By Sam Amico
Tuesday, June 22nd, 2004
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Hail the Pistons (And Bullets, Too)
Reader John McCafferty (Lexington, Ky.) wrote: "Which team in NBA history do this year's Detroit Pistons remind you of most?"
My answer: the 1978 Washington Bullets.
I am proud to admit that I'm old enough to have seen those Bullets, and that they are largely responsible for turning me on to professional basketball. Of course, I was just 10 years old in 1978, and the Bullets' championship win over Seattle in Game 7 was televised AFTER the 11 o'clock news. But as I grew older and began to follow the game more closely, I understood that the '78 Bullets were a team in the truest sense of the word.
They finished the regular-season at 44-38 and failed to have a player selected to the All-NBA first OR second team. Their hero in Game 7 was someone named Charles Johnson, a 5-foot-11 shooting guard who came off the bench to throw in nearly everything he heaved toward the basket.
Yes, Johnson was a 5-11 SHOOTING guard, and he scored 19 points in the final game -- despite having played in just 39 games and averaging 8.2 points during the season. (Interestingly, Johnson was out of the league by the end of the following season. He was just 30-years-old, and I still haven't figured out why he left).
The Bullets were coached by Dick Motta and also boasted greats such as Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes, and Bob Dandridge (each of whom was a little past his prime), and wonderful role players like point guard Tom Henderson, shooting guard Kevin Grevey, and big man Mitch Kupchak. The game, and life, was much simpler then. And that is why the Washington franchise has always held a special place in my basketball-shaped heart.
But back to this year's Pistons.
Like the old Bullets, the Pistons were among the last teams you would have picked to win a title before the start of the season. They were good, but lacked superstars -- particularly when it came to finding a go-to guy on offense at the end of a close game.
But as the playoffs progressed, they Pistons started to realize that first-year coach Larry Brown was right. They really COULD win with strong defense and smart passing.
Suddenly, journeyman point guard Chauncey Billups made all the right moves, hitting every big shot while forcing nothing and running the offense to near-perfection.
Suddenly, hot-blooded power forward Rasheed Wallace, acquired in a mid-season trade, stared down adversity and kept his cool.
Suddenly, second-year small forward Tayshaun Prince became one of the best position defenders in the league, shuffling his feet and stretching his long arms to frustrate Los Angeles' Kobe Bryant into his worst playoff series since the pre-Phil Jackson era.
And suddenly, shotblocking and rebounding robot Ben Wallace started to make wide-open 15-foot jump shots. And that may have been the biggest miracle of all.
But it was just that kind of year for the Pistons, whose biggest offensive weapon -- shooting guard Richard Hamilton -- was kept in check for most of the Finals, and they won anyway.
They won despite facing a team with four future Hall of Famers, despite going up against a coach who is considered by many to be the greatest of all time. At least, Phil Jackson was the considered the best ever until Brown pulled off the upset of upsets.
Before the start of the Finals, Billups told reporters, "We are here to shock the world."
Now that the series is over, we can honestly say no one is shocked. It's clear that the better basketball team won. Hopefully, the 2004 Detroit Pistons have brought team basketball back to the forefront.
If so, they'll be right up there with the 1978 Washington Bullets in my eyes. And I can't give a higher compliment than that.
More Pistons Stuff
-- I never paid much attention to Pistons backup point guard Lindsey Hunter, but I sure loved watching him play in this series. Despite standing just 6-1 and giving up about six inches to Bryant, Hunter did a wonderful job of coming off the bench and harassing the Lakers' superstar. It was an interesting strategy by Brown, who went from defending Bryant with the long and lean Prince to the short and sturdy Hunter. Obviously, Kobe was confused.
-- Veteran center Elden Campbell also did an underrated job of defending the low-post and providing the Pistons with energy off the bench. Just as Hunter had experience playing against Bryant in practice as a former member of the Lakers, Campbell was familiar with Shaquille O'Neal from his own time with L.A.
-- Can the Pistons win it again next year? Well, I don't know -- but they sure have to be considered the favorites. Even if unrestricted free-agent Rasheed Wallace doesn't return, Detroit is still a relatively young team. And as good as Hamilton is, he still hasn't hit his peak.
-- Of course, I'm the same guy who picked the Pistons to place FIFTH in the Central Division two seasons ago (I predicted them to finish second before the start of this year). So feel free to ignore anything I write about them.
As For the Lakers...
By now, you're probably tired of hearing about the death of the Laker dynasty, as Jackson split and Shaq has requested a trade.
