In 2004, the Detroit Pistons accomplished something that will probably never be done again: they won an NBA title without a superstar. It may seem somewhat premature to make such a bold declaration, but the facts certainly support it. We are fully entrenched in the era of the “superteam”, and there is seemingly no looking back. Despite the efforts of commissioner David Stern and the NBA owners to curb this trend with the collective bargaining agreement created two seasons ago, we have seen at least one superstar each year since then leave the team that drafted him in order to join a team already equipped with at least one All-Star (Chris Paul to the Clippers two years ago and Dwight Howard to the Lakers this past offseason).
And while the modern era of superteams may have begun with LeBron James joining Miami in 2010 after “The Decision”, the fact is that the NBA has been a superstar-dominated league for a long time. Megastars Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade have captured 11 of the 14 NBA titles awarded since 1999. And of those three remaining championship teams, two of them featured multiple future Hall-of-Famers (Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett for the 2008 Celtics, and Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd for the 2011 Mavericks).
Then there are the 2004 Pistons.
That team had no MVP candidates and only one All-Star. And that “All-Star” was center Ben Wallace, who didn’t even average double digits in scoring. In fact, no Piston averaged 20 points or better in scoring per game that year. They were actually the first team to win a championship without a 20-point-per-game scorer since the 1990 Detroit Pistons. Basketballreference.com has a metric by which they predict Hall of Fame probability, and by that measure no player from the 2004 Pistons has a better chance of getting into the Hall than guard Chauncey Billups, who has only a minuscule 25% probability of sneaking in.
So how exactly did that 2004 Pistons team manage to win it all? The answer is incredible defense, and even more incredible chemistry. The Pistons led the league that in year points per game by opponents (a paltry 84.3 points allowed, which would led the league in 2013 by a full five points). But they were even better after the trade deadline deal that acquired forward Rasheed Wallace from the Atlanta Hawks. Following the acquisition of Wallace, Detroit really clicked as a team, and subsequently went 16-4 in March and April while giving up only a ridiculous 77 points to opponents.
Unfortunately, that mid-2000s Pistons team eventually faced an ignominious end. They came up just short of a repeat the following season, falling to the Spurs in the NBA Finals. After that, the aging team settled into a holding pattern, averaging 59 wins over the next three seasons, but being eliminated in the Eastern Conference Finals each time. General Manager Joe Dumars failed to improve the team through the draft and free agency, and one by one his players signed elsewhere or were traded away. Forward Tayshaun Prince was the last domino to fall, traded to the Memphis Grizzlies earlier this season, and thus officially slamming the door shut on that memorable era of Detroit Pistons basketball.
But the legacy of that team lives on. Each time NBA fans or pundits engage in the inevitable debate of whether it is possible to win a championship in this league without a superstar, the 2004 Detroit Pistons are the example they cite. The latest team to ignite such talk and perhaps carry the torch of the 2004 Pistons is this year’s Denver Nuggets. Ironically, from a philosophical standpoint, these Nuggets are the polar opposite of their grind-it-out, slow-it-down Detroit forebears. They play at the second-fastest pace in the league and lead the league in scoring. But they also have no All-Stars, despite finishing with the third-best record in the Western Conference and being a dark horse contender to win it all this year.
Whenever a “superstar-less” squad like the Nuggets succeeds, the legacy of the 2004 Pistons seems to live on through that team. But the legacy of that team subsists in more tangible terms, as well. Of the five players who comprised the starting lineup for the Pistons the year they won it all, four of them are playing asignificant role in the postseason in 2013 (the fifth, Ben Wallace, retired last season). Guard Richard Hamilton is contributing off the bench as a scorer for the Chicago Bulls. Meanwhile, former teammates Chauncey Billups and Tayshaun Prince are battling each other as members of the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies, respectively.
Billups is starting for the Clippers and providing veteran guidance and wisdom. Prince was essentially traded to Memphis for Rudy Gay, a player six years his junior. Despite that, the Grizzlies have actually been better since trading for Prince, boasting an improved points per 100 possessions rating, and team field goal percentage. Elsewhere, Rasheed Wallace, who was so vital for that Pistons team in 2004, had a similar effect on the New York Knicks in 2013 at age 38. He, along with big man Tyson Chandler, anchored the Knicks’ defense for 20 games before going down with a foot injury that ultimately ended his career. Wallace won’t play in the postseason for the Knicks, but was instrumental in their development on the defensive end this year.
So what is ultimately the legacy of that 2004 Pistons team? Of course, there are questions of what might have been. Had a few lucky breaks gone the other way in that 2005 series, or had Dumars shown more competency as a GM, we might have been looking at a dynasty. But the Pistons managed to win an NBA title, which is extremely difficult to do, and something no team has accomplished in the decade since without a likely Hall-of-Fame player. They also had a period of unequalled dominance during the 00s in the Eastern Conference. Additionally, players like Billups and Prince are now sharing that championship experience and tough, defensive-minded mentality with a whole new generation of title contenders. Indeed, the 2013 Nuggets may become the next team to win an NBA title without a superstar. But, even if they do, they will be hard-pressed to surpass the legacy of the unforgettable 2004 Pistons.