Thirteen years ago, still reeling from the departure of the “next Michael Jordan” (honestly weren’t there about 6 or so of Air Apparents?) the Pistons made a bold move to go back to the red, white, and blue branding that had been so central to their back to back championships. With the former Finals MVP as the architect, the Pistons began a transformation project that early on look more like a reclamation effort than a restoration effort. They turned the reigns of the team over to former Boston player, who had most recently been an assistant with the Indiana Pacers.
This hire, along with the introduction of new Pistons, Chucky Atkins and Ben Wallace, brought about a change in identity to the Pistons. After seeing the Bad Boys era wane, the Pistons had embraced the MJ era of the NBA by trying to win with a team built around finesse and scoring. They had also recognized the value of rebranding and embraced a totally new look that fit with the wild color schemes of this era. Both decisions proved to lead to mediocre results.
In 2002, after a their first 50-win season since 1997, the Pistons brought in Chauncey Billups, traded their star Jerry Stackhouse for Rip Hamilton, and drafted a skinny kid from the University of Kentucky named Tayshaun Prince and an unknown Turkish Forward named Mehmet Okur. These moves bolstered a roster that also included veteran players with smarts and toughness like Clifford Robinson, Jon Barry, and Corliss Williamson.
Following another Central Division championship, but a tough playoff sweep to the NJ Nets in their first conference finals since the Bad Boys era, Dumars (now both President of Basketball Operations and GM) fired Carlisle and brought in the mercurial, but successful Larry Brown. As this team came together in 2004 the team boasted the same core, but also had added more fierce defenders in Darvin Ham, Mike James, Elden Cambell, and the newly returned Lindsey Hunter. The culture and attitude of the organization appeared set.
The season progressed with the Pistons inevitably coasting to what they hoped would be another 50+ win season, when on the NBA’s trade deadline, Dumars swung a deal to get Rasheed Wallace (who had just been traded earlier that week to the Atlanta Hawks). This deal created such a strong shock to the system that the Pistons went on a 20-4 run to finish the regular season. The era of Goin’ to Work had begun!
This Pistons squad would go on to win the 2004 NBA Championship, would lose in the 2005 NBA Finals, and in total would make the Eastern Conference Finals 7 straight years before eventually bottoming out. This rebirth of championship basketball in the D was built on an understanding of culture, fit, and teamwork.
When you examine the players that participated on this run, they largely bring with them a chip on their shoulder and a strong commitment to defense, instilled by the coaching of Rick Carlisle and Larry Brown. While most teams were trying to figure out how to bring together as many stars as possible, a la the Shaq and Kobe Lakers, the Pistons brought together castoffs who understood how to play a role and commit to being good teammates. They passed well, rebounded well, and certainly defended well, all while being tough and truly having great chemistry.
I remember living in the Suburban Detroit area during this time (where most of the Pistons players actually lived), it was not uncommon to see members of the starting five out together on the weekend hanging out, playing with their vehicles or going to their kids events. These guys truly enjoyed one another.
This group of players was one of the most enjoyable and frustrating groups I ever had the chance to witness. For all of their early buy in to culture and team, a few of these same players would ultimately bring about dissension, backbiting, and hostility that ended championship basketball in Detroit. For those that work in organizations, it is important to recognize that thinking a strong culture will lead an organization on its own is absolutely false. Culture is simply the outgrowth of leadership and teamwork. When these two areas lack, the wrong lessons and narratives will be cemented and things will inevitably fall apart.
The exciting, enjoyable, yet sad story of the Detroit Pistons (and I said it all without dealing with the pain that is Darko)!