By Patrick Hayes
Of course, it is fairly obvious the Pistons were not too into playing basketball for about, oh, the last six months or so. And if we can rely on columnists for one thing, we can rely on them to state the obvious. Usually loudly. But at least the accompanying pictures are handsome.
Maybe the negativity bothers me so much because I was perhaps the worst denialist in existence when it came to this run being over. Before the season, I vehemently defended keeping the core intact. I, um ... let's just say I got a little ahead of myself because of Michael Curry's preseason promises. I defended Rasheed Wallace. And I went a tad overboard defending Allen Iverson (I know ... that's not a popular stance around these parts ... please don't ban me).
Looking at how it ended, barely showing up against a Cavs team that exhibits all of the fun characteristics that made us love the Pistons early in their run, I obviously feel kind of stupid for some of the things I wrote as it was unfolding. We have to be honest: it became very hard to root for these guys at the end. But at the same time, we have to try not to let that diminish what this core group did accomplish, which was honestly remarkable.
There are plenty of apt comparisons between this era and the Bad Boys era: in nine straight playoff appearances, the Bad Boys won two titles, lost in the Finals once, the Eastern Conference Finals once, the second round once and the first round three times.
This version has been in the playoffs eight straight years, won a title, lost in the Finals once, lost in the Eastern Conference Finals four times, the second round once and the first round once.
This year, the Pistons lost in rather uncompetitive fashion to a team with a hungry superstar. In 1991, the Bad Boys were swept by a team with a hungry superstar. Remember this (skip to about the 8:20 mark unless you want to see about a million MJ highlights)?
Yes, I know, much weaker East now, winning in the Celtics/Lakers era and Jordan era is more impressive, we love Laimbeer, blah, blah, blah. I'm not making the case that one team was better than the other, I'm just making the case that success-wise, they were very comparable, and the current Pistons have done so without a Hall of Famer. The Bad Boys had two, along with borderline All-Stars in Rodman and Laimbeer and an insanely deep bench.
And while it was just as clear in 1991 that the Bad Boys era was over, at least they went out how we would expect them to: having several players leave the bench before time expired rather than shake hands with the Bulls.
The Bad Boys were Detroit basketball, though. Thomas, Dumars, Rodman and Salley were all drafted by the Pistons. Laimbeer was traded here midway through his second season. Those guys grew up together ... the bond was different. Their careers were associated with Detroit and nothing else to that point.
This version was a bunch of castoffs. Other than Prince, none of the core players were drafted here. Billups was on his sixth team, Rasheed Wallace was on his fourth, Ben Wallace on his third. They either came here because the Pistons were hiring or they came here because another team didn't want them and shipped them out. By the time they got here, they were veterans, hardened by the business of the NBA. The team was important because it was steady employment, but business clearly trumped any fond feelings for the team or city itself. When it was clearly over after the Billups trade, they knew their futures would be elsewhere.
We loved them because they were flawed, because they were castoffs and misfits in other places and because they came to Detroit and proved that teams who gave up on them or couldn't see their individual talents were wrong. Professional athletes are often not real to us, living some sort of superhero-wannabe life with unfathomable money that makes them seem not human. These players were real (Prince, Sheed and Billups were regulars at the TGI Fridays by my house when I lived in Auburn Hills, the same place all of the broke college students would eat three times a week) ... they went through things professionally that we can relate to. At their best, they triumphed over seemingly insurmountable odds and won a championship through sheer will. At their worst, they were fractured by in-fighting, complacency, age, management incompetence and their own egos -- real people issues.
Remember Me: No point in profiling a player here, since we are all fully aware of the roster. But, for Michael Curry's benefit, since he forgot about certain players all year, let's take a look back at his wonderful rotation highlights:
Amir Johnson started 24 games. He got DNP-CDs in 20 games.
Walter Herrmann played six minutes or fewer in 18 games in January and February. Then Michael Curry remembered Herrmann could shoot the three and he was moved back into the rotation the rest of the season.
Jason Maxiell was placed in Michael Curry's doghouse, not playing in two straight games in January, thus the DNP-MCIAFI was born.
And of course, the Allen Iverson/Rip Hamilton relationship was tenuous. Neither wanted to come off the bench. One was going to be pissed no matter what. How do we solve it? Make them both come off the bench, making both give up on the season. Bravo sir.
Best Moment: You mean I have to pick just one? Seriously though, this season was not without highlights, even if they were relatively minor compared to the past. The best thing to come out of the season ... the enigma known as William F. Bynum. If only they'd found him in 2005.
And before Mr. Stuckey hit the wall, he was ballin:
Awards: A certain beloved Piston was voted into the All-Star game. I think he has the Detroit fans to thank for that.
The Drama: The season was all drama, but it was defined by the Billups/Iverson trade.
Iverson is the easy villain in this. Billups went to Denver, balanced that team, gave them some toughness and has helped them be a competent playoff team for the first time in the Carmelo Anthony era.
But obviously, Iverson is gone. Joe Dumars will be defined by this move. As we've said, winning has masked some of his mistakes. Now, all eyes are on him, and this latest mistake directly ruined the season. If a big move is not forthcoming this summer or next, it will drastically affect his legacy as an executive.
Results: The team finished 39-43 and lost in four in the first round of the playoffs.
Best Boxscore: The Orlando Magic were a top four team in the NBA all season. They have arguably the best center in the league and solid players at every other position, yet they haven't been able to solve the Pistons for, oh, about four years or so. But that would all change now that the Pistons were barely a playoff team and the Magic were among the league's elite, right?
Not really. On March 9, the Pistons completed a season sweep of the Magic with a 98-94 win. Some things just make no sense.
Lasting Memories: Taken on its own, this season has no pleasant memories for any Piston fan. But honestly, was there any other way this could have ended? The five core guys on this team were so tight with each other, bonded by their collective failures elsewhere and success here. They wanted to stay in Detroit for each other. They wanted Detroit to be home because they were comfortable here.
When Ben left, it was on his own volition ... dude had to get paid. They understood. When Chauncey was traded, it was a business again. Any of them could go next. The passionless season had little to do with Iverson. It was about the players clearly seeing an ending to something they didn't want to end. I think it snuck up on all of them, even if it was obvious to the outside world the last three years that it had to be broken up.
I don't hold a grudge ... those guys did better here than any of us had a right to expect. If they are all shipped out next year, they will all go and be useful players on other teams, just like Chauncey did and just like Ben has done for Cleveland this year. It is probably best for Rip, Prince and Rasheed to move on as well, if fair trades can be found for Rip/Prince.
For the era to end that way, fans have every right to feel some bitterness. But it will heal. This team does deserve more from us than that, even if it is hard to accept the ending. The five core guys all accomplished enough here to have their jerseys hanging from the Palace rafters someday, and when they are hanging there, we will only remember the good times.