By Patrick Hayes
When the 2003-2004 season started, I was a general studies major at Oakland University and a co-anchor of one of the worst public access sports shows in the history of television, Sideline Sports Wrap. My first segment on the PTI-ripoff was a month into the Pistons season, and the topic was whether it was a smart decision to draft Darko Milicic.
The guy had barely left the bench. Meanwhile, LeBron, Wade, Anthony and Bosh immediately entered the league playing like All-Stars. So, 2003 Patrick Hayes, would you take a do-over if you were Joe Dumars?
I don't remember my exact response, but basically, I argued for three minutes why Darko would save the franchise eventually. I said he will "take the league by storm." I wore makeup. That tape haunted me. Every time my roomates and I had friends over, that tape found its way into the VCR for the next three years.
I thank God every day that tape no longer exists or, even worse, was put YouTube. Just like Joe Dumars thanks God every day that 2003-2004 team won the championship, because if they hadn't, he would be getting clowned by Gary Payton and Chris Webber as an analyst on a studio show three nights a week about the time he was GM of the Pistons and passed on three All-Stars for a Serbian teenager who's best accomplishment was ripping his jersey off Hulk Hogan-style during a game.
But the mistakes of that season, even colossal ones like missing with the second pick in arguably the best draft in NBA history, don't sting too much because of that championship.
The Palace was crazy loud then, before the bandwagon and corporate fans took over the place. Larry Brown finally found a talented team humble enough to let him yell at them every day. And for the first time in his life, Rasheed Wallace fit in on a team and in a city perfectly.
Remember Me? Larry Brown, wherever he goes, falls in love with limited swingmen who are allegedly defense/hustle guys, although no fan can really figure out what exactly those players do. For a few games in the 03-04 season, that player for the Pistons was Tremaine Fowlkes. He would come into games at weird times, you would never know he was there, and then he would leave.
LB, at that point in his pre-Knicks career, had some notables in the media who threw around the "genius" tag a lot when they wrote and talked about him. I like to think the reason he played guys like Fowlkes was to try and see if these fanboys would buy it. Say something, as he adjusts his professor glasses, like "Hey, Tremaine Fowlkes is a potential NBA-All Defense player," and then wait for Kornheiser to whip out a column telling the rest of us we are idiots for not seeing it.
Brown would occasionally praise Fowlkes, even when his stat line looked something like this. But then, as Larry Brown is wont to do, he suddenly was captivated by Darvin Ham's ability to defend and hustle and, before we even really got to know him, Tremaine Fowlkes quietly disappeared.
Best Moment: It wasn't just winning the championship; it was the way in which they won it. The Pistons, featuring zero superstars, obliterated a dynasty. It's no secret the Lakers tried to sneak one more title out of the crumbling Kobe/Shaq tandem by bringing in vets Gary Payton and Karl Malone for minimum salaries.
In the Finals, Chauncey Billups abused Payton. He averaged four points and four assists per game in more than 30 minutes per night.
Malone, who was hobbled by a knee injury and sat out the last game of the series, averaged five points and seven rebounds a game and immediately retired after the season.
Kobe shot 38 percent. Shaq demanded a trade and was sent to Miami. The Lakers gave up on the best player in the trade, Caron Butler, after one season and decided Kwame Brown was a better fit. Their "core" of Bryant, Odom and ... Smush Parker, I guess, led them to the following finishes in the West the next three years: 11th, 7th, 7th.
A big frustration of this era of Pistons basketball has been the so-called "flip the switch" mentality. Looking back on this series, it is easy to imagine where it came from. They were a less talented team that simply willed their way to a championship in an instance where virtually everyone, including many of their fans, I would bet, did not expect them to win more than a game or two in the series.
It makes sense that in following years, the core members of that team, with that amazing accomplishment never out of their minds, along with the skepticism they faced in the process, were always confident they could do whatever they wanted, even when the evidence told them they probably shouldn't have been so confident.
Awards: Ben Wallace, All-NBA Second Team and All-Defense First Team, All-Star; Chauncey Billups, NBA Finals MVP.
The Drama: The draft, of course, will probably go down as the worst decision of Joe Dumars' career as an executive (unless of course Michael Curry hangs around as coach a couple more years ... he has mad potential to be even worse than Darko).
Through sheer luck, the Pistons were able to cash in on a pick that had been lottery protected for years after a trade that sent Otis Thorpe to the Grizzlies. In 2003, the pick was only protected if it was No. 1 overall, so landing at No. 2 was an absolute gift, especially considering the following year, the Grizzlies were a playoff team, so Detroit would have been picking late in the first round had the Grizz lucked into the top spot. And while the Darko pick will be talked about by revisionist NBA pundits forever, a little talked about part of that draft is that Joe D also missed pretty significantly with the second of his first rounders, 25th overall, which he used on Carlos Delfino while Josh Howard, Leandro Barbosa, Kendrick Perkins and Mo Williams were all on the board. He also had the last pick in the draft, used on Andreas Glyniadakis, although I am sure no one would have minded if that pick was used on Marquis Daniels or Matt Carroll instead.
Results: The team finished 54-28, second in the Central to Indiana, and second overall in the East. They beat Milwaukee in five games in the first round, New Jersey in seven, Indiana in six and the Lakers in five in the Finals.
Best Boxscore: I don't think going into this game, Larry Brown thought Brian "No socks" Scalabrine would put the Pistons down 3-2 in the second round of the playoffs against New Jersey, but with four Nets fouled out in the double-OT game, Scal came in and hit 6-of-7 shots, including 4-of-4 threes, in the game of his life and pushed the Pistons to the brink of elimination. Fouls were an issue for both teams, as each had four guys foul out. But Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince are just a tad more valuable than Aaron Williams, Jason Collins, Rodney Rogers and K-Mart.
Lasting Memories: In order to win the championship, Joe Dumars again needed the help of a player turned executive making a ridiculous trade. In 2002-2003, it was Michael Jordan giving up Rip Hamilton and this season, it was Danny Ainge, for reasons that still make no sense, taking Chucky Atkins' contract, which allowed the Pistons to get Rasheed Wallace.
Atkins was making about $4 million a year, signed for three more years. Dumars refuses to go into luxury tax territory, and Atlanta had no interest in taking Chucky's contract.
Boston, which finished the season 36-46 but still managed to make the playoffs, decided to help turn a conference rival into an elite team for the forseeable future all for the services of a journeyman PG and a draft pick they would use to take Tony Allen.
That trade set up what are the two most obvious memorable moments from that season. They need no description.
(Listen to Doc Rivers' description ... dude was a very good analyst. If that happened today, we would have missed the play because Van Gundy would be talking about how awesome a movie Gran Turino was or or having Mark Jackson explain to him who the Jonas Brothers are).
Up Next: John Green single-handedly dismantles a very good Indiana Pacers team.