By Bill Simmons
Lingering questions after the biggest NBA Finals upset in nine years ...
Q: Wait a second ... nine years? Wasn't it 30 years?
A: Nope. For whatever reason, everyone keeps overlooking Houston's sweep of Orlando nine years ago, since it sounds more impressive to say things like "The biggest NBA Finals upset in 30 years!" Hakeem and the Rockets were something like 4-to-1 underdogs heading into that series. Believe me. I wagered on them. You don't forget things like that.
Danny Ainge shows the press the hand he plans on wearing his Pistons championship ring.
Q: Will Joe Dumars send Danny Ainge a championship ring for facilitating the Rasheed Wallace trade?
A: And a parade. Danny gets a parade. Just remember, the 'Sheed trade couldn't have happened unless Danny absorbed the last two years of Chucky Atkins' contract. (And yes, Chucky was left unprotected in the expansion draft with a "Pretty please?" sign around his neck.) Danny even agreed to take Lindsay Hunter as well, then waive him so Detroit could pick him right back up. And he made these sacrifices for the chance to add the 25th pick in this year's draft. The 25th pick! Maybe he's planning on drafting someone with two healthy knees, then giving the dude's knee ligaments to Raef LaFrentz.
So why strengthen a conference rival with someone who EVERYONE KNEW was perfect for them? Danny didn't want Rasheed signing with someone in Boston's division this summer. Swear to God. He even said so. Did you get the memo that the Atlantic Division was more important than the Eastern Conference? Me neither. Also, the Knicks and Nets couldn't have offered Rasheed anything beyond the free-agent exemption this summer. Does the man who invented the phrase "CTC" (for "Cut the check") really seem like the kind of guy who would take a significant pay cut to play for a winning team?
Put it this way: If the Rasheed trade happened in my fantasy league, we would have gotten together and vetoed it. That's how one-sided it was. The Pistons cleared all their cap fodder AND picked up a starting forward. If that doesn't earn Danny Ainge at least a half-share of the playoff money, I don't know what does.
Speaking of 'Sheed ...
Q: How did 'Sheed keep it together for the entire duration of the playoffs? Isn't he completely insane? Did something change? Was Larry Brown electro-shocking him before games?
A: This was the biggest mystery of the playoffs. How did 'Sheed go from "Creator of CTC" to "Good Soldier On A Title Team" in eight months? It's inexplicable. What about the never-ending barrage of temper tantrums, those SI pictures of his unhappy cell phone calls at charity events, all the comical incidents with referees? How many key Blazers games did he sabotage over the years? Thirty? Forty? And suddenly he was fine? This was like watching Courtney Love fill in for Kelly Ripa, then tape Regis' show for four months without a single incident. I'm still reeling from the whole thing. I can only imagine how Blazers fans feel.
(One of my favorite subplots of the playoffs was anyone saying that Rasheed is "misunderstood." Let's say you're working on Wall Street. Every two weeks, you flip out on someone and get escorted out of the building. This happens for 10 straight years. You can't help yourself. They keep fining you, you're costing the company money ... doesn't matter. You're a lunatic. Then you change firms and keep it together for four months, just long enough for the new firm to consider signing you to an extension. Well, does that make you "misunderstood," or are you just a lunatic with a convenient on-off switch? I'm going with the latter. I'm cynical that way.)
Q: What can the Lakers do this summer?
A: Trade Kobe. It's time. Send him to the Clippers for Maggette, Wilcox and two No. 1s. Send him to the Grizzlies for Miller, Battier, Swift and draft picks. Send him to the Suns for Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion and the No. 7 pick. Send him to Orlando for McGrady. Send him to Boston for Pierce and two No. 1s. Just do something.
Chauncey as MVP? Hey, Pitino -- we bet you didn't see that one coming.
Q: Five years from now, where will Chauncey Billups as an NBA Finals MVP rank on the "How the Hell Did That Happen?" Scale?
