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The Downfall of the Detroit Pistons: Much Ado About Nothing

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Tonight the Miami Heat travel to Detroit, looking to close out the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals.

To hear the media tell it, this is an upset of epic proportions. A shocking turn of events. A monumental story. To the average pundit, expert, and fan, we are on the verge of seeing the “mighty” Pistons eliminated from the playoffs. Fire up the word processor!

Stories are flying left and right as people scramble for an explanation. Detroit is too reliant on its offense this year. The players are giving up on the coach. Flip Saunders can’t coach in the playoffs. They got too cocky. They are worn out from three years of extended seasons. On and on it goes.

How about this for an explanation: the Detroit Pistons were never as good as you thought they were.

If you take a snapshot of the last three years, “Deeeeeee-troit Bas-ket-ball!” looks pretty good. A title, followed by an NBA Finals appearance, topped off with a franchise record 64 wins in the 2005-2006 regular season and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. It’s not a dynasty or anything, but it is a nice run all the same. It is the type of run that says, “this is a very good, maybe great, team.” Again, that is the snapshot.

A closer look reveals something else entirely. Rather than give you the punch line, let me walk you through all of Detroit’s success from the past three seasons.

2004 – This was the title run. The year of “play the right way” and the midseason acquisition of Rasheed Wallace that somehow gave Joe Dumars a lifetime free pass for taking Darko Milicic ahead of Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Bosh. The snapshot reveals a mighty Detroit team that vanquished the Lakers in five games in the NBA Finals. Not so fast. For starters, Detroit reached the Finals by coming out of an Eastern Conference that still had an “L” in its name, for “Leastern.”

Winning an inferior conference wasn’t exactly a walk in the park for them, either. It took a miraculous block by Tayshaun Prince to beat an arguably superior Indiana team in the semis, and Detroit needed a Jason Kidd knee injury to get past New Jersey in the conference finals. Nobody remembers this now, but New Jersey was up 3-2 in that series and had a close-out game at home, when all of a sudden, Kidd could hardly walk. Detroit moves on.

And who do they face? None other than the Kings of Dysfunction, the Los Angeles Lakers. It was a miracle that L.A. even made it to the Finals that year, since both the Spurs and the Wolves were better teams. However, Derek Fisher hit that miraculous bank shot against San Antonio (which led to a complete meltdown by Tim Duncan – a collapse that for some reason is never discussed when people talk about his career) and Sam Cassell got hurt in the Western Conference Finals, so the Lakers prevailed. However, along the way, L.A. lost the heart and soul of that team, Karl Malone. And with him they lost all hope of beating any competent team in the Finals. So Detroit won a championship.

Give them credit, because they looked really good doing it, but just know that they had Lady Luck on their side throughout those playoffs.

2005 – Detroit makes it back the Finals, where they lose to the Spurs because of a mental mistake by Rasheed Wallace. This one shouldn’t take as long. Basically, they won the East (and almost a second consecutive title) because Dwayne Wade – last seen treating the Pistons like a high school team – suffered a mysterious rib injury. It is as simple as that.

2006 – The Pistons bring in an offensive-minded coach to replace Larry Brown and they rattle off 64 wins. I think this is where things started getting blown out of proportion. The tremendous regular season success, coupled with the postseason success of the past two years, led people to believe that this was some sort of unstoppable force. In reality, it was a collection of hard working players that fit well together and played their best when the chips were down.

If anything, the Pistons had overachieved enormously over the past three seasons. If the East was as good as advertised this season, Detroit probably wins 58 games and nobody thinks of them as a “great” team. If even one Piston starter suffers even one minor injury, they probably win 58 games. And we already know how easily things could have turned out differently in the 2004 and 2005 playoffs.

What I’m saying is that with a few bad bounces (or even just the absence of a few good bounces) here or there, this could be a team that never made it further than the Eastern Conference Finals. And instead of wringing our hands at the downfall of a mini-dynasty, we would just be shrugging our shoulders and saying, “This makes sense, with Wade and Shaq healthy and playing well, Miami is a much better team.”

I’m not here to write the Pistons off as nothing but a lucky team, nor am I trying to downplay the egregious way that many Detroit players are handling themselves right now (these guys are acting like participants on The Apprentice – busy pointing crooked fingers and laying blame in the event of a loss, rather than putting all their effort into winning).

What I am saying is that we might have a “much ado about nothing” situation on our hands. Because when you look at the big picture, here is what you get:

An overachieving team that usually plays well in big moments isn’t playing very well this time around, and for the first time in the last three years, they are playing a healthy team in the Eastern Conference Finals. It isn’t going well.

This is a huge story? If you say so.

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About Adam Hoff

  • hubie brown

    This article is dead on. The main problem detroit is having is that they finally ran into a good team that also happens to be healthy. In ’04 the Lakers were DOA, and last year the Heat were the best team in the league with Shaq and Wade healthy (we know what happened).

    But to be fair, many championship runs, in retrospect, can be parsed back to a series of lucky events that potentially diminish the accomplishment. Just last year you can say the Spurs were lucky to run into a Detroit team whose coach was already mentally (and physically) checked out. Even the mighty Lakers had several injury and officiating breaks go their way during their runs (ask the spurs and kings).

