ESPN's John Hollinger, the D-League of NBA statisticians, has suggested that the 2004 Pistons won their championship thanks to a string of key injuries to the Pacers, Nets and Lakers. Hollinger's comment related to an article by Bill Simmons about NBA champions whose success was impacted by key injuries to playoff competitors. Simmons premise is that whoever wins the 2012 championship should have an asterisk on their title mentioning Derrick Rose's ACL. Simmons listed 20 teams that have benefited from injuries like this one, and Hollinger chimed in to mention one Simmons didn't include-- our own 2004 Detroit Pistons.
One more for @sportsguy33 asterisk list: '04 Pistons. Nets, Pacers, Lakers all had key injuries against them.— John Hollinger (@johnhollinger) May 3, 2012
The one time Bill Simmons doesn't trash the accomplishments of the Detroit Pistons, John Hollinger has to chime in with the assist. It's a frustrating continuation of ignorance by ESPN writers that appears to suggest a bias against this team. The same people who counted out the Pistons in the 2004 playoffs are now discounting their title in hindsight.
It's not just insulting, it's factually incorrect. Did key injuries to the Nets, Pacers and Lakers gift wrap a title for the Detroit Pistons in 2004? Let's take a look back and explore whether or not Hollinger's claim holds any water, or if it is just as insulting and short-sighted as it appears at face value.
Which key Nets players were injured during the series against the Pistons?
Jason Kidd, Kerry Kittles, Richard Jefferson, Kenyon Martin and Jason Collins started all 7 games against the Pistons in the 2nd round of the 2004 playoffs. In the regular season, Rodney Rogers, Lucious Harris, Aaron Williams and Brian Scalabrine played regular minutes as role players off the bench. All four of these players were available in the playoffs throughout the series against the Pistons. If all of these players were available, which key injury was New Jersey dealing with?
Hollinger must be referring to Alonzo Mourning. After missing the entire 2002-03 season, Mourning had signed a four-year deal with the Nets in 2003, but retired just weeks into the season. His well-known kidney transplant took place in December of 2003, and he didn't return to form until the 2004-05 season in Miami.
To suggest that the Pistons won this series due to an injury to Alonzo Mourning is a laughable stretch. The man missed the entire season before 2003-04 and played 12 poor games with the Nets before retiring. He returned in 2004-05 and added another 18 poor games before being traded back to Miami. If New Jersey had the Alonzo Mourning of 2001 in the 2004 playoffs, the Pistons might not have won. And if Detroit still had the Ben Wallace of 2004, they might have made the playoffs this season.
The Pistons beat the same New Jersey Nets they had lost to the season prior. They were the same team that went to the NBA Finals the year before, but the Pistons defeated them in '04. To suggest that Alonzo Mourning's well-documented, multi-year injury tipped this series to Detroit is one hell of a stretch. Hell, I didn't even remember Mourning being a Net until digging into the data...
Which key Pacers players were injured during the series against the Pistons?
Indiana's full roster was available for all six games against Detroit in the third round. Jamaal Tinsley was the only Pacer to miss any time, having sat out most of game six with an ankle injury. Tinsley was largely ineffective throughout the 2004 playoffs, contributing little on offense and doing nothing to stop Chauncey Billups.
Jermaine O'Neal had his knee drained after game four, but still managed to close out the series with a 20-10 outing in game six. O'Neal rebounded better and blocked more shots per game against Detroit than he did vs. Miami or Boston, two skills usually impacted by knee injuries.
Given that Indiana fielded a full roster against Detroit, and the "injured" players contributed on par with their typical production, how was Detroit given an advantage by these injuries? This was the same team that lost to Detroit the following season as well-- except this time they had DPOY Ron Artest in tow. Detroit won this series legitimately against an Indiana team with their full roster available.
Which key Lakers players were injured during the series against the Pistons?
In game 2, Karl Malone sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee and still managed to play 39 minutes in the contest. Malone was available for the next two games but was held out of the series-ending game five. Hollinger is not the first to suggest that the Pistons beat the Lakers because Karl Malone was not at full health. Like anyone else who has ever mentioned this talking point, Hollinger is wrong. And also an asshat.
Karl Malone played a full 44 minutes against the Pistons in game 1, scoring just 4 points on 9 shots at 100% health. Is this the kind of production that would have pushed an otherwise blowout performance into the Lakers favor? Malone scored more during game 2, injured, than he did in 44 minutes of play while healthy in game 1.
Malone was a victim of Detroit's strategy that nearly swept the series-- let Shaq get his and shut down everybody else. If Malone didn't injure his knee in game 2, Kobe still would have shot 38% against Detroit's defense. The Lakers still would have had no one contribute anything on the offensive end other than Kobe and Shaq, as only twice in that entire series did another Laker contribute double figure scoring.
This was one of the most dominant defensive performances in NBA Finals history. When Karl Malone was healthy, Detroit shut him down just as they did every other Laker not wearing jersey number 34. To suggest that the Pistons title should come with an asterisk with the name Karl Malone on it is entirely ignorant of what happened in that series.
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Did injuries to competing teams give Detroit an unlikely shot at a title in 2004?
No, and it is impossible to make the case without revisionist history. Karl Malone was a poor player in the 2004 playoffs and he was ineffective against Detroit even at full health. The Pacers had their full roster available throughout the 2004 Conference Finals, and the only players who were hobbled were capable of producing in line with their season averages. The Pistons defeated the same New Jersey Nets team they were swept by in 2003, and the only anecdote is that a retired Alonzo Mourning who didn't play a game in the season prior was no longer with the team.
In total, competitive injuries did not have a remotely significant impact on the Pistons playoff performance in 2004. There's no asterisk or footnote that should diminish the team's achievement and Hollinger's suggestion, frankly, is asinine.
What does this say about John Hollinger?
Hollinger is best known for creating an advanced metric called PER (player efficiency rating) that uses box score data, both positive and negative, to quantify a player's production in a single number. The greatest problem with PER is that a player's defensive production, beyond blocks and steals, is not reflected in this metric. Take Ben Wallace for example-- Wallace's career PER of 15.5 places him very slightly above average when compared to other NBA players. However, Wallace is a once-in-a-generation defensive talent, owner of four Defensive Player of the Year awards and the lowest single season Defensive Rating in NBA history. In evaluating Wallace, Hollinger's PER is a clear failure.
Given that the 2004 Pistons won their championship on defense, first and foremost, is it a surprise that Hollinger would discount their achievement that season? Not to me. His opinion shared on twitter is false, and we deserve a retraction. The 2004 Detroit Pistons were legitimate champions, having won their title without the benefit of injuries from any of their playoff competitors. Karl Malone's knee, Jamal Tinsley's ankle and Alonzo Mourning's retirement are not even worth an afterthought, let alone an asterisk.