by Pardeep Toor
Losing is relative. It’s a measure not conducive to absolutes because of the spectrum of “losers” in the League. For the Los Angeles Clippers, losing is an incurable epidemic that reeks of failure. For the Knicks, losing is a reminder of the karma-induced hope that possibly awaits them this summer – a boon for their suffering.
Lakers, Magic, Celtics, Cavs – any title with out the prefix “NBA Champions” would be considered a loss this year.
There is one team this past decade that combined the inevitably of loss with unbearable disappointment, showcased the collective swagger of a champion despite consistently failing to meet expectations. This decade’s loveable losers are the … Detroit Pistons.
Before you slay me for picking a team that won a championship and has little fanfare outside of its home state, let me explain. This isn’t about what the Pistons were but what they could have been. The title of “loveable loser” is not based on their single championship but the dynastic seeds they planted with one of the most balanced and complementary starting fives of the last decade.
The Pistons represented the collective over the individual – the culmination of egos into a unified cockiness that was unhindered by the results of their play. Validation for the Pistons came from within – win or lose – they believed they were the best team in the League every year. That belief was so strong that they often appeared bored, complacent, and indifferent in the most crucial playoff games, as if the championship had already been won inside their heads.
Six consecutive years of at least making Eastern Conference finals, two finals appearances, one championship, six coaches, seven 50-win seasons, yet I still consider them loveable losers. Their core was so good, the Eastern Conference so weak, they should have won more rings.
The Pistons were “loveable” because they displayed a fundamental human trait – a stubbornness and refusal to change, no matter the results.
Despite winning a championship in 2004 with depth, Larry Brown played only six players (Billups, Hamilton, Prince, Wallaces and McDyess) for four rounds in the 2005 Playoffs, the bench never developed in the era. Many nights in the regular season, it appeared as if they weren’t trying ’til the fourth quarter. An aging team refused to play zone in the Playoffs for Flip Saunders. Sheed never did re-enter the post. Billups wore down each and every year in the Playoffs and struggled to stay in front of quicker guards. Yet, the team never reflected on its flaws, but placed blame for their annual failures on external factors (refs, coaches) – very human.
The Pistons were loveable because they mirror many of our individual lives. They caught a break in 2004 with the Malice at the Palace, eliminating their strongest opponent in the Indiana Pacers. They capitalized on their chance by wining a championship but couldn’t catapult themselves to historical greatness, instead being just another team that won a title. As they aged, they remained inflexibly confident until it all ended last year with the Billups/Allen Iverson trade. Then, the reflection on an under-achieving era began among the group’s core.
Looking back, it’s easy to reminisce about how close things were to being completely different. What if Robert Horry (18 points in the second half, 4-of-5 from three) didn’t have the game of his life in the game five of the finals in 2005? What if Sheed didn’t leave him on the final play of the 4th quarter?
What if the basketball Gods didn’t send LeBron to drop some knowledge in game five of the Eastern Conference finals in 2007? Who was checking Daniel Gibson when he went off for 31 points, 5-of-5 from three, 12-15 from the free-throw line, in just 29 minutes in game six of the same series? In 2008, how did Kendrick Perkins go off for 18/16/2/2 in a crucial game five loss to the Celtics?
The Playoff series losses were too close to embrace. Each time, it felt like the Pistons were equivalent, if not a better team, but just a few plays each year distinguished them as the loveable losers rather than the best team of the decade.
This past decade, the Pistons were a microcosm of many of our own lives – marginal success, complacency and reflection, followed by regret. More than their accomplishments, I will always remember the Pistons for their mishaps – their flaws are our flaws – but also for how they kept getting up after each heartbreaking playoff loss. Their resilience (a trait worthy of mimic) is what truly made them admirable. I loved them for their unified attitude, but unfortunately, that was also their downfall.
For more Decade Awards, check out the archive.