    Ultimately Detroit’s two year run perhaps doesn’t need to be diminished to underscore what’s truly going on–the Pistons are facing their toughest opponent of the Bad Boys’ Remix era.

  • al davis

    Your article is good and very correct. I agree wholeheartedly.

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    It’s also seen a lot in football — Ohio State has no Fiesta Bowl win over Miami if not for (a) late pass interference call near the end, and (b) 4th down TD pass to Michael Jenkins in the Purdue game.

    And if that’s not enough, Google “Tuck Rule” to see how the Patriots got their start.

    Have the Pistons the baddest dog in the NBA in the past three years? Well, no, but in their conference? Oh yeah.

  • john pouch

    sorry but your observations and contrived comments are not “dead” on. If the Pistons were from Miami or L.A. I am sure we would be hearing how a great team that won 64 regular season games and made the Easetern Conf. finals three years running was in an untimely slump at playoff time. The Pistons beat Miami 3 out of 4 in the reg. season, 4 out of 7 in last years playoffs and will come back from 3-1 to win this years playoff against Miami. What will you call them then? Lucky?
    Get real!

  • Adam Hoff

    If they come back from 3-1, I will tip my hat to them and take it back. Although even in last night’s game, it was pretty amazing that the Heat went 6-for-20 from the free throw line. Perhaps Detroit still has a bit of Lady Luck on its side after all.

    As for the L.A. or Miami thing, I disagree. When the Lakers were losing 2-1 and 3-1 to this very Pistons team in 2004 (ultimately losing 4-1), people went bananas about it. They were tripping over themselves to write about the toppling of the Lakers dynasty. Nobody said that they were “in a slump.” And the Heat were getting worked over by the media all year long. I think the current sports media is too quick to build up (thus: my point, which is that this was never a Detroit “dynasty” to begin with) and too quick to tear down (thus: all the articles about the downfall of said dynasty, even though the series is not over.)

    I simply see this series as an uhill battle for a gritty team that has had a fantastic three-year run. If they win, that shows me a lot. If they lose, I simply shrug and say, okay, they lost to another really good team. I just don’t see why everyone is wringing their hands over this and looking for some sort of magical explanation as to how it could happen. It’s not as if this the Jordan Bulls or Bird’s Celtics or something.

    All of that said, I am prepared to eat my words if the Pistons come back to win this series and then to take the title. That would be three straight Finals appearances with two championships, with probably their most impressive run coming at the end. Also, I would be greatly relieved for Flip Saunders, who doesn’t deserve to be in this scapegoat role.

  • Baker

    The Pistons deserve the hype they receive because they have accomplished what they have WITHOUT big name, early first-round players. They’ve been to the Finals for the past two years, winning once and going to game 7 in the other. This year, they had the best record in the league during the regular season with only 18 losses all year… 18 losses playing the same teams that everyone else did. Cleveland was the next closest in their division with 32 losses!!

    The Pistons play team basketball and rely on all 5 players. Last night’s game, as most of the games in this series was the Shaq and Wade Show, while it was “All LeBron, All the Time” in the last series. Few if any other NBA teams can put up the record the Pistons have without Lottery-type players.

    Also, a team is only as good as it parts. The Pistons have remained healthy all year long, much to the chagrin of their opponents. To compare last year’s series with Miami citing that Wade was injured is a testiment to the conditioning of the athletes – better conditioned athletes last longer, and it’s all part of separating the good teams from the great ones.

    The Pistons are the real deal and just because they play scrappy, tenacious basketball at both ends of the floor doesn’t make them lucky – it means they work hard and enjoy the fruits of their labor. They haven’t been playing their best as of late, but how many teams in the league can make it to the Conference Championships, essentially the Final Four of the NBA and do it NOT playing their best?? If they would’ve been playing all of these games the way they are capable of, this wouldn’t even be an issue and the series would already be over with with Detroit heading for the Finals.

    P.S. Am I the only one here who saw Ben Wallace cleanly stuff the ball down Shaq’s throat last night?!?!? WHO ELSE DOES THAT???

    GO PISTONS!!

  • Adam Hoff

    I admire the love you have for your team, and make no mistake, I admire the Pistons. But the point remains the same: they have played above their heads and had some good fortune the last few years, and those factors are just as responsible for their success as their “greatness.” I am just surprised that people are so, well, surprised that they could go down 3-1 in a series. They aren’t that dominant kind of team that just mows everyone down and instills fear in the hearts of the NBA.

    As for your other comments, I take exception with a few things:

    First, are you trying to say that Wade is not a highly conditioned athlete? His injury was a fluke (as are most injuries) and had nothing to do with conditioning. I find that argument amazing.

    As for the part about big names or high picks, I think you might have misfired their as well. Rasheed Wallace was a top five pick that created a bidding war when Portland put him on the block. Rip Hamilton was a highly decorated player coming out of college. Billups went #3 in the draft. Prince and Wallace are signed to huge contracts. I think you are right that they don’t have a Tin Duncan or Dwyane Wade type of player and that is why I don’t find it surprising that they can be defeated. They are good, really good. I just don’t think they are so great that the world has to go into shock when they lose.

