Throwback Transactions is an NBA.com Philippines series that revisits notable franchise-altering NBA trades and signings.
The 2003-2004 NBA Season was all about one team: the Los Angeles Lakers.
After a team led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant failed to win their fourth straight championship in 2003, they reloaded for the new season by adding Gary Payton and Karl Malone on discounted deals.
It was difficult not to cover a team like the Lakers that season. Having four Hall of Fame players in one team was unheard of at that time. Everyone wanted to watch Shaq, Kobe, the Glove, and the Mailman try to bring the trophy back to LA.
No one was paying attention to the Detroit Pistons that year. There were bigger storylines to follow even out in the East. There was LeBron James’ rookie campaign, the overachieving Indiana Pacers, and the underachieving New Jersey Nets.
What everyone missed out on that season was the culmination of the Pistons’ growth into one of the meanest defensive teams in the history of the NBA.
The first piece of the puzzle was the man in the middle. In the 2000 season, the Orlando Magic threw in their back-up big man Ben Wallance into a sign-and-trade package for Grant Hill. That trade was seen as lopsided in favor of the Magic back then but Wallace proved everybody wrong. Given the starting role in Detroit, Wallace became the anchor of the revamped Pistons’ defense.
The year 2002 was when the Pistons brought together the bulk of their core.
The Pistons used their 23rd pick that year to draft Tayshaun Prince. Although he wasn’t initially part of the rotation, he broke out in the 2003 playoffs when he was given the opportunity and owned the starting small forward position from that point on.
In the same offseason, Detroit swooped in to sign Chauncey Billups away from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Billups had a breakout season with the Timberwolves the year before filling in for the injured Terrell Brandon. Just like Wallace, Billups was given a bigger opportunity in Detroit as their new starting point guard.
Before the 2002 season officially started, the team pulled off a stunner of a deal. They traded away All-Star forward Jerry Stackhouse for rising scorer Rip Hamilton. It was a controversial move at that time since Stackhouse was seen as the franchise player of the team after Hill.
Hamilton didn’t disappoint. He was a low usage player that played primarily off ball, fitting into the new superstarless direction that the team was pivoting to.
With Wallace, Prince, Billups and Hamilton on board, the Pistons finished with the best record in the East, winning 50 games. More importantly, their defensive rating ranking rose from 8th to 4th in the 2002-2003 season.
Even with all their regular season success, they still couldn’t get over the hump. They were swept by the Nets in the East Finals. They needed one final piece to complete the puzzle.
The Pistons continued their winning ways in the 03-04 season but they were overtaken by the Pacers as the best team in the East. Before the trade deadline passed, the Pistons pulled off a deal that got them multi-time All-Star Rasheed Wallace.
Wallace was the focal point of the Portland Trail Blazers offense before he was traded away. He could have fought for the same kind of role with the Pistons. Instead he took on a smaller role to fit in with the current core of the team.
With the Wallaces holding down the fort in the paint and the steady, solid play of Hamilton, Billups, and Prince out in the wings, the Pistons were one of the best defensive teams in the league. They ranked second in defensive rating that season, behind only the defending champions, the San Antonio Spurs. They led the league in points allowed, giving up only 84.3 points per game. They limited their opponents to only 41.3 percent shooting (3rd in the NBA) and led the league in blocks with 7.0 per game.
Their numbers were one thing, but the attitude that they brought to every game was another factor to their run to the championship. With Sheed on the team, they were more brash than before. Sure they were a playoff team in previous seasons. But that season, they let teams know they were going to make life miserable for them. The cornrows were off. The Pistons were now rocking their ‘fro, loud and proud.
The best example of the Pistons’ new attitude was the Eastern Conference Finals. After they lost Game 1 to the Pacers, Rasheed Wallace proudly declared, “We will win Game 2.”
They did. They limited the best team in the league to just 67 points in Game 2, turning the series around. The Pistons won the East, earning them the opportunity to face off against the Lakers and their Hall of Famers.
It wasn’t much of a contest. To everyone’s surprise, the Pistons absolutely dominated the Lakers, winning the NBA Championship in just five games.
Looking back, there was no iconic play that captured the essence of that year’s Finals. True to their nature, Detroit just systematically beat down LA defensively.
The Pistons proved in the Finals that not all super teams are built the same way.
The Lakers assembled their decadent roster almost overnight. They didn’t have the opportunity to gel together as a team. Bryant dealt with off-court issues all season long. It also didn’t help that he had an ongoing feud with O’Neal. Payton and Malone did all they could, but Malone missing a huge chunk of the season due to injury also took away their chance to bring it all together on the court.
In contrast, the Pistons took their time to assemble their roster. They found the right pieces that would fit their team’s identity. They made sure there were no egos that would clash. That 2004 team was a machine. All the pieces fit and worked well with each other.
Four out of the five starters would eventually make an All-Star Team. It could be argued that those four are Hall of Fame players as well, just like the ones the Lakers had that season. They were a superteam hiding in plain sight. No one knew it yet because they never called attention to themselves. There was nothing fancy about the Detroit brand of basketball in 2004. They all just put their hard hats on and went to work.