 finish in the regular season (sixth in the league), it all started with the atmosphere created on home turf, the Palace at Auburn Hills. I remember this being more akin to something from an evening of professional wrestling than an NBA match.
Led by public address announcer John Mason, games were kicked off with an exciting and intimidating show to introduce the starting lineups. Mason would continue to regale audiences through the evening announcing “Chauncey buh-buh-buh Billups” whenever the guard hit a big shot or by ringing a bell (an imitation of London’s Big Ben, I presume) every time forward Ben Wallace scored.
What was truly amazing, and set the tone for an egalitarian cast whose starting five has been historically lauded for its balance—and whose bench was a lot deeper than folks remember or realized at the time.
It all started with defensive big man Ben Wallace. A winner of multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards, Wallace had joined the league as an undrafted player and cut his teeth by making it near impossible to score at the rim.
In a league dominated by tall centers and power forwards, Wallace was holding his own at just 6’9” and would go on to finish the regular season averaging 3.0 blocks per game (second in the league) and 1.8 steals per game (eighth).
I remember excitedly bringing up Wallace in many conversations at the time, which was often met with some combination of, “but do you really think he can match up with Shaquille O’Neal?”
In my opinion, Wallace was one of just a handful of centers at the time who could guard O’Neal one on one. His opportunity to show off his mettle would come on the grandest stage that year: the championship-winning Game 5 of the NBA finals against the Lakers in Detroit.
Wallace would lead an effort to hold the Lakers to just 41.3 percent shooting while tallying 23 points, 22 rebounds, 3 steals and 1 block en-route to a 100-87 victory and 4-1 series win to take the championship. It was perhaps the finest hour of his career when it mattered most:
Following closely on Wallace’s heels was lanky forward Tayshaun Prince. Also listed at 6’9”, Prince was a padlock wing for the opposing team’s best forwards or guards on any given night while also occasionally coming up with big shots down the stretch.
Though not a traditional scorer, Prince’s clutch play late in games often helped the Pistons keep defenses honest.
This jumper late in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals helped put away the Indiana Pacers 69-65:
But the highlight of the season for Prince came in Game 2 of the same series when he chased down Pacers guard Reggie Miller to deny an otherwise game-tying lay-up late in the fourth quarter.
Prince finished the game with 4 blocks and 2 steals en route to a 72-67 victory over the Pacers in Indiana. (Side note: Seriously, how much has the game changed in a decade-and-a-half when you look at these final scores. These would be halftime tallies today!)
But though the Pistons were mostly all about defense, then still needed to score.
On the offensive end, Richard ‘Rip’ Hamilton was the closest thing to an “offensive specialist” this team would field. But the skinny shooting guard with crafty quickness had an elite stroke from mid-range.
He made not having the ball cool; His movement without the ball rivaled the likes of Reggie Miller and Seattle SuperSonics guard Ray Allen:
What was even more amazing about Hamilton’s scoring prowess was his non-existent shot from outside.
Through the 2003-04 NBA regular season, he averaged less that one (0.9) 3 point shot attempt per game. Over the same period, he averaged 14.9 2-point field goal attempts en route to a team-leading 17.6 points per game through the season.
That makes Hamilton’s exploits even more amazing. On a team that already didn’t have a lot of reliable floor-spacers, Hamilton operated in some of the most crowded lanes imaginable and still did his thing with machine-like efficiency and a ton of energy expended:
If you had to look at a modern-day comparison to Hamilton, I would probably go with Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton, in being an understated superstar scorer that could be counted on for a steady supply of good quality and regular shot-making. (On the flipside, Middleton has plenty of modern range, which creates extra space for both himself and Giannis Antetokounmpo to operate.)
While Hamilton undoubtedly set the tone for the team’s offense it was backcourt mate Chauncey Billups who provided the leadership and came up with the biggest shots late in-games.
Safe to say, Billups had a bulldog’s mentality—going at defenses with his speed and power and proving that, above all else, timing is everything.
Through the regular season, Billups averaged a solid 16.9 points and 5.7 assists per game on 39.4 percent shooting (38.8 percent 3-point shooting) and 87.8 percent from the charity stripe. But when it mattered the most, ‘Mr. Big shot’ upped his game to average 21.0 points per game on 50 percent shooting from the field (47.1 percent from 3-point land) and 92.9 percent from the charity stripe in 5 games against the Lakers during the Finals.
Billups was rightfully awarded the finals MVP after Detroit rolled over what so many regarded as a true Lakers superteam. (In hindsight, they were banged up and completely fractured chemistry-wise, but the degree to which they were eviscerated is nonetheless impressive to this day.)
While the Pistons were already title contenders during the season prior, a key mid-season pickup made a big difference to their hopes in the 2003-04 season. (This is so similar to the 1988-89 “Bad Boys I” group adding Mark Aguirre!)
All-Star forward Rasheed Wallace was acquired via trade—from the Atlanta Hawks, where he played only one game after being picked up from the Portland Trail Blazers—and almost instantly gave the team a winning edge and veteran locker room presence.
Wallace added key outside shooting to spread the floor and a strong presence in the paint to back up Ben Wallace and Prince on the defense.
Most importantly, he added yet another edge to a team seemingly full of them on every surface.
Another key part of the team’s success also lay in the fluid-yet-structured system that head coach Larry Brown implemented. Teamwork was evident in the way all five players on court shared the ball, and this is what made the Pistons so much fun to watch.
The Pistons would go on a magical run in the post-season that year, conquering the Milwaukee Bucks in Round 1 (4-1), unseating the New Jersey Nets in Round 2 (4-3) and winning the Eastern Conference title after a hard-fought series victory over the Indiana Pacers (4-2)!
When I think back over the last two decades, I struggle to think of any other team that came close to matching the characteristics that made the 2003-04 Pistons team so appealing to me.
The team had an ensemble cast, none of whom were considered bonafide superstars up until that point. They beat teams on a nightly basis by working hard on the defensive end of the floor and won games through quality playmaking.
Even though their contender arc only lasted a couple of years, it’s hard not to think about what they would have been had they played in the NBA of today.
With the team’s size, length, athleticism and shot-making prowess, I’d reckon they’d be quite a handful for the best of ‘em today, just as they were in that era or would have been in any other.