Let me start by saying that I was drawn to this showdown based on the defenses of these two teams. And because both of these squads won an NBA championship. The fact that both teams took a very different offensive approach is what truly intrigues me.
We all know how this works. I’ll compare these teams to each other in different facets of the game. I’ll decide an ultimate winner based on various factors.
Because both of these teams played in the Eastern Conference (different divisions) and just four seasons apart, comparing the level of competition each team had to face on their road to and NBA championship will prove to be pretty important. Not only does competition serve as a great measuring stick for how good a team is, it will also help draw a pretty good line in the sand as to which squad leaped the most hurdles on their way to a Western Conference foe in their respective NBA Finals crusade.
So let’s break down some of the contenders in the Eastern Conference in both 2004 and 2008.
Detroit Pistons, 2004 (54-28):
1st Round: Milwaukee Bucks (41-41): Led by premortem Michael Redd, Keith Van Horn and T.J. Ford (before we realized he sucks). Not an elite team by any means, but a decent divisional foe for sure. Detroit won the series in five games.
2nd Round: New Jersey Nets (47-35): The Nets won their division, per the standard for that period of time in the NBA. The Nets were led by Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson and Kenyon Martin (before a slew of injuries). The Nets made it respectable, taking the would-be champs to seven games.
3rd Round: Indiana Pacers (61-21): Took first in the Pistons own Central Division. Led by a fading, yet effective, Reggie Miller, Jermaine O’Neal (with a pulse), Al Harrington and Ron Artest (I absolutely refuse to call him by his new name). The Pacers seemed like the team to beat that season. But the Pistons would take the Eastern Finals in six games to grasp their first trip to the finals since 1988.
How tough were these two in the paint?
NBA Finals: Los Angeles Lakers (56-26): The Pistons would meet the heavily favored Lakers, fueled by Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Gary Payton and Karl Malone. I don’t feel like anyone outside of Motor City really gave the gritty Pistons a shot in hell to beat the Lakers in a seven game series.
But to the surprise of many, namely the ring-chasing Karl Malone and Gary Payton, Detroit stunned the Lakers in five games. The Lakers only managed one game, and they needed OT to get the win. That tells you just how good this Detroit Pistons team really was.
I gather from talking to people about this versus that they feel like star-power would catapult the Celtics over the Pistons. But defeating the Lakers so easily should help refute that knock. They handled the Lakers and their cast, filled with three first-ballot hall of famers (Shaq, Kobe, Malone) and possibly a fourth hall of famer in Gary Payton. The 2008 Celtics and their “Big Three” certainly won’t be the only deciding factor in the face-off.
Boston Celtics, 2008 (66-16):
1st Round: Atlanta Hawks (37-45): The Hawks would eventually become a better team in the years to follow, but this may have been their worst playoff team in the past five years. I mean, a record of 37-45 isn’t anything to brag about if you ask me. They were led by Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and a rookie, Al Horford. Yet they took Boston to the brink, losing in seven games.
2nd Round: Cleveland Cavaliers (45-37): The Cavs were still trying to build the right team around LeBron James and boston being the older, more seasoned team took the W in, again, seven games. (notable: Ben Wallace was a Cav)
3rd Round: Detroit Pistons (59-23): I don’t want to jump into making excuses, because the Pistons were still a tough team, but let’s be honest. This isn’t the 2004 team that won a title. They were without Ben Wallace (he was a Cav), Rasheed (14th season) was on his way to becoming a corpse in Boston and Chauncey Billups had four extra years worth of mileage on those legs (12 in all). The 2008 Pistons were just a bit slower and not as well matched as the 2004 Pistons would have been. And they still managed to keep it respectable, losing in six.
NBA Finals: Los Angeles Lakers (57-25): This Lakers squad was great and they’d prove that by going on to win the next two years in a row. But were they as good as the 2004 Lakers that the Detroit Pistons faced? I’m gonna have to say no. Kobe was about the same, a bit older, but same effectiveness. No Shaq, no Malone, no Payton. Instead they had some great players in Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. But I can’t bring myself to rank this Lakers team above the 2004 team. It just doesn’t make sense.
