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Chevette to Corvette No. 13: The 2002-03 Detroit Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 50-32
  • Pythagorean record: 52-30
  • Offensive Rating: 104.1 (15th of 29)
  • Defensive Rating: 99.9 (4th of 29)
  • Arena: The Palace of Auburn Hills
  • Head coach: Rick Carlisle

Playoffs

  • Beat the Orlando Magic in first round, 4-3
  • Beat the Philadelphia 76ers in Eastern Conference semifinals, 4-2
  • Lost in Eastern Conference finals to the New Jersey Nets, 4-0

Leaders

Top player

Ben Wallace

By 2002-03, Wallace had become a cult hero in Detroit for his hard work, toughness, defense and afro. Even the national media began praising him at extreme, and accurate, levels. L. Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated:

Rebound Row, they call it. Whenever Pistons forward Ben Wallace grabs a rebound at home games in Detroit, a club employee presents a fan in a designated section with a T-shirt adorned with an R. Suffice it to say the team orders these shirts in bulk. A player drawn to errant shots like a divining rod to water, Wallace, through Sunday, was responsible for outfitting 307 fans this season. "There are only 16 seats in a row, so with Ben, Rebound Row can become Rebound Rows," says Dan Hauser, the team’s executive vice president. "Come to a game, and you see an awful lot of R T-shirts."

Here are three more letters one might soon associate with Wallace: M, V and P. A first-time All-Star, Wallace is, quite simply, the league’s most dominating player—at least at one end of the floor. Last year the 6’9", 240-pound obelisk joined the fast (and decidedly taller) company of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players ever to lead the league in rebounds and blocks in the same season. This season Wallace is averaging a league-best 14.5 boards and is second in rejections (2.9).For good measure he averages 1.43 steals, proof that he excels on the x-axis as well as on the y-axis. Did we mention that his hands are so disproportionately small that he can barely palm the ball? "For Ben to be doing what he’s doing at his height is unheard of," says Detroit coach Rick Carlisle. "I think, absolutely, he’s an MVP candidate."

Key transaction

New backcourt

The Pistons had gone from 32 wins to 50 wins the year before in large part because their backcourt surpassed all expectations, not necessarily in terms of gross output, but in savvy. Jerry Stackhouse did everything Rick Carlisle asked him, becoming a more willing passer and defender than ever. Chucky Atkins averaged 12.1 points per game, raised his field-goal and 3-point percentages and deftly directed Detroit’s offense.

Their reward? Getting shipped out of town or sent to the bench.

The Pistons traded Stackhouse to the Wizards for Richard Hamilton* and signed Chauncey Billups to the full mid-level exception, essentially anointing both players as starters from the moment they were acquired.

*In a deal that also involved Ratko Varda and Brian Cardinal going to Washington and Hubert Davis and Bobby Simmons coming to Detroit. Who knew, two years later, Cardinal would sign a  six-year, $34 million contract with the Grizzlies, and Simmons would receive a five-year, $47 million contract from the Bucks three years later? For a couple benchwarmers tacked onto a star-for-star deal, they didn’t do half bad, even if they had left Washington and Detroit before playing their way into those deals.

Which acquisition was bigger? Take your pick. Signing Billups made a bigger difference for the franchise in the long and short terms, but trading for Hamilton came with much more risk.

Billups’ six-year, $35 million deal wouldn’t have handcuffed the Pistons if he flopped, which appeared unlikely given his experience in the league. Hamilton, on the other hand, was the second scorer on a 37-win team and was traded for the leading scorer on a 50-win team. That deal had had potential to destroy the Pistons.

In the end, both players worked out marvelously Detroit, became close friends and formed one of the, if not the, best backcourts in the NBA.

Trend watch

Reached Eastern Conference Finals for first time in 12 years

Not only were the Pistons reaching relatively new peaks, they were headed in the right direction after losing in the second round the year before. For the first time in 15 years, they reached the conference finals and advanced further than the previous season.

Why this season ranks No. 13

The 2002-03 Pistons were everything the 2001-02 Pistons were, just better.

Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton were better than Chucky Atkins and Jerry Stackhouse. 52 Pythagorean wins were better than 48. And most importantly, reaching the conference finals was better than losing in the second round.

When rookie Tayshaun Prince came off the bench to shut down Tracy McGrady with the Pistons facing a 3-1 deficit to the Orlando Magic in the first round, it became clear this team had even more potential than it appeared.

The Pistons were rising, but getting swept by the New Jersey Nets in the conference finals proved they still weren’t ready yet.

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