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Why Detroit won
by Dennis Hans / June 15, 2004

The Detroit Pistons are the 2004 NBA champions for a host of reasons, foremost among them the brilliance of Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups, the Carolina Connection and perfectionist approach of coach Larry Brown, and the terrible luck of the great Karl Malone.

A reasonably healthy Malone would have transformed the lopsided Finals into a six- or seven-game epic struggle of close, hard-fought games, though the Pistons would have probably won just the same. Still, Malone’s injury does not detract from the Pistons’ magnificent effort and the major contributions from their players, coaches and front office.

As I explained before the series, Ben Wallace is one of the few people in the league who can do a respectable job, all by his lonesome, on the mighty Shaq – and do so without fouling excessively. Ben was the primary defender on Shaq, generally giving way only when Elden Campbell was on the floor, yet he never got in foul trouble. That was critical, because it allowed him to be his hustling, harassing, deflecting and rebounding self for 41 full-bore minutes a game. Ben proved again that not only is he the best defender in the league – the gifted Ron Artest simply isn’t in his class – but the smartest as well.

Billups made great strides in the Finals toward becoming the floor general his coach wants him to be – all the while averaging better than 20 points a game. Brown’s season-long badgering about shot selection and “playing the game the right way” finally paid dividends, as we saw very few of those pull-up trey attempts on the break, a la Baron Davis or Jason Williams, that rightly drove Brown to distraction. Billups drove and dished, drove and finished, and ran the pick-and-roll with Rasheed Wallace to perfection. Billups also joined his running mate, the tireless and deadly Rip Hamilton, in getting and draining an awful lot of good-percentage mid-range jumpers. Those are the kind of shots Brown loves, because they make your offense highly resistant to droughts.

Brown received unexpected help early in the season from a Carolina Connection acquaintance – over-the-hill Phoenix Suns benchwarmer Scott Williams. Granted, it was an accident when Williams wrecked the knee of
the previously indestructible Karl Malone. But that partially torn ligament sidelined the Mailman for three months, and when he did return he was one awkward landing away from immobility.

In those moments of the Finals when Malone could move a little bit (mostly the first quarters, before his knee stiffened up), he not only put the clamps on Rasheed, he consistently got him in foul trouble. Granted, this was mild foul trouble. It’s Brown’s fault, not the refs, that Rasheed sat out so many second quarters with just two fouls. Brown’s extreme caution cut into Rasheed’s minutes, prevented him from getting into an offensive groove or learning how to play effectively with fouls, and would have been a huge factor if the Lakers had ended up winning the Finals.

Malone was the defensive hero against San Antonio and Minnesota, neutralizing the league’s past two MVPs. Fortunately for the Pistons, he tweaked the knee late in the Minnesota series, and a second tweak early in the Finals really set him back, and not just defensively. On offense, he couldn’t cut and slash to the hoop. All he could do was hang around outside and hope to make a jumper or a nice pass. But those passing lanes close up when the defender knows he doesn’t have to worry about anything – not drives, not cuts, not outside shots.

Make no mistake, Malone’s injury was a devastating blow. As was evident during the regular season, the Lakers are a far weaker team without him – at both ends of the court. Let’s hope he makes a complete recovery and rejoins the Lakers for another run at that elusive ring.

One thing this series made clear for those who hadn’t already figured it out is that Kobe Bryant, despite his obvious greatness and stunning ability to deliver in the clutch, is not the player or athlete that Michael Jordan was in his prime. That’s no knock on Kobe; it’s just a fact. Jordan was more quick, springy and elusive, and he had the rare ability to get himself or a teammate a really good shot most any time. Kobe was not able to do this on a consistent basis throughout the series, and that was a factor in his own and the Lakers’ difficulties scoring.

And that leads to another key factor: the Pistons’ individual and team defense, particularly on Kobe. Tayshaun Prince and his long arms could stay up on Kobe because he knew he had help, usually from Rasheed, if Kobe drove. Rasheed was free to help because Ben battled Shaq on his own. All Rasheed had to do was keep one eye on helpless Karl or the struggling Slava Medvedenko while playing the combo role of rover back and traffic cop, barking out advice to teammates about picks and stuff.

One reason Rasheed was there – “there” being the city of Detroit – is that darn Carolina Connection. If Larry Brown did not know Rasheed but merely knew of his reputation, he might have decided that Rasheed would be more trouble than he’s worth and passed up the chance to grab him. Both Brown and Pistons president Joe Dumars wanted Rasheed and were confident he’d fit in well, not only on both ends of the court, but in the locker room. They were right.

So all in all, it was one heckuva championship effort by all the Pistons, from the owner Bill Davidson, who had the smarts to hire Dumars, to the coach and the players.

Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball -- including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting -- have appeared online at the Sporting News, Slate and The Black World Today. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.

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