The Detroit Pistons were a beacon of success in the ‘00s. Like the original Bad Boys era in Detroit, these Pistons were the most physical team in the sport. If you count the best defenses ever on one hand, they show up before your pinkie. They were the baddest team in the league, and being slightly less pompous than the first iteration made them humble by contrast. They affectionately became known as the “Going to Work” era. The teams were led (alphabetically) by Chauncey Billups, Richard “Rip” Hamilton, and Ben Wallace.
From 2001 to 2008, the Pistons averaged 55 wins. Their 384-190 regular season record over that majority of a decade is second only to the Spurs (407-167, an average of 58 wins). It’s one of the ten best records over any seven-season span in the modern era. Over the George W. Bush administration, the Pistons finishes:
2002 – Eastern Conference Semis
2003 – Eastern Conference Finals
2004 – Finals (Won)
2005 – Finals
2006 – Eastern Conference Finals
2007 – Eastern Conference Finals
2008 – Eastern Conference Finals
In the 2004 Finals, Chauncey Billups was named Finals MVP. As a result of those heroics, Mr. Big Shot is the face of the era. We see him as the team’s leader and best player. But was he?
The formation of the Big 3
In August of 2000, the Pistons sign-and-traded franchise face Grant Hill to the Orlando Magic for Ben Wallace and guard Chucky Atkins, both former undrafted players.
The team acquired Richard “Rip” Hamilton and Billups in the same 2002 offseason. In the first season of the era, the team was led by Jerry Stackhouse and Clifford Robinson. Stack was moved alongside Brian Cardinal and Ratko Varda to the Wizards for Rip, Hubert Davis, and Bobby Simmons.
Billups signed a 6 year, $35 million deal in free agency, moving on from the Timberwolves.
In every season the trio was together, Rip led the team in points, Ben in rebounds, and Chauncey in assists.
It’s noted best here that Rasheed Wallace made two name recognition/weak Eastern conference All-Star teams as a Piston, joining the team at the 2004 deadline. Wallace was one of the first true stretch bigs, and pushed this team over the top by giving the team interior offense that Ben didn’t without clogging the paint. They’re really a big 4, but he wasn’t in the other guys’ conversation.
Small forward, fifth starter Tayshaun Prince is also a worth-mentioning. Prince made four straight All-Defense second teams from 2005-2008 while averaging 14 points on 46% shooting. He was the team’s third-leading scorer three of those four years.
The case for Rip
Regular season and playoffs
19.7 pts, 3.9 reb, 2.5 ast, .443/.269/.833 shooting, 2.4 tov
22.5 pts, 3.9 reb, 2.6 ast, .442/.333/.906, 3.4 tov
17.6 pts, 3.6 reb, 4.0 ast, .455/.265/.868, 2.7 tov
21.5 pts, 4.6 reb, 4.2 ast, .447/.385/.848, 3.1 tov
18.7 pts, 3.9 reb, 4.9 ast, .440/.305/.858, 2.9 tov
20.0 pts, 4.3 reb, 4.3 ast, .453/.294/.798, 3.1 tov
20.1 pts, 3.2 reb, 3.4 ast, .491/.458/.845, 2.2 tov
20.4 pts 2.9 reb 2.7 ast, 413/.350/.851, 2.2 tov
19.8 pts, 3.8 reb, 3.8 ast, .468/.341/.861, 2.1 tov
18.8 pts, 4.3 reb, 3.8 ast, .429/.400/.865, 1.9 tov
17.3 pts, 3.3 reb, 4.2 ast, .484/.440/.833, 1.8 tov
21.6 pts, 4.2 reb, 3.9 ast, .470/.308/.911, 2.8 tov
Rip’s scoring numbers look meager by today’s standards, but also consider this was the dredges of the lowest-scoring era ever. 1999 was the Association’s lowest scoring season, and the 2001-2004 seasons fill out the rest of the top 5. The same rankings hold for the NBA’s lowest field goal percentage seasons. All 5 years are in the top 10 of slowest pace seasons, meaning every guy was getting the fewest possessions to score.
Taking the most shots is hard work. Straight up. Players in the league value scoring a lot more than we do, because they know it’s the hardest part of the sport and the most important – 100% invariably. They cape for Isaiah Thomas and 80 year old Jamal Crawford every time something happens in the Drew or G League.
Rip wasn’t a black hole either. If we scale his numbers to today’s game for pace, he’s averaging 20.3/3.9/4.1 with efficiency. He led the NBA in three-point percentage in 2006. He was about an average defender (-0.4 DBPM over the era), on a historic defense, which negated much of the problems from his biggest hole.