    Again, if they come all the way back against the Heat, I will take it all back. Then they really will have something extra.

  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ Elliott

    “In ’04 the Lakers were DOA”

    Then why did basically everyone in the world (except me!) pick the Lakers in 4 or 5?

  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ Elliott

    I fully expect the Pistons to lose by 20 in Game Six, and for all the pundits to talk about how Flip Saunders is a terrible playoff coach, and how Joe Dumars needs to go into rebuilding mode ASAP.

    But if the Pistons win Game Six, they are going to win Game Seven. Which means, 3 Finals appearances in a row. And at least one, possibly two, titles.

    That ain’t a fluke. That ain’t luck, or serindipity. That’s a GREAT team.

    So, if the Pistons lose tomorrow night, ya’ll are welcome to trash them however you will.

    But if they make it to the Finals again, I think this team deserves a little respect. If not from the pundits, than from the sports historians…

  • Eric Iverson

    “Nobody remembers this now,”

    And nobody remembers the sprained ankles to Rip Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace either. Yet somehow I feel we will be hearing about Wade’s flu for years to come, win or lose.

  • john pouch

    Adam,
    You were man enough to say that you would take your hat off to the Pistons if they came back from 3-1, which nearly everyone in Detroit thought they would, so I will be man enough to say that Miami was certainly the best team in this series. Detroit had no answer for Shaq or D-Wade and could not make a basket no matter how many open looks they got..and you are right..the demise of the Pistons this year in the playoffs is not earth ending. We suffered with the Red Wings, the best team in hockey in the regular season, as they lost to an 8th seed, and we will suffer with the Pistons who saved their worst for last. We will return……I hope!

  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ Elliott

    “nobody remembers the sprained ankles to Rip Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace either. Yet somehow I feel we will be hearing about Wade’s flu for years to come, win or lose.”

    Good point!

    Am I the only person in the world who admires Wade for his great skill, but kinda-sorta thinks he’s a bit of a wimp, physically?

  • josh stone

    Alright so Miami wins…that is the much to do about nothing here! If the pistons would have made just nine of the two-thousand shots they missed, they would be playing Sunday. Miami played as well as it could play and Detroit played nearly as bad as it could play, and yet, stayed in the game until the fourth. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying Miami does not deserve a trip to the finals, they most certainly do! And yet, if the Real Pistons had shown up for this matchup and just shot their normal 50%, Miami would have been eliminated in five! But then, thats much to do about nothing!
    Congratulations Miami.

  • http://secondvibe.blogspot.com Q Bit

    I agree the Pistons got good timely breaks but still, what they have achieved in the last 4/5 seasons is something nobody really expected.

    But expect close scrutiny of Saunders.

    Under LB, the Pistons had an identity, their D, and now they look like a bunch of confused folks, neither here or there. The Cavs exposed them and the Pistons got lucky because Cavs didn’t really have the experience to match.

    I also think Rick Carlisle didn’t deserve what he got from Joe D. He’s the one who made this team relevant and the reason he could’t get it done because he never had Rasheed who turned out to be a critical component taking the Pistons to consecutive Finals and winning one championship.

  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ Elliott

    I thought Rick Carlisle got a raw deal as well. But that’s in the past.

    Looking into the future, will Flip be around next season? I think he will, but it’s an open question at this point…

    And what about Big Ben? Will he re-sign? Will the Pistons trade Rasheed?

    It should be an interesting off-season in Auburn Hills…

  • http://secondvibe.blogspot.com Q Bit

    About Saunders, I am not so sure. The record of Joe D shows he could be quite ruthless.

    It would depend how much support Saunders receives from his players; not much if you believe the rumors.

    Big Ben would be an interesting case. I don’t think Pistons would like to keep him for a long time, perhaps only for the next 2/3 years and that’s what they are going to offer, somewhere around 3 years, 30 million.

    And that might force him to look for more money and more guranteed years in his contract.

    I don’t think Rasheed is going to be traded. He’s the only one who creates tremendous mismatches and and can take it on the post and perimeter with equal ease. And his behavior is better now :-))

    Look for additions in the bench, lack of which killed them.

  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ Elliott

    A deeper bench is definitely something the Pistons will need if they are to seriously compete for the championship next season, Big Ben or no Big Ben…

  • josh stone

    I agree with both RJ and Qbit…the Pistons need an impact player (or two) coming off the bench to contend in ’07. RW was a no show in my view in both the last part of the Cavs and the entire Heat series. He had a strange look on his face most of the games…anyone got a take on the problem? I think both he and big Ben will be back as will Saunders….I think they still have several good runs left in them. If Miami doesn’t win it all this year, I think they are toast for a year or two. Shaq cannot play any better, at his age, than he did this year….does he have another superior effort left in him? I doubt it. DWade will likey sign for mega bucks with NYK…Thomas has already said he would love to have him ( who wouldn’t?)