A: Probably somewhere between Brady Anderson belting 50 homers and Toto winning four Grammys. But hey ... it happened. I just think Tayshaun Prince deserved the trophy this time around. Did you ever think you would see Kobe struggle like that? Even when he went 14 for 27 in Game 2, 10 of those makes were circus shots. Do you realize Kobe shot 29 for 86 in the four Lakers losses? That he shot 25 free throws all series? How was Tayshaun not the MVP? The Lakers only had two good players and Detroit shut down one of them. No way the Pistons win without Prince.
Q: Wait a second ... just two months ago, didn't you write that Detroit passing up Carmelo Anthony because of Prince was like "passing up a free Ferrari because you already own a Miata"?
A: Um ... yeah.
Q:The lesson, as always -- .
A: Right. I'm an idiot.
Q: Since the Pistons won the title, doesn't that mean they did the right thing with the Darko pick? As it turned out, they didn't need Carmelo, correct?
A: Well, those are two separate issues. Since Tayshaun wouldn't have developed at the same rate with 'Melo around, they probably wouldn't have won the title with both of them. They needed Prince's defense more than they needed 'Melo's scoring. Maybe 'Melo would have been happy playing 10-to-15 minutes off the bench, maybe not. Who knows? In a roundabout way, Dumars was vindicated by the pick -- he made the assessment that they didn't need help right away, so they could afford to gamble on a project like Darko. And he turned out to be right. So kudos to him.
At the same time, even the most staunch Detroit supporter has to admit that Darko was an absolute train wreck this season. Every time he entered the game, it was like watching a little kid stumbling onto the field during a family softball game. Oh, no, get him off -- somebody help him off before he gets hit by a line drive! Poor Darko couldn't even get his ears pierced without screwing it up -- hence, the bandages on each earlobe, which may have shattered the Unintentional Comedy Scale as we know it.
(Note: Just hearing Al Michaels tell the story during Game 5 was probably the highlight of the playoffs for me, right up there with Aretha Franklin's lip-synching and Tom Tolbert predicting that the Lakers would win Game 4, then coming back near the end of the fourth quarter and confidently explaining, "Detroit just has a better team." What? No mention of the fact that he picked the Lakers 90 minutes earlier? And yet, I digress.)
If they re-did the draft 12 months later, LeBron goes first, Dwyane Wade second, 'Melo third, Chris Bosh fourth ... and Darko either goes fifth or sixth (depending on how you feel about Kirk Hinrich). Darko also doesn't carry half the trade value of someone like 'Melo or Wade. And if Karl Malone's knee hadn't given out, or Jason Kidd's knee had held up, or if Ron Artest didn't swing that elbow at Rip's head near the end of Game 6, maybe this conversation unfolds a little differently.
But since none of those things happened, and since Detroit ended up winning the championship with what they had -- which is the entire point of having a team -- you can't say they made the wrong choice. You just can't. Sure, the Pistons could have taken Jonathan Lipnicki at No. 2 and probably gotten just as much out of the pick. And J-Lip probably would have been able to pierce his own ears.
Q: What happened to your "The team with the best player always wins the Finals" theory?
A: Good question. In this case, the Pistons' defense was more dominant than any single player in the league. Five years from now, when LeBron and Yao are running amok, nobody will be able to win a championship this way. But it works for now.
Q: Can Bill Davidson buy the Red Sox before October? Can somebody make this happen?
A: That's been the most common e-mail I've been getting over the past 36 hours. And yes, somebody needs to make this happen. Either that or some sort of a decathlon between Davidson and the guy who owns Smarty Jones.
Speaking of Davidson, what about Mike Tirico mentioning the Detroit Shock when asking Davidson about his current championship teams? Will the inexplicable pimping of the WNBA ever cease? The least he could have done was to add something sarcastic like, "I also understand that you won your fantasy football league last winter" or "Rumor has it that you had an emotional win over your great-granddaughter in Connect Four last week."
