The golden era of team play in the NBA is ... now?
You may not have heard much about it but while Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson were feuding, splitting up and coming back, the aw-shucks San Antonio Spurs won two titles. The who-are-you-again Detroit Pistons won one, made the Finals twice and maintained a 72-win pace the first half of this season.
"This team, I'd have to label it special," Denver Coach George Karl said of the Pistons before last week's game. "It's a basketball team, it's not an ESPN team. It's for basketball coaches. It's for basketball gurus.
"It's solid. They don't make mistakes. They're not flamboyant. They're ego-less. They're selfless, which, to have in the NBA, is fantastic. For them and San Antonio to be the focal point of ego-less, selfless teams is good."
Of course, even with the respect of their peers, last spring's finalists found themselves in the first game of ABC's Christmas doubleheader before the feature attraction, Shaq vs. Kobe III. San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich said he was just flattered to be in "the JV game."
Nevertheless, after two Finals, one title and this season's 37-5 start, the Pistons were hoping their fifth starter, Tayshaun Prince, would go too, so they all wrote his No. 22 on their sneakers in Houston.
Attitude makes the Pistons the Pistons. With Rasheed Wallace, still leading the NBA in technical fouls, at the head of their chirpy choir, Joey Crawford, the Wyatt Earp of the referees, signaled the officials' impatience last week in Auburn Hills by calling technicals on any Piston who opened his mouth, including two of the most mild-mannered, Prince and Coach Flip Saunders.
"They literally complain about every call the whole game long ... " said Chicago Coach Scott Skiles. "They're having a great year doing it."
However, in one of the best compliments of all, Skiles said he voted for all five Piston starters as All-Stars.
Fortunately or not for the Pistons, disrespect isn't merely an issue but a way of life.
Selfless as they are, the Spurs are conventional champions, built around a future Hall of Famer, Tim Duncan. The Pistons were built around Ben Wallace, who may make the Hall of Fame the hard way, having been cut once, traded twice and made to wait five seasons before averaging 25 minutes a game.
Prince is the only Piston starter who hasn't been traded or cut. The four others have been on or tried out for 16 teams, an average of four each.
"It's kind of like the common denominator for our team," says Billups, who's on his sixth team, counting Orlando where he spent half a season on the injured list after being thrown into a trade to make the salaries match.
"We all went through some different trials and tribulations and we all met at this place. It's just kind of weird how it all happened."
It's more than weird, it's life upside down in a league where it has always been axiomatic that you win with great players.
In 25 seasons before the Pistons' 2004 title, the Lakers won eight with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, O'Neal and Bryant; the Bulls six with Michael Jordan; the Celtics three with Larry Bird; the Spurs three with Duncan; the Rockets two with Hakeem Olajuwon; the Pistons two with Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars; and the 76ers one with Moses Malone and Julius Erving.
The Pistons, who toppled the heavily favored Lakers in the 2004 Finals, had one starter they had drafted, Prince, a former Dominguez High star, a surprise No. 23 pick.
Ben Wallace was with his fourth team, if you count the Celtics, who tried him out -- as a guard -- before cutting him.
The Piston media guide notes that at 6 feet 9, he holds the unofficial single-season shot-block record for players under 6-10. Making it more impressive, he isn't 6-9 or even 6-8, acknowledging he's 6-7 1/2. Coming from little Virginia Union with magic legs but few skills, it took a while, until someone got desperate enough to put him at center, to find his niche.
Rasheed Wallace, a monster talent, is on his fourth team after lasting one game with his third, Atlanta, which forwarded him to the Pistons for four players from the end of their bench, Chucky Atkins, Bobby Sura, Zeljko Rebraca and Lindsey Hunter.
(Hunter, sent to Boston in the three-way deal, was then waived, re-signed by Detroit and is still in the rotation. He has now been with four teams and is on his third stint with the Pistons.)
Making it still more improbable, the Pistons started this run from scratch in 2000, when Grant Hill, their franchise player, left them high and dry, announcing he would sign with Orlando.
Salvaging something, Dumars, who had just taken over as general manager, turned it into a sign-and-trade for two reserves: Atkins and Ben Wallace.
That season, to no one's surprise, they went 30-52 and Dumars fired Coach George Irvine. Then the surprises started:
* In 2001-02, Rick Carlisle turned them into a gritty little defensive team, went 50-32 and was named coach of the year in his debut.
* In 2002-03, Dumars signed Billups -- with his $5-million veteran's exception -- and traded Jerry Stackhouse for Hamilton. They went 50-32 again, Carlisle finishing third in coach-of-the-year voting.
* In another plot twist, Carlisle was then fired in a never-explained Palace of Auburn Hills coup, reportedly because upper management didn't like his brusque demeanor. Dumars hired Larry Brown, a veterans' coach, while still building, passing up Carmelo Anthony for 7-foot Darko Milicic.
At midseason, they moved the future up, acquiring 6-11 Rasheed Wallace. In the most stunning development of all, they stomped the Lakers, 4-1, in the 2004 Finals with Brown single-covering O'Neal and everyone else helping Prince with Bryant.
The 2004-05 season turned into a circus, with Brown seeming to encourage the New York Knicks' interest, the Pistons ordering Brown back after his bladder surgery, Brown discussing the Cleveland presidency -- during the East finals -- with permission from the Pistons.
Somehow, their tough-minded players shut everything out, won Game 7 in Miami to reach the Finals and then came from 0-2 to force another Game 7 in San Antonio before finally falling.
Few teams have been as well coached over the last five seasons and none of those had as many coaches. When Brown left or was fired last summer, depending on whom you believe, Dumars hired Saunders and they were up to three.
A gentle breeze after his intense defense-oriented predecessors, Saunders opened up the Pistons' offense, allowing Billups and Hamilton to go to a new level. Conventional wisdom says they have no stars but they actually have two flying under the radar as Billups and Hamilton keep improving in tandem.
No. 24 in scoring last season, they're 15th now. Picked behind Miami and often behind Indiana in the East -- what else was new? -- they turned the season into a romp.
The no-names didn't just dominate, they flirted with immortality on a 72-win pace that would have tied the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' record.
Going into Friday's game in Seattle, they were down to a 68-win pace. With all five starters averaging 35 minutes and opponents getting up for them as if they were those record-setting Bulls, Saunders said after Tuesday's loss to the Nuggets that he'd ease up.
"First it was the 70 games and then it was [securing] the home court," he said. "The most important thing is, we do have to have guys that are fresh when playoff time comes."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
The men from the Motor City
*--* CHAUNCEY BILLUPS
8th NBA season (Colorado)
* Signed a veteran's exemption contract after struggling with four teams earlier in career.
*--* RICHARD HAMILTON
6th NBA season (Connecticut)
* Traded by Washington to Detroit for Jerry Stackhouse in 2002, he made his All-Star debut this season.
*--* TAYSHAUN PRINCE
3rd NBA season (Kentucky)
* The former Compton Dominguez star is the only starter who was drafted by Detroit.
*--* RASHEED WALLACE
10th NBA season (North Carolina)
* An undeniable talent who had his share of troubles in Portland and leads the NBA in technical fouls.
*--* BEN WALLACE
9th NBA season (Virginia Union)
* Was cut by Boston after trying to make the team as a guard and became the Pistons' cornerstone.
*--* Player Min. FG pct. PPG Richard Hamilton 36.6 498 21.3 Chauncey Billups 36.6 417 18.9 Rasheed Wallace 35.7 434 15.6 Tayshaun Prince 36.1 432 13.8 Ben Wallace 36.3 503 7.8