Also, Kobe Bryant has opted out of his contract -- but fear not, Lakers fans, Kobe will be back. It's clear the Lakers are doing everything they can to keep him, and they can offer him more money than anyone else. They'll soon do just that, offering him a maximum contract before the end of July.
And as of right now, it's starting to look like Bryant will have forwards Antoine Walker and Antawn Jamison as teammates, as the latest report I'm hearing has Shaq going to Dallas for Walker, Jamison, and either Marquis Daniels or Josh Howard. That‘s pure speculation, and it might not even work financially. But no matter what happens, Shaq needs to go somewhere else. He and Kobe are tired of battling for the ball, and each is dying to see if he can win a title without the other. In Shaq's case, the answer is yes; I'm not so sure about Bryant.
Still, all of this makes sense for the Lakers, as Shaq will be 33 by next season and Kobe had undoubtedly grown weary of Jackson's voice (not to mention the equal-opportunity Triangle Offense). Bryant is just 25, so if you're going to rebuild around somebody, he‘s your man.
Other than that, I have no idea what will happen in Los Angeles between now and next season. All I know is with guys like Kobe, Shaq, Karl Malone and Gary Payton, this year's Lakers will forever be considered The Most Disappointing Team in NBA History. And that's a real shame.
More Lakers Stuff
-- Doug Barron (Oakland) wrote, "I have nothing against Shaq, Kobe, and Phil, but I have always rooted against the Lakers because their fans seem to be more arrogant that people who root for the New York Yankees. In fact, Laker fans are more cocky than Laker players!"
-- It's hard to label a huge group of people as "arrogant," but Doug has a point based on a number of e-mails I received during the Finals. When the Lakers trailed Detroit 3 games to 1, no less than 10 L.A. fans confidently predicted they would come back to win the series. Two even GUARANTEED the Lakers would win. I haven't heard from any since.
-- I take that back. Huge Lakers fan Mike Kovac (Washington, Pa.) actually did send an e-mail following L.A.'s loss, saying, "I can't believe the ribbing I've taken this year from people. Everywhere I went, if the Lakers are on TV, people wouldn't stop. This has to be the most hated franchise in sports. Even more than the Yankees." That may be true, Mike. But we all still like you.
-- As for 35-year-old point guard Gary Payton, the Lakers were extremely disappointed with his inability to supply even adequate defense. Payton not only isn't The Glove, anymore, but he could be the worst starting defensive point guard in the league (this side of Memphis' Jason Williams, anyway). My only beef with Payton, whom I've always loved as a player, was how he griped about the Triangle Offense during the regular season. C'mon, Gary. You knew what offense the Lakers were gonna run when you signed with them before the season. Did you really think they would change it?
-- Meanwhile, as crazy as this sounds, I'd love to see Karl Malone come back for at least another season. When healthy, he really did do an admirable job of guarding the league's best power forwards, and he still is a productive offensive player. Plus, he's only 1,400 points away from becoming the NBA's all-time leading scorer. If I were that close, I'd play for another 10 years to get the record -- even if it meant playing just 10 games a season.
-- Finally, a prediction: Phil Jackson will take a year off, then replace soon-to-be-retired Hubie Brown as coach of the Memphis Grizzlies prior to the start of the 2005-06 season.
-- Shaq talked to ESPN.com in April about Kobe and the Lakers, but his comments weren't made public until last week, after the big L.A. shakedown began. You can read them here.
-- Orlando shooting guard Tracy McGrady is also making headlines, as the league's leading scorer is expected to be traded during the offseason. It could happen as early as this week, according to the Houston Chronicle. The Chronicle reports that the Rockets have "emerged as the frontrunner" to land McGrady, and that a deal could take place the night before the June 24th draft. Houston would willingly depart with Steve Francis in the rumored trade.
-- Portland and Indiana are also making strong pitches for T-Mac, with the Blazers offering just about their entire roster, and the Pacers offering Ron Artest and a few others (although not Jermaine O'Neal).
-- The Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal reports that Cleveland has its eye on Toronto free agent Morris Peterson, as well as Houston's Eric Piatkowski and Boston's Chucky Atkins. Piatkowski and Atkins were left unprotected for this week's expansion draft.
-- Meanwhile, former NBA all-star and Cavaliers guard Mark Price is rumored to be the leading candidate for the team's color analyst job on the FOX Sports broadcasts. I always loved Price as a player, but let me tell you, this guy is not much of a talker. If he gets the job, there's gonna be a lot of dead air time next season.
-- All in fun, Mark. Cavs fans would like nothing more than to have you back with the team (just make sure to get a few pointers from Austin Carr first).
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