"Kobe you know I can't give you that call. Didn't you get the memo?"
Q: You love NBA conspiracies ... what's the best one you heard during the playoffs?
A: As you know, the officiating was curiously one-sided in the Finals. It reached the point where ABC was afraid to show replays -- like when Rasheed delivered a flying forearm to Devean George in Game 5, sent him flying out of bounds, drew a prolonged whistle from the referee ... and play was mysteriously allowed to continue. What the heck happened there? Thank God for TiVo. And have you ever seen a team set more moving picks in a single series?
Anyway, here's the conspiracy theory: With Kobe's trial looming, the NBA wanted the Lakers to make the Finals (for ratings), but didn't want them to actually win the title. And why? Because if Kobe ends up being convicted for whatever reason ... well, wouldn't that be a little awkward? The best player on your league's defending champion now playing for a prison All-Star team? Think about it.
(And no, I don't believe this one ... I'm just passing it along.)
Q: In retrospect, what was more annoying -- the voice of Detroit's PA announcer or those "Let's get it started!" ads?
A: Let's get it started in here, let's get it started in here, let's get it started in here, let's get it started in here, let's get it started in here, let's get it started in here, let's get it started in here, let's get it started in here, let's get it started in here, let's get it started in here, let's get it started in here, let's get it started in here, let's get it started in here, let's get it started in here, let's get it started in here, let's get it started in here, let's get it started in here, let's get it started in here, let's get it started in here, let's get it started in here, let's get it started in here, let's get it started in here, let's get it started in here, let's get it started in here, let's get it started in here ...
Na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na NAAAAAH!
Q: Who was more excited after Game 5, Red Auerbach or Michael Jordan?
A: Probably Red. You know this Phil Jackson stuff drives him bonkers. With that said, MJ had to be delighted that Kobe struggled so much against the Pistons. Young MJ would have been too physical off the dribble for Prince. Older Wiser MJ would have brought Prince down low, posted him up and introduced him to the fallaway and the drop-step. Either version of MJ would have attacked the basket if the jumpers weren't falling. And if his team was having so much trouble rebounding, do you think MJ would have gone down low and grabbed a few boards? Me, too.
Put it this way: Either Kobe's bum shoulder was more banged up than anyone realized, or his stock dropped BIG TIME in this series. No way MJ goes that quietly in his prime. No way MJ launches that many ghastly shots. No way MJ wastes a 36-20 effort from Shaq. No way MJ stands around as the Pistons keep grabbing offensive rebounds. It just wouldn't happen. I think we can put a moratorium on the "Kobe vs. MJ" stuff for awhile.
Q: If one of the ESPNews anchors was swinging a watch during Larry Brown's postgame interviews, could you become hypnotized?
A: See, these are the things we need to find out. Somebody get Stan Verrett on the phone next time coach Brown is speaking.
(And no, there's no better way to pass the time in traffic than to talk to yourself in the Larry Brown monotone for 10 straight minutes. I'm very proud of my car right now. It's not heating up at all. I even have the air conditioning on. It's just a credit to the people who made this car. Other cars would be overheating right now. I can't control what people think about this car. I'm just taking it one traffic jam at a time. Now I'm going to count backwards from 10. When I clap my hands, you will wake up from this traffic jam.)
Q: Are people getting a little carried away with their assessments of some of the Pistons players?
A: A little. For instance, Al Michaels wondered during Game 5 if anyone has "ever" had a nose for the ball like Ben Wallace. Actually, I can think of about 10 guys in the past 25 years alone. Sorry, Al. Or someone like Billups, a hit-or-miss player, a below-40-percent shooter who looked good against L.A. for the same reason Francis and Parker looked good: The Artist Formerly Known As GP was guarding him. And there have been 20 guys in the past two decades who shot the ball as well or better than Rip Hamilton; they just never played for as good a team.