The case for Ben Wallace
Defense. It’s that simple. Ben is one of the ten greatest defenders ever, and I may personally venture to say five. ****, ***********, *****, and **** are his peers, and that’s unparalleled company. But that’s a pod for another day (seriously, keep it locked to Tha Rock is Hot because that episode comes soon).
In the first three playoffs that climaxed with the title, Wallace averaged 9-15-2 with 2.1 steals, 2.7 blocks, and just 2.6 fouls. In the two postseasons after they hung the banner, he put up 8-11-1 with 1.6 steals, 1.9 blocks, 2.5 fouls.
Wallace and Dikembe Mutombo hold the record with four Defensive Player of the Year awards. Wallace was All-Defensive first team all five years he was Going to Work. He won the rebounding title in 2002 and 2003, the blocks title in 2002, and the stocks title (steals and blocks combined) in 2002, 2003, and 2004. And in all the accounted seasons he didn’t win those titles, he remained 10th or higher in all three categories. In 2002-03, he averaged the second-least points ever for an All-Star (6.9). And don’t even get us started on the advanced defense numbers.
Pistons defenses during the run: 6th, 1st, t-1st, 2nd, 3rd, 2nd, 1st
The 2003-04 Pistons allowed 84.3 points per game, the third-fewest ever. The two ahead of them are the 1999 Hawks and the 1999 Heat. I told y’all about 1999! Those Pistons also set the record for most consecutive games holding opponents under 100 points. That streak spanned the first 36 games of the season. And they did it for 30 straight to end the season, the third-longest streak ever.
On November 16, 2002 the Pistons beat the visiting Denver Nuggets 74-53. 53 points is the second-fewest ever, behind an 82-49 Miami Heat victory in guess what year? It’s Prince and Joey Badass’s favorite. They set that record against the Bulls in the first year after Jordan left.
If you count the best defenses ever on one hand, the Pistons show up before your pinkie.
Obviously, Large Benjamin didn’t do all of these things single-handedly, but the legend was the largest factor bar none. He was the pillar of a defense in the Pantheon of all-time greats.
Wallace was only a Piston for the first five seasons (2002-06), signing with the Bulls after the 2006 seasons. Rip and Chauncey were both around for six (2003-2008).
The case for Chauncey Billups
When Chauncey got to Detroit from Minnesota, he instantly got the keys to the largest role of his career. Rip was the team’s highest usage player throughout their tenure, but Chauncey ran the show at point guard.
Billups shot below league-average from the field every season during the run, but his elite three-ball (.400), volume of threes (4.7 3pa), and ability to get to the stripe (.892 on 5.6 fta) kept him decently above average in eFG and TS% throughout the era.
He was right on Rip’s heels for the team’s scoring lead, averaging 17 over the era to Rip’s 19.
After a middling 3.9 assists per game his first year in the Motor City, Billups put up 6, 6, 9, 7, and 7 dimes per night.
Billups was selected to two All-Defensive second teams, in 2005 and 2006.
Despite his reputation as Mr. Big Shot, Billups’ numbers slip all over the place in the playoffs. In the Finals run where he eventually won FMVP, Billups shot under 39% from the field and under 35% from deep. His assists increased slightly from the regular season, but his turnovers increased at a more significant rate. He was the worst of the Big 3 in every series except the Finals.
Billups’ shooting percentage and three-point percentage dropped in the playoffs in five out of six seasons. His assists average and free throw percentage decreased slightly as well, and his turnovers were the same.
This is not to say he was a liability. A player as good as Chauncey was good even on his bad days.
His Finals MVP numbers: 21.0 points, 3.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 51/47/93 shooting (69.6 TS%). Beat the Lakers 4 games to 1. The Laker backcourt of Kobe Bryant, Gary Payton, and Derek Fisher combined to shoot 63/177 (36%).
The answer is philosophical. It depends on the values of the person answering.
If you feel Rip, it’s because you know that scoring is and always will be the fundamental of basketball. This game is Put The Ball In The Hoop. Offense is infallibly and eternally the most important thing. If you can’t get buckets, no other parts of your offense are going to work. Great scorers generate good looks for an offense like great point guards.
If you feel Ben, it’s because you know that he was the centerpiece. With all due respect to the other two, this team’s identity was defense. Defense won games and championship for this squad. That’s inarguable. So while offense matters more to the sport, defense mattered more to this team. Rip and Chauncey were more fungible because they were less fundamental to the team’s structure and scheme.
If you feel Billups, it’s because you value the team construction. Champions where the best player isn’t plain are rarer than rare; that level of team ball is damn near unattainable. Rip is that rare example of a primary scorer not being the cornerstone of a champion team. That’s not on accident. Point guard is so much more than assists. Point guards the caliber of Billups put their team in positions to win, on both ends. Billups helped set up the defense as well as the offense, even if he wasn’t the foundation of the D. Take him away, and every Piston gets a little worse.