On June 15, 2004, the crowd in the Palace of Auburn Hills roared.
Richard Hamilton hugged Darvin Ham on his way to the bench. Hamilton unfastened his signature face mask before wielding it to the sold-out crowd as red, white, and blue confetti fell around him.
Nearly 17 years to the day — as the offense-centric 2021 playoffs rage on — that Pistons team’s effect on the NBA is still apparent.
Using an elite defense and timely shooting, the lineup of Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace defeated a Laker team who won three out of the last four NBA titles and was led by four future Hall of Famers, including Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
A defense that was different
The Pistons finished the 2004 season leading the league in fewest points allowed per game with 83.5.
Rim-/protector Ben Wallace was named to the first All-Defensive team and finished as runner-up Defensive Player of the Year. Billups and Prince earned second-team All-Defensive honors that season. (Wallace in his career won four Defensive Player of the Year awards and is the only member of the ’04 Pistons to be elected in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.)
Prince’s chase-down block on the Indiana Pacers’ Reggie Miller in the closing seconds of Game 2 in the Eastern Conference Finals foreshadowed how Detroit’s defense could rise when it mattered most.
Hands in faces and fists full of gold and purple jerseys, the Pistons shut down everyone not named Bryant or O’Neal in the 2004 NBA Finals. The rest of the Lakers combined for 16 points in Game 1. In Game 3, the Lakers were stifled into a modern era franchise record for the fewest points in a finals game. In Game 5, the Pistons held O’Neal to seven first-half points forcing the Lakers into a deficit they would never recover from.
Defense had always been a staple of Detroit basketball dating back to the 1980s Bad Boy era exemplified by Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer. Hard fouls around the basket and the vicious pursuits brought wins to the Motor City.
The aggressive style of play, which included infamous on-court brawls, helped defeat Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls two years in row en route to the franchise’s first and second titles.
In a league now powered by scoring, 2004 Pistons were the last champions that featured a stifling defense over superstars.
Those Pistons knew they were bringing pride to a basketball-hungry city, but they could not have anticipated they would cause the NBA to change the way defense could be played.
‘Nobody wanted to see a defensive team in the finals’
In the name of “opening the game up” then-Commissioner David Stern instituted several rules to increase offensive production, most notable being the penalty for defensive 3 seconds, started in 2000-01 — but it wasn’t until the 2004-05 season that more emphasis was placed on defensive 3 seconds, blocking fouls and hand-checking.
Hand-checking rules weren’t new to the NBA, but they were essentially useless until the amendment. The amended hand-checking rule stated: A defender may not place and keep his hand on an opponent unless he is in the area near the basket with his back to the basket. A defender may momentarily touch an opponent with his hand anywhere on the court as long as it does not affect the opponent’s movement.
It seemed like a direct attack at the Pistons.
“Nobody wanted to see a defensive team in the finals and winning,” Billups told NBC after the 2005 finals “It’s not as explosive. It’s not as fun to watch. I don’t like watching it either. … But you look at us against San Antonio last year. Two really good defensive teams in the finals played seven games and got the worst ratings in history almost.”
Former Pistons president Joe Dumars, who assembled the 2004 team, said in a 2006 interview with HoopsHype the team would have a harder time with the newer defensive style of play:
“We could still compete, but it would be a lot tougher.'”
“I don’t understand,” Billups said then, “I think you should reward hard work, not try to make it softer.”
Pistons head coach Dwane Casey, then an assistant for the Seattle Supersonics, defended the league’s decision.
“The new rules have given players more freedom of movement,” Casey said. “The fact that there are no illegal defenses has increased ball movement and increased man movement that makes it hard to defend.”
A new era of defense
The Pistons’ vaunted defense adjusted to the changes and earned a second consecutive trip to the finals in 2005, this time against the San AntonioSpurs. Their defense fell short, and the Pistons lost the series 4-3.
“It was frustrating for a lot of the players,” Pistons coach Larry Brown told the Sun-Sentinel in April 2005. “Rip (Hamilton) fouled out of eight games (this season), and I don’t think he has fouled out of eight games his entire career. That was a bigger adjustment for us probably than it was for anybody.”
The 2004-05 rules changes shifted the state of defense in the NBA drastically. Since 2005 just three teams have had three different players make an all-NBA defensive team: ’05-06 Pistons, ’12-13 Memphis Grizzlies, and ’20-21 Philadelphia 76ers. The Pistons are the only team to have made the finals.
Scoring has risen dramatically over the past decade-and-a-half, with even the best defenses allowing nearly 100 points a night.
“These days you can have a mediocre defense and win a title,” NBA analyst Ric Bucher told Slate in 2006. “But you have to have a great offense. It used to be the other way around.”
The debate whether grinding, physical defenses could compete with present-day offenses was ignited when Hamilton declared the 2004 Pistons could contain a Warriors offense that averaged 114.9 points per game and set the league record with 73 wins in 2015-16.
“It would be no comparison,” Hamilton said on CBS Sports’ “NBA Crossover.” “We can guard every position. Every guy from our point guard to our ‘5’ can guard any position. We were big. We were long.”
Prince was more measured, saying the Pistons’ dominance would depend on the rules.
“It depends on what the rules are. Because back when we played, we could play hands-on, physical. As you can see from the Pacers rivalries and all of the rivalries we had back in the day, we were scoring in the high 70s, low 80s. We were physical,” said Prince.
“So now, if you play this style of play — where they’re running and gunning and touch fouls and things like that — all of sudden, we would start getting in foul trouble because back when we played, we were very, very aggressive on defense.”
Mia Berry is a sports reporting intern with the Free Press. Reach out via email: email@example.com.