It's hard to underestimate the degree to which Grant Hill was popular in the 1990s. With a Duke pedigree (back before everyone hated Duke), a winning smile, and a well-deserved reputation as a superstar, Hill was the Belle of the Basketball. In a post-Jordan, pre-Brady world, he was, well, not Allen Iverson.
He dropped triple-doubles. He got Americans to buy FILA shoes. A famous GQ cover literally asked if Grant Hill could save sports.
Alas, much to the sports glamour-world's dismay, Grant Hill, he of the charming smile and quasi-Ivy guile, played for the Detroit !@#$% Pistons. Sure, ESPN's newly minted sportswriters could pay lip service to the tenacity of Jerome Williams or the sweet shooting of Allan Houston, but their barely concealed contempt was concealed, barely.
Hill was a one-man team, undeserving of a mediocre supporting cast, a mismanaged Pistons franchise and, let's face it, a fading industrial town like Detroit. The team had cut ties with Isiah Thomas and sent Bison Dele out into the ocean. The Pistons also forced Magic Johnson to pretend he had AIDS, probably.
Enter the 1998 labor agreement and, with it, John Gabriel.
Gabriel, the first to recognize the implications of a suddenly-prohibitive salary cap, eschewed expensive talents, and stockpiled draft picks and undervalued players. The result? An Orlando Magic team of unheralded nobodies that managed to win 41 games and earn an unlikely playoff berth.
That alone probably merited his NBA Executive of the Year title, but it was his team's envious offseason position that cemented it. The Magic were among the first handful of teams in the post-CBA era to sport sufficient cap room to offer max contracts to two marquee free agents. And they were absolutely the best positioned to make a run at a title.
It didn't take long for the press to salivate at the possibilities. Their favorite player, Hill, joining another superstar (probably Tim Duncan or Tracy McGrady, if not both) in sunny Florida. The Pistons were coming off a dismaying first round exit (not least of which due to Hill's injury) and had little to offer other than a little more money.
Hill's agent, Lon Babby* did a good job of making himself known throughout the proceedings. He was really weighing the decision on behalf of his client. There was even a rumor Jerry Maguire was based on his strong sense of ethics.
Meanwhile, the Pistons hired Joe Dumars as GM to remedy a long track-record of burning bridges with former players. But the team itself had little prospect of becoming a real contender, having committed a fatal (in the post-CBA world) error of over-committing to marginal talents in an effort to build around their superstar. The decision was essentially inevitable.
In a decision that was heartbreaking to this particular writer (who pissed away no small portion of his prestigious Chicago ad agency internship refreshing the Internet for updates) Lon Babby's Grant Hill chose to sign with the Orlando Magic for the MAX!!!!11!1!!!!
But what if he hadn't taken the bait? What if Babby's baby had pulled the rug out from under Gabriel's magic Magic and stayed home? See, you cannot discuss Hill's departure without discussing what the Pistons received in return, namely Ben Wallace (and Chucky Atkins).
Dumars came to Detroit with a mandate to change the team's reputation. Part and parcel of that was doing right by Hill, even as he thumbed his nose at the franchise.
As such, the team took on a couple of spare parts in an effort to get Hill the best possible contract. The details are somewhat murky, but it appears Dumars wanted Bo Outlaw (then a well-respected role player), the Magic wanted to offer John Amaechi (a terrible basketball player) and they settled on Ben Wallace to pair with Atkins, who was essentially Darrell Armstrong's backup.
Dumars negotiated pretty damn well, it turns out.
It's safe to assume Hill's franchise-crushing contract would have crushed the Pistons even moreso than the Magic. Hill barely played as it was, and might have simply retired if not for the prospect of playing for a contender. Either way, it would have been Jerry Stackhouse against the world for at least a couple of seasons.
Absent Ben Wallace's MVP caliber play and league-best defense, the Pistons would have struggled to win 20 games the following season. That would have put them in an excellent position to draft Kwame Brown in the 2001 draft, depending on how the balls dropped. A better scenario would have been Tyson Chandler or Pau Gasol, but neither would have been in a position to win right away.
Further, absent a relatively promising 30 win season, wouldn't Dumars have gone even further to make the Iverson for Stackhouse trade work? Would a Kwame or Tyson have made for an irresistible trade there (i.e. sufficient to work around Matt Geiger's objections)?
It suffices to say, there would have been no championship. No six-year EC Finals run. No 'Sheed, certainly. No Rip, probably. Hero ball, definitely.
Grant Hill didn't save sports, but he certainly saved the Pistons franchise.
ADDENDUM (that isn't really one)
This piece would be incomplete without noting what might have been for the Orlando Magic franchise.
As I see it, the Ben Wallace giveaway was an unforced error on Gabriel's part. Perhaps basking in the sun of his fawning (and I mean FAWNING) press, Gabriel figured his work was complete. After all, everyone was talking about Hill and McGrady being the next Jordan and Pippen.
I do believe Dumars was really trying to be the good guy by getting Hill more money. He even said as much. He spent the rest of the offseason pawning off role-players like they were subprime loans. If Gabriel had properly valued his assets, he would have held onto Wallace and told Dumars to take Amaechi or go pound sand. But he didn't, which makes no sense.
See, you didn't need advanced stats to tell you Ben Wallace was great. He was averaging 8 rebounds and 2 blocks per game in just 24 minutes. And he did it without fouling much. That's outstanding.
Clearly that is not the guy you get rid off as a piddling throw-in. That's your starting center, especially if you are signing freaking Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill.
I chalk it up to arrogance. Gabriel was exploiting weak little Detroit, and took delight in offering a condescending little consolation prize. I mean, that's what he read in the press, right?
But let's set that nonsense aside. People didn't value rebounds then because Michael Jordan wasn't rebounds. Fine.
Gabriel was sitting on a young playoff squad that was only going to get better. Tracy McGrady was locked and loaded. Why take a huge risk on Grant Hill? Everyone knew his injuries were serious, and there was a good chance he wouldn't play for at least one season.
Keep in mind Bo Outlaw was a stud and the team already had a competent point guard in Armstrong. With Ben Wallace, that team coasts into the NBA finals, with a puncher's chance at knocking off the Lakers (unlike the 76ers, who were easy prey). And the team still would have had room to add talent.
The Wallace for Hill trade very likely cost the Magic a ring, if not multiple rings. In 2004, the year Ben Wallace led the Pistons to a championship, John Gabriel was fired, and went on to become a scout. Who hires the scout that shipped away Ben Wallace for no reason? The Knicks, of course.
*In 2010, Lon Babby was signed as President of Operations for the Phoenix Suns. He has done an able job guiding that franchise into permanent hopelessness. Maybe everyone should just stop hiring him.