When I became sentient, I didn’t understand the NBA. My instincts told me basketball was its most beautiful and efficient when the team was put before its parts. Seems reasonable enough.
And yet in my lifetime it was the stars that dominated the Association. The personalities (read: brands) of Bird, Magic, Jordan, Malone, Barkley and even Bryant and O’Neal were more important, and more prominent, than their respective teams ever were, maybe even the sport itself. However by design, it disgusted me, wrongly nostalgic me. OK, sure, there were the Spurs. But the Spurs were (and always will be) boring as shit. Can’t do boring. Still, I needed a starting five I could idolize — and subsequently watch annihilate those fallow star-driven squads whose sole offensive strategy was what could be termed “hero ball.”
Then, the 2004-05 Season.
Even as a toddler and insignificant child, I had a concept of the original “Bad Boys” Pistons team from the late 80’s and early 90’s. Ballers all, Isaiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Lambier, even Dennis Rodman, these were men Michael Jordan did battle with — and repeatedly lost to — before he was “Jordan.” The Bad Boys clearly weren’t the good guys (hence the moniker), but they were undeniably fearless, their willingness to out-scrap their opponents defensively, on the boards and, yes, even with their fists made them fascinating. And more importantly, the won. A lot.
Pro basketball lost its suspense when Jordan took over. The image it cultivated during the Magic/Bird/Isaiah era was supplanted by the Bulls dynasty. However much MJ’s dominance was enchanting, it was, for anyone outside the Windy City and unabashed frontrunners, anti-climactic. Here was a man who would routinely order his coach to make substitutions from the floor, and whose megalomania reached critical mass as the world willingly turned a blind eye. He may have even gotten his father killed with his addiction to competition, but no one seemed to care. Or, in deference, even acknowledge the possibility. He was a god, frankly, and gods can do as they please.
But by the late 90’s, the NBA had reached an impasse. It desperately held on to the notion that it needed to find an iconic star that could assume Jordan’s mantle. Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were tapped for the job, and the league’s deceitful machinations in pursuit of their success were often cowardly and disgusting. Look no further than the 2002 Western Conference Finals if this isn’t something you find self-evident. The Lakers were what the league’s success, popularity and grotesque profits were predicated upon. So institutionalized cheating was nothing more than a necessary means to a lucrative end. Dominant big men disappeared, and fast-paced, guard heavy play that featured less than average defense became the norm. It was flashy, hollow and lazy basketball. But it made money, so fuck it.
Kobe Bryant epitomized much of what was wrong with this era, and the follies of the NBA in general. Built in a muddled model of MJ, Bryant was an athletic freak with a killer instinct that played not for the love of the game, but for the hate of his opponent. Bryant shot relentlessly and recklessly, never shooting 47% or more from the field, and despite playing with more efficient scorers (O’Neal, Malone, Odom, etc.), he never averaged seven assists a game, despite being double-teamed much of his career. He had enough natural ability to become an elite player, and although he was often unfairly hailed for his defensive skills, Bryant never developed a rebounding, passing or defensive talent to anything near superstar levels. In short, he was no Jordan. Hell, he wasn’t even Drexler.
This was roundly ignored, and despite his place on the Lakers as O’Neal’s sidekick, a reverence for Bryant grew disproportionately to his actual ability to make the Lakers a great team. Yes, they won championships, but never due to unselfishness or team play. They capitalized on two stars’ aptitude for taking over a game. Had their been a Bad Boys, the “Lakers” would have never existed.
Instead, the unholy alliance of Bryant and O’Neal were able to win three consecutive championships from 1999-2002, beating such legendary heavyweights as Reggie Miller (the entire Pacers), Allen Iverson (the entire 76ers), and the Jason Kidd/Kenyon Martin/Keith Van Horn Nets (enough said). Three victories over weak Eastern Conference teams were enough to propel Bryant and O’Neal into the pantheon of their legendary forefathers. This Lakers epoch was quickly considered in stupendously reverential tones as perhaps one of the greatest squads of all time.
I didn’t get it. Was this all there was to winning? Maybe this was some people’s idea of basketball. Probably a Los Angeleno agent’s idea of basketball. Not mine. But still, despite being roundly dismissed from the 2003 playoffs by the Spurs, the Lakers, with the help of their pal David Stern, seemed poised to rattle off even more championships.
But a bountiful and merciful God intervened. In the form of a stocky point guard from Denver, of all places.
Chauncey Billups was a sneaky point guard, a prodigal basketball IQ, limited athletic ability but limitless confidence in his own scoring, defense and passing prowess. He had toughness born from years of scouts and professionals doubting his talent, which was exacerbated by bouncing around the NBA for several years. He was your quintessential extraordinarily underrated player about to hit his peak, but not out of hatred or bitterness, but rather divine right. Fitting this happened in Detroit, realm of the underrated, the teammate, the scrapper and the fighter.
Billups joined a team of other wayward souls. A shooting guard too small to succeed in Rip Hamilton, an offensively-challenged center called Ben Wallace, a skinny quiet kid named Tayshaun Prince and a brash, renegade cast-off in Rasheed Wallace. The Pistons suddenly had what is scientifically known as the nastiest starting five in NBA history. Their interior defense was omnipotent, all absurd length, intensity and rotational intelligence. Thirsty ball hawks in the backcourt that summoned perimeter harassment beyond what most guards were capable of. No opponent would dribble freely and run sets out of laziness and malaise against them. And no one on the Pistons cared who scored the most in any game. This was key. Because they played team defense as well as any team, but with a rowdiness that set them apart completely. They were the anti-Lakers without being the Spurs.
Disgraced, cheating NBA referee Tim Donaghy would later say that Rasheed Wallace and Billups were specifically targeted for unfavorable officiating while the Lakers were routinely outshooting opponents at the free throw line by ridiculous margins. Pistons against the league. Pistons against the world.
The ’04 Finals was thus nothing less than a battle for the soul of basketball, and also one of the greatest series in the sport’s history. In the first game, the Pistons allowed a team with four future Hall of Famers (Bryant, O’Neal, Gary Payton and Karl Malone) only 75 points. The tone was set. After the Pistons lost Game 2 in overtime, on the team bus Billups told the organization “we’re not coming back to L.A.” And he was right. Not only did the Pistons win the title (with Billups as Finals MVP), they destroyed the overrated Lakers, pillorying the entire Lakers organization in the process. O’Neal, Payton and Malone were banished to Miami, Boston and retirement respectively. Kobe would hang around, the centerpiece of a flailing dream.
Though the next season the Pistons were defeated in a gut-wrenching Finals against a similarly minded (if charmless) Spurs team, grueling, team-oriented basketball was given new life. The best teams were once again ones that beast out as a unit, not just one or two prissy troglodyte diva chucks and a bunch of bodies surrounding them. Some people may think this is ugly. Some may even say it isn’t basketball.
Me? I say Amen.
Doran is a freelance journalist whose passion for pop culture is often detrimental to his life. He lives in Brooklyn and his work has appeared on USA Today, Lost Lettermen, Brooklyn Fans and Societe Perrier, among other outlets. He’s eager to expand his work by assignment or pitch with balance and dexterity. So holla at him.