Advantage: Detroit Pistons
Next we’ll take a look at the roster from each team and get familiar with what each team was capable of doing on both offense and defense.
The 2004 Pistons were one of those teams who boasted a great set of players who fit a superb system on defense and offense alike. Chauncey Billups was probably their best offensive weapon. Dubbed “Mr. Bigshot” for his courageous late game heroics and ability to pop the clutch trey. He was also a very physical and intelligent guard. The perfect point guard for a team with championship hopes. Manning the shooting guard slot was Richard “Rip” Hamitlon. Rip was such a fundamental guy.
Probably the best off the ball mover I’ve seen since Reggie Miller. Hamilton also approached the game with a high basketball I.Q. Then you had Tayshaun Prince as the small forward. Prince is the guy that wowed the Pistons staff so much that they went ahead and passed on Carmelo in the 2003 NBA draft. Extremely long and defensive minded, Prince could also nail the deep ball and score in the post. Then you have Rasheed and Ben Wallace.
The defensive stoppers. These two cause teams many problems in the paint. Ask Shaq. Ben Wallace was the best defensive player in the NBA for a few seasons. His rugged interior defense stifled many NBA post scorers. Rasheed Wallace was likely the move that vaulted the Pistons into championship contention. He brought defense, offense and leadership. “Sheed” was a tough, no bullshit type of guy, who could beat you on both ends of the floor.
The Boston Celtics had the young, undervalued, Rajon Rondo, running the point. Rondo tossed himself on the court with some big names and never flinched. The 2008 NBA playoffs are where Rondo got his feet wet. And he walked on water. These playoffs are where Rondo made a name for himself. The great Ray Allen was the shooting guard who dropped treys from the corner like it was his day job (and it literally was).
The best shooter, perhaps ever makes a tough case for Boston’s offensive approach. Perhaps the best offensive player of the whole bunch was Paul Pierce. “The Truth” makes a killing from almost anywhere on the court, precise shooting and great fundamentals are what separates Pierce from your average small forward. Toss in the mid-range game of Kevin Garnett and the rebounding and defensive intensity of Kendrick Perkins and there’s no questions left as to why this team won a ring. KG and Perkins is a pretty nice match down low for the Wallace boys. This matchup just screams of greatness.
I definitely feel like Boston has the edge in star power, but the Pistons likely take the nod when it comes to team work.
But the NBA isn’t about 5-on-5. Each of these team’s had solid role players coming from the bench. They each displayed their on own unique touch and chemistry on the court.
Notable role players for Detroit include Mehmet Okur, Chucky Atkins, Lindsey Hunter, Elden Campbell and Corliss Williamson.
Notable role players for Boston include Eddie House, Glen Davis, James Posey, Leon Powe and Sam Cassel.
My conclusion is that the Detroit Pistons would have won this battle. I feel like they were the better team on defense and despite the “Big Three” and the young Rajon Rondo, Detroit still had a comparable offensive attack. Most of these battles are well matched. I feel like Rip vs. Ray Allen is one for the books. Both are very similar, crafty vets, with unparalleled heart and determination. Both Perkins and Ben Wallace are your typical bruiser centers.
Neither really possess much of an offensive game. Their strong, able rebounders, who hustle and work hard to get extra possessions. Sheed and KG is an intriguing match as well. Both great defensive players with exceptional low-post offensive repertoire. Tayshaun Prince seems outmatched on offensive by Paul Pierce, but I feel like he can make up with his defense.
He’s long and smart. Just the type of player to harass and give Pierce a tough go. But it’s Billups vs. Rondo that really makes me think this would have been Detroit’s game. Chauncey was too good and too incredibly smart for the young Rondo at that point in his career. I just don’t see Rondo being able to handle the beast that is Chauncey Billups in the big games.
Winner: 2004 Detroit Pistons.