Here's the point: All of these guys had weaknesses. Wallace and Prince lucked out because the team didn't need them to shoot. Billups lucked out because the team didn't need him to create shots for other guys. Hamilton lucked out because Prince was around to defend scorers like Jefferson and Kobe. Rasheed lucked out because he could play 20 feet from the basket and not have to worry about rebounding. And so on. Everyone complemented everyone else. That's what made it so much fun.
Charlie Salinger & Co. are in pre-production for a "Where Are They Now?" show on VH1.
Q: Out of the relentless ABC promos for their fall lineup, which show looked the most promising?
A. Probably "Lost," the one where the plane crashes and everyone's stranded on a desert island. I've been waiting for them to make this show for years -- the untapped sexual potential of "Gilligan's Island" was always off the charts. As an added bonus, they gave the guy who played Charlie from "Party of Five" one of the lead roles. They should have just made believe that Charlie was on the actual plane; that would have been much more fun. No, I can't help you guys build a raft ... you don't understand, I have cancer! When are you guys getting that through your sick skulls? I'm very sick! I have cancer!
Q: What were Phil Jackson's biggest mistakes?
A: In order ...
1. Not pulling the plug on Malone sooner. When you can't jump, rebound, defend, shoot or move, there's not much left. On the bright side, he's finally eligible for a multi-year contract from the Knicks.
2. Not playing Luke Walton more. So what if you lose some rebounding? Aren't you getting killed on the boards, anyway? And no, I will never, ever, EVER understand the Slava Medvedenko thing. All things considered, he could have been the worst rotation guy on any of the 16 playoff teams. Does he even possess a definable skill? If you replaced him with one of the Klitschko brothers, how long would it take before anyone noticed the difference?
3. Not going small. Why not spread the floor with shooters (Rush, Fisher, Fox/George and Kobe) and try a little three-ball to open up things for Shaq? They were getting slaughtered on the boards, regardless. Wasn't it worth a shot?
4. Sticking with Gary Payton. According to my Table Test, GP wasn't just failing to bring anything to the table in the Finals -- he was actually taking things OFF the table. No small feat. Has anyone ever played themselves out of the Hall of Fame before?
5. Sitting Shaq with two fouls in Game 5. Game over.
6. Not posting up Kobe against two slender guys (Hamilton and Prince). At the very worst, you're drawing a double-team. What's the point of feeding Kobe 30 feet from the basket? Why give away one of the only advantages you have?
7. Not being able to stay awake during Game 1.
(Oh, wait ... he was AWAKE for Game 1? I had no idea!)
Q: What happened to the art of the postgame championship celebration?
A: Exactly! Remember the days of players screaming and pouring champagne over each other's heads? Now we're treated to those contrived ceremonies at midcourt, along with enough kids and babies on camera to launch a pre-school. When did this turn into an ABC Family sitcom? Instead of seeing Cedric Maxwell pouring bubbly on Brent Musberger's head, now I get to see Rasheed Wallace's baby burping up milk all over her dad's shoulder. I liked things the old way. I think I speak for everyone here.
Q: Where does this Pistons team rank against the champs from the past 30 years?
A: Pretty low. They couldn't win their division. They barely escaped two playoff series. They lucked out by facing the Lakers instead of the Spurs. They didn't have a dominant player, someone who could create his own shot after everything else broke down. In the Finals, they were never favored by more than three points in any game. Along with the '99 Spurs, '94 Rockets, '78 Bullets and '75 Warriors, on paper, they were one of the weakest champions of the past 30 years.
There's a remote chance -- not impossible, but remote -- that they were a budding juggernaut that came together in these last few weeks, only we were too blinded by the L.A. soap opera to see it. If that's true, the Pistons need to keep it going. They need to roll through the league next season, win 60-plus games and take the East. Anything less and they will always be remembered as another Buster Douglas -- a journeyman performer hitting his potential at the perfect time, against the best possible opponent, then never reaching those same heights again.
I guess we'll see.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine.