I recently wrote an article using my memories of the 2004 NBA Finals between the Detroit Pistons and Los Angeles Lakers to help me pin down when I received a specific video game. Putting together that post brought back memories of the strange 2004 NBA season, which served simultaneously as the apex and the last gasp of the slow-paced, defense-first era in the NBA that began taking hold in the mid-to-late 1990s and that would be eviscerated by rule changes and offensive innovations beginning with the 2004-05 season. No team captured the essence of 2003-04 more than the Detroit Pistons, which ground its way to the NBA Finals with an historically great defense and a slightly below-league average offense (even by the grim standards of offense in 2003-04). The star-studded Los Angeles Lakers, winners of three of the previous four NBA Championships, were heavily favored going into the Finals. As we know looking back, the Pistons crushed the favored Lakers in five games (4-1) wherein only one game, the Lakers’ fortunate overtime win in game two, was meaningfully in doubt in the final minutes. I pulled up a few articles about the series for my previous article in order to provide context for the majority of readers who are likely not familiar with the details of the 2004 NBA Finals. That inspired a topic: Should the Lakers have been favored at all?

Context Going Into the Series

To begin, let us look at the path of the Pistons and the Lakers to the NBA Finals. While the Lakers have a tendency to get the lion’s share of attention, I will lead with the Pistons – that is the team that actually won the championship.

I discussed the 2003-04 Pistons in detail in a related article about their peculiar 2003 Draft, when, despite having been an excellent team in 2002-03, they wound up with the second overall draft pick (usually reserved for bad teams) thanks to an unsung trade from 1997. The Pistons used the pick to draft Darko Milicic, who then barely saw the floor in just over two seasons with the Pistons, over three current and future Hall of Famers who were taken at picks 3-5. While the pick is often derided, I made the case for Milicic – not because of Milicic’s contributions to the Pistons, but instead because we know that the result of the pick was the 2004 NBA Championship.

The Pistons were coming off a 2002-03 season wherein they finished with a 50-32 record and made the Eastern Conference Finals. The Pistons returned their top three players from 2002-03: center and Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace and their leading scorers, guards Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton. They would be joined in the starting lineup by two returning players, Mehmet Okur (a sharp-shooting big man who would later make an All Star team, albeit not with the Pistons) and second-year forward Tayshaun Prince. While the Pistons saw some shuffling around of their opening game starting line-up, their biggest change was in the coaching department. They fired Rick Carlisle, who had done an admirable job taking over what had been a losing team (32-50) in 2001-02 and guiding the Pistons to consecutive 50-32 seasons and three playoff series wins in three seasons. The Pistons replaced Mr. Carlisle with Larry Brown, whose coaching resume is too long to detail here, who was coming off a stint with the Philadelphia 76ers (which the Pistons had eliminated in the 2002-03 Eastern Conference Semifinals) that included an NBA Finals appearance in 2000-01.

The Pistons were seen as a good team going into 2003-04. While preseason betting odds are an imperfect metric (to put it mildly), the Pistons were given the seventh best championship odds (tied with the Indiana Pacers) and second best in the Eastern Conference behind the two-time defending conference champion, the New Jersey Nets. This is in line with my recollection of NBA commentary at the time.

As I noted, 2003-04 was a very slow-paced, low-scoring season. This seemed just right for the Pistons, which were built around a ferocious defense. The Pistons started the year well but unspectacularly, having a 34-23 record through their February 20, 2004 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. One day prior, the Pistons had completed a trade for Rasheed Wallace, a two-time All Star and one of the better power forwards in the NBA. Mr. Rasheed Wallace joined Mr. Ben Wallace in the starting lineup (relegating the excellent Mehmet Okur to the bench), and the Pistons transformed, finishing the season on a 20-4 spurt to end the regular season with a 54-28 record that was the Eastern Conference’s second best record (the Pistons were technically the third seed because they were second in their division, but they had home court advantage in the second round against the second seed on account of their better record.)

The Lakers went into the 2003-04 season with significantly more fanfare than the Pistons. After having their run of three consecutive championships ended in a disappointing 2002-03 second round playoff expert to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs, the Lakers added two future Hall of Famers in the twilight of their careers – then-second all time leading scorer and two-time MVP Karl Malone (a young 41 years of age) and long-time elite point guard Gary Payton – to its core duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Mr. O’Neal was, without question, the best center in the NBA, and although Tim Duncan of the Spurs and perhaps the eventual 2003-04 NBA MVP Kevin Garnett had surpassed Mr. O’Neal as a player by 03-04, he was at worst the third best player in the NBA and still its most dominant offensive force when healthy. Mr. Bryant was considered by most to be the best perimeter player in the NBA (although Tracy McGrady of the Orlando Magic had a strong case going into 2003-04) and was one of the top six or seven players in his own right. The Lakers were widely hailed as championship favorites with the additions of Messrs. Malone and Payton to what was, without question, the NBA’s best star duo.

The Lakers initially lived up to expectations – beginning the season with an 18-3 record. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a team relying on some older pieces, the Lakers began to have injury problems. The 40-year old Karl Malone missed 40 games after having missed only 10 games in the previous 19 seasons (not a typo). Mr. O’Neal, whose physical conditioning left something to be desired in 2003-04, missed 15 games. Mr. Bryant – who was mixing playing basketball with preparing for a trial in Colorado to face rape charges (the charges were dropped during the NBA offseason) – missed 18 games. The Lakers found themselves at 31-19 on February 11, 2024 after a 13-16 injury-filled stretch before regaining their health and going 25-7 the rest of the way to finish with a 56-26 record.

The particulars of the Lakers in 2003-04 are beyond the scope of this article, but that team had more melodrama than a soap opera. I noted Mr. Bryant’s serious ongoing criminal matters. On one occasion Mr. Bryant accused Mr. Malone of making a pass at his wife. Mr. O’Neal and Mr. Bryant continued to bicker in public (including some ugly allegations related to Mr. Bryant’s arrest in Colorado). Mr. O’Neal, as I noted, was not entirely in shape and openly dissatisfied with the Lakers. People gathered throughout the season that the O’Neal-Bryant duo was unlikely to survive another season (Mr. O’Neal demanded and received a trade after the season). The Lakers’ legendary Coach, Phil Jackson, had secretly decided to quit at the end of the season (after which he had some choice words about coaching Mr. Bryant) – but he would return in 2005-06 and eventually lead two very different-looking and more functional Lakers teams led by Mr. Bryant to championships at the end of the decade.

(Maybe the surprise is that the Lakers circus somehow managed to win 56 games.)

The Pistons entered the Eastern Conference playoffs as the number two seed. While they had the NBA’s second best defense in the NBA’s best defensive season in history in the regular season, we will see shortly that they ratcheted things to another level in the playoffs.

The Pistons did away with the seventh-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in a five-game gentleman’s sweep in the first round.

In the second round, the Pistons faced what would turn out to be their stiffest playoff test against the team that had swept them in the 2003 Eastern Conference Finals, the Jason Kidd-led New Jersey Nets. The Pistons won by a gag-inducing score of 78-56 in game one and then won game two 95-80 to take a two-game lead.

(The 134 points scored in game one of the Eastern Conference Semifinals set a new second-place mark for the fewest points scored in an NBA playoff game since the introduction of the 24-second shot clock in the 1954-55 NBA season. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the record involved the 2001-02 Pistons in a 66-64 loss against the Boston Celtics. The second-place mark has only subsequently been tied once… but more on that shortly.)

However, here it is worth noting that while the Pistons were the second-best defense in 2003-04, the Nets were fourth and had been the top-ranked defense in the two previous seasons. The Nets showed why, winning game three 82-64 and game four 94-79 to even the series. Game 5 would be the only time the Pistons would give up 100 points in the playoffs. After being tied at 88 in regulation, the Pistons and Nets fought through three shockingly high scoring overtime periods. In the end, the Nets prevailed 127-120, giving them an opportunity in game six at home to eliminate the Pistons for the second year in a row. The Pistons, facing elimination, narrowly broke serve in the Meadowlands, winning game six 81-75 (it had been 60-58 after three quarters) to force game seven at home. Apparently done with the scares, the Pistons dominated the Nets 90-69 in game seven to win the series 4-3.

The Pistons next met in the East Finals the top-seeded Indiana Pacers, which were coached by a certain Rick Carlisle (remember him?) to a 61-21 record in the regular season, (This was months before their infamous – so infamous it has an article on History.com – “Malice at the Palice” brawl the next fall). The Pacers were led by Jermaine O’Neal, Defensive Player of the Year Ron Artest (who would later start on two Lakers championship teams in 2008-09 and 09-10 under the name Metta World Peace), and future Hall of Fame guard Reggie Miller. The East Finals proved to be perfect basketball for anyone who does not like putting the basketball through the basket. The Pacers held serve in game one at home 78-74. Game two produced the iconic moment of the playoffs. The Pistons led by two with 24 seconds to go as Mr. Miller had a clear path for a go-ahead layup. Second-year forward Tayshaun Prince came from behind and used his very long arms to steal away Mr. Miller’s layup in what was then the most famous chase-down block in NBA history (since surpassed by LeBron James’ block of Andre Igoudala late in game seven of the 2016 NBA Finals). Mr. Prince saved the Pistons lead (and possibly season)and the Pistons held on to win by a riveting score of 72-67 (if you think 72-67 is bad…). The Pistons and Pacers split the next two games in Detroit, with the Pistons winning the highest scoring game of the series in game three (85-78) before being blown out in game four (83-68). Game four would be the last time the Pacers won a game in 2004 and the last time they would score more than 65 points. The Pistons won game five on the road 83-65 and then finished off the Pacers 69-65 in game six (I did not lie when I suggested that 72-67 was not the low-water mark).

(The Pistons and Pacers combined for 134 points in game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. That tied the record for second fewest points scored in an NBA playoff game since the introduction of the 24-second shot clock in 1954-55. The second-place mark had of course been set less than one month earlier by the Pistons and Nets. If that were not already enough offensive offense, the Pistons 72-67 win over the Pacers in game two remains fourth on the distinguished list.)

The Lakers had a somewhat higher scoring path to the finals. Entering as the second seed (with the third best-record, but they had the second seed because of the divisional ranking), the Lakers defeated an overmatched Houston Rockets team in five games in the first round.

(Note that the Lakers’ 72-71 win over the Rockets in game one was, at the time, the third lowest scoring playoff game in the shot clock era, trailing only a second round game between the Knicks and Heat in 2000. The Pistons would, as I noted above, win three lower scoring slogs later in the playoffs.)

The Lakers then faced the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, who had defeated them the year before, in round two. Here, although the Lakers were the second seed and Spurs third, the Spurs had home court advantage by virtue of their one-game-better record. The Spurs, led by the best player in the NBA at the time Tim Duncan, held serve at home, winning games one and two 88-78 and 95-85. (Note: While I describe Tim Duncan as the best player in the NBA in 2003-04, Kevin Garnett had the best regular season by every meaningful measure and was the deserving MVP.) The series then moved to Los Angeles where the Lakers held serve, blowing out the Spurs 105-81 in game three and winning game four 98-90. Game five would provide the defining moment of the Lakers’ run. The Lakers were down by a Pistons-esque score of 73-72 four-tenths of a second remaining when Derick Fisher managed to catch the ball, shoot, and hit the buzzer-beater to win 74-73 (there is no way that was actually in 0.4 seconds). Having won on the road, the Lakers finished off the Spurs with a convincing 88-76 win in game six.

The Lakers faced the West’s top-seed, the Minnesota Timberwolves, in the Conference Finals (this would be the last time the Wolves won a playoff series until 2023-24). The Timberwolves were led by NBA MVP Kevin Garnett, who had one of the most genuinely brilliant regular seasons in NBA history but had seen his numbers dip a bit in the playoffs. The Lakers won game one on the road 97-88 before dropping game two in ugly fashion (89-71). After having suffered injury problems all season, the Lakers got a break the other way when the Wolves’ All Star point guard Sam Cassell left game three with injury (some say self-inflicted in the previous round), which the Lakers won 100-89 (this was a problem for the Wolves not only because Sam Cassell was an excellent player but also because they were severely lacking in the backup point guard department). The Lakers went up 3-1 with a 92-85 win in game four. Minnesota narrowly avoided elimination by winning 98-96 in game five, but the Lakers made it a perfect 9-0 at home in the playoffs in game six, eliminating the Timberwolves with a 96-90 win.

(Note: The Pistons also benefited from injuries in the East Finals. The Pacers’ best or second-best player, Jermaine O’Neal, was battling a knee injury – although he did not miss time. Pacers point guard Jamaal Tinsely, who had struggled throughout the playoffs, left early in the decisive game six. Mileage may vary on how significant these injuries were, although the absence of Mr. Tinsely was less critical than the absence of Mr. Cassell.)

The Team Stats

The Lakers went into their Finals matchup with the Pistons as heavy favorites. There are many reasons for this and I admitted in my previous article referencing the Finals that I was among the people at the time who thought the Lakers would win. But before we explore the reasons why the Lakers were favored, let us look at the stats. Perhaps there was a statistical justification for the Lakers being near-prohibitive favorites.

First, let us review the regular season stats. I will use record, offensive rating, defensive rating, and net rating. See below.

TeamRecordOFF RtgDEF RtgNet RTg
Pistons54-28102.0 (18th)95.4 (2nd)+6.6 (2nd)
Lakers56-26105.5 (6th)101.3 (8th)+4.2 (7th)

Offensive and defensive ratings adjust the team’s scoring and points allowed per 100 possessions. In this way, the rating stats account for pace in a way that the raw scoring and points allowed numbers do not. The Pistons played at a much slower pace (87.9) than did the Lakers (92.3), which affects their raw stats. The Lakers averaged 98.2 points to the Pistons’ 90.1, but the Pistons, helped in part by their slow pace, only allowed 84.3 while the Lakers allowed 94.3. But while the Lakers were much better offensively than the Pistons and the Pistons were even more dramatically better defensively,pace makes the differences look more extreme than they were.

The significant point is that over the course of the season, the Pistons were better than the Lakers in terms of their net margin. While we need not get too far in the weeds here, scoring margin is a better indicator of success than the raw win/loss total, which is subject to randomness. (The 2006-07 case of the 58-24 champion Spurs having a better margin than the 67-15 Dallas Mavericks (eliminated in the first round) is a fun, albeit extreme, example case.)

am with the superior regular season net rating in the NBA Finals.

We know that the Lakers had injury problems all season and the Pistons were dramatically better after acquiring Rasheed Wallace. Had the Lakers not been healthy in the Western Conference playoffs and had the Pistons not traded for Mr. Wallace, we would have likely been looking at a Spurs-Nets rematch or a Spurs-Pacers (I think it would have been the Nets – but I can say with more certainty that the NBA’s high-paying advertisers would not have been satisfied with either of those outcomes). I noted before that the Pistons and Lakers finished the final leg of the season at 20-4 and 25-7 respectively . For fun, let us compare their last 24 regular season games. Note that here I will use their raw statistics instead of efficiency ratings – so focus on the margin instead of the raw totals.

(In this case – calculating the net ratings would require more work than I am inclined to do. The raw margins give enough of an idea here.)

TeamRecordPPGFPPGAMargin
Pistons20-491.478.2+13.2
Lakers18-697.993.9+4.0

While this sample is not entirely fair to the Lakers since it cuts out a good chunk of their late season run – a bigger positive Lakers sample does little to narrow the gap to the Pistons’ post-Rasheed Wallace stretch. If we include the Lakers’ full 25-7 run, we see that their margin grows to +4.8 – good, but not spectacular. Conversely, no team has had a +13.2 margin for an entire season, although the legendary 72-10 1995-96 Chicago Bulls managed +12.3 in raw margin with a +13.4 net rating over 82 games. But while the Pistons were certainly not the 95-96 Bulls, they were playing championship-quality basketball in the regular season’s home stretch. I previously noted that the Lakers began the season at an 18-3 run. There, their raw margin was +9.1. While that would be a championship-quality margin and then some over 82 games, we see it is still well off the Pistons’ late season level.

Returning to the significance of full season net rating, I put together a chart comparing the records and net margins of every NBA Finals from 1999 through 2010 (we have five finals before and after the Pistons-Lakers matchup in 2004):

YEAREAST CHAMPWEST CHAMPRECORD DIFFNetRTg DIFFSERIES RESULT
98-99*New York KnicksSan Antonio SpursSpurs +10Spurs +7.8Spurs 4-1
99-00Indiana PacersLos Angeles LakersLakers +11Lakers +4.2Lakers 4-2
00-01Phiadelphia 76ersLos Angeles LakersLakers +0**76ers +1.1Lakers 4-1
01-02New Jersey NetsLos Angeles LakersLakers +6Lakers +3.2Lakers 4-0
02-03New Jersey NetsSan Antonio SpursSpurs +11Spurs +0.3Spurs 4-2
03-04Detroit PistonsLos Angeles LakersLakers +2Pistons +2.4Pistons 4-1
04-05Detroit PistonsSan Antonio SpursSpurs +5Spurs +4.3Spurs 4-3
05-06Miami HeatDallas MavericksMavericks +8Mavericks +2.7Heat 4-2
06-07Cleveland CavaliersSan Antonio SpursSpurs +8Spurs +5.1Spurs 4-0
07-08Boston CelticsLos Angeles LakersCeltics +9Celtics +3.6Celtics 4-2
08-09Orlando MagicLos Angeles LakersLakers +6Lakers +0.9Lakers 4-1
09-10Boston CelticsLos Angeles LakersLakers +7Lakers +1.0Lakers 4-3
* There were 50 regular season games in 1998-99 instead of the ordinary 82.
** The Lakers and 76ers both had 56-26 records in 2000-01 but the Lakers had home court advantage due to a tie-breaker

(Note: I suppose we have to tip our hat to the Spurs and Lakers for winning 10 of the 11 Western Conference championships in our sample.)

Although raw record tends to be less predictive than net margin, the actual records are significant in the NBA Finals because it is the team’s record, rather than margin, which determines home court advantage. As we can see, the 2003-04 Pistons were one of only two teams out of our 11-year sample to win the NBA Finals without home court advantage (if we went one more year in both directors, we would have added the 1997-98 Bulls and 2010-11 Mavericks, both of which won without home court), with the other being the 2005-06 Miami Heat. Similarly, two teams won with a lower regular season net rating than their opponent. One was again the 05-06 Heat, but the other, in a mild surprise, was the 2000-01 Lakers over the 76ers (the Lakers had home court advantage). That Lakers team brings up an interesting point that focusing on regular season net rating can overlook: Playoff performance.

Now let us look at the playoffs. Both the Pistons and Lakers were relatively healthy in the playoffs – so their margins should give us a good marker. While the playoffs generally offer no reason to throw out 82 games of regular season evidence, there have been cases where a team significantly raises its level of play in the playoffs. Perhaps the best example is the 2000-01 champion Lakers I highlighted above. Rather than tell, I will show:

RegS/POFRecordOFF RtgDEF RtgNet RTg
00-01 Lakers Reg Season56-26108.4 (2nd)104.8 (21st)+3.6 (8th)
00-01 Lakers Playoffs15-1111.6 (1st)97.9 (1st)+13.7 (1st)

The Lakers were a good-but-not great team in the 2000-01 regular season before turning into one of the greatest teams in NBA history for 16 playoff games. Lest anyone think that the Lakers simply had an easy playoff road, they had to beat, in order, the 5th, 2nd, 1st, and 4th ranked teams in Net Rating, which they did in stunningly dominant fashion. While I think there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the Pistons had a fair case to be favored in 2003-04, I would not make the same argument for the 2000-01 Philadelphia 76ers. Notwithstanding the Lakers’ pedestrian regular season, they were demonstrably more talented than the 76ers and performed better enough in the playoffs to justify being tabbed as the near-prohibitive favorite in the series (the 76ers were taken to seven games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals and Finals while the Lakers swept all three of its Western Conference opponents, and all three Lakers opponents had better net ratings than the 76ers’ best opponent).

Perhaps the 2003-04 Lakers similarly raised their playoff level. Let us see how the 2003-04 Lakers looked through their Western Conference title run against the Eastern Conference champion Pistons.

TeamRecordOFF RtgDEF RtgNet RTg
Pistons12-698.792.2+6.5
Lakers12-5103.398.9+4.4

(I want to note for the record that the Pistons and Pacers had offensive ratings of 90.8 and 87.8 respectively in the Eastern Conference Finals. I note this just so you understand how brutal that series was.)

Unlike the 2000-01 Lakers, the 2003-04 edition’s playoff numbers are similar to its regular season numbers. The same can be said for the Pistons. Both teams scored and allowed fewer points, but the shift was similar for both. The Lakers slightly narrowed their net rating gap to 2.1 worse than the Pistons in the playoffs from 2.4 in the regular season, but this too is similar. While these numbers do not establish that the Pistons had to be the favorite going into the Finals, they do suggest that there was some evidence that the Pistons had generally been a better team than the Lakers all season.

However, there is some playoff context that favors the Lakers. Let us compare their opponents. For this, we will look at the regular season statistics for the six teams the Pistons and Lakers encountered en route to the Finals. I will note the three best teams in each category in bold. They arent in bold ……The parenthetical shows their rankings out of the 29 NBA teams.

OpponentRegS RecordOFF RtgDEF RtgNET Rtg
San Antonio Spurs (LAL)57-25102.2 (16th)94.1 (1st)+8.1 (1st)
Indiana Pacers (DET)61-21103.8 (9th)97.2 (3rd)+6.5 (3rd)
Minnesota Timberwolves (LAL)58-24105.9 (5th)99.7 (6th)+6.1 (4th)
New Jersey Nets (DET)49-33100.8 (25th)98.0 (4th)+2.8 (8th)
Houston Rockets (LAL)45-37100.9 (24th)99.0 (5th)+1.9 (10th)
Milwaukee Bucks (DET)44-38106.5 (4th)105.4 (23rd)+1.2 (11th)

The Lakers had a harder road to the Finals, having to overcome the top and fourth-ranked teams in net rating in the latter two Western conference series. While that Lakers team is remembered as a failed superteam, what is perhaps most impressive is that they were markedly inferior to both the Spurs and Timberwolves based on their regular season performance. Neil Paine conducted a study where he compared the net rating of every NBA conference champion from 1984-2024 to the two teams they beat in their respective conference semifinals and finals. The 2004 Lakers were tied for the fifth largest deficit in the 40-year survey. (The Pistons had a better rating than the Nets and Pacers, so they would be on the other side of the chart.)

The Pistons’ road was a bit easier, if for no other reason than that it did not include the NBA’s best regular season team by net rating. With that being said, the Nets, while clearly the weakest team in the Final eight that year, were the two-time defending Eastern Conference champions and they were returning many of the key players from their previous two teams. In hindsight, it is somewhat surprising the Nets managed to take the Pistons to the brink – but much like the regular season play underestimated the injury-prone Lakers, it may have somewhat underestimated the Nets, which had their own set of issues that year beyond the scope of this article. The Pacers were excellent – in some respect similar to the Pistons in having a very balanced, defense-first roster, without a single superstar. The Pacers had the best regular season record at 61-21 and were third in the NBA in net rating, just 0.1 points behind the Pistons for second. That the Pistons managed to hold the Pacers to an offensive rating 16 points below their league average (yikes) counts for something. I would go as far as to say that while the Lakers overcame a much tougher semifinal opponent than did the Pistons (and with less drama), the Pacers were stronger than the version of the Timberwolves that played in the Western Conference Finals (one could make a fair case that the Pacers were better than a healthy Timberwolves team, but that would be a close call).

The Pundits Before the Finals

I have established that at a minimum there was evidence to suggest that the Pistons were better than the Lakers going into the Finals. Of course, were one to have followed the pre-series punditry, he or she would not have heard much of this.

The odds makers set the Lakers as heavy favorites. John Nadel of the Associated Press warned that the Lakers were “heavily favored” and that “[t]he Pistons seem ill-equipped to deal with [Shaquille] O’Neal,” suggesting on the latter point that Detroit would have to turn to backup big man Elden Campbell in lieu of its All NBA Defense center, Ben Wallace.

(The rest of Mr. Nadel’s article focused on how hideous the Pistons-Pacers series was, which, to be sure, was fair.)

The Associated Press was not done, Greg Beacham wrote on the eve of game one of the Finals:

Star power is one reason the Lakers are big favorites in the upcoming NBA Finals, where most expect the scrappy, defense-oriented Detroit Pistons to become the sixth straight Eastern Conference champion dismissed by the West’s behemoths.

Tim Legler and David Aldridge both picked the Lakers for ESPN. Jason Whitlock, while opining that Larry Brown was a better Coach than Phil Jackson, nevertheless concluded that based on the rosters, “Brown’s Pistons don’t stand much of a chance against the Lakers.”

Do note that I am not cherry-picking. While I am sure there were some people publicly picking the Pistons other than the Pistons themselves, the Lakers were broadly viewed as the overwhelming favorites going into the NBA Finals.

Why Were the Lakers Favored?

One may ask as we look back why the Lakers were so heavily favored. I was around at the time and following the NBA, so I can offer a few explanations.

  • The Lakers had won 3 of the previous 4 championships. Despite having had some tough seasons on the way to the Finals in the previous four years (4-3 over the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2000 West Finals, 4-3 over the Sacramento Kings in the 2002 West Finals, and their loss to the Spurs in the 2003 West Semifinals), the Lakers had dealt with the Eastern Conference Champion with relative ease in its three championship wins (4-2 over the Indiana Pacers in 2000, 4-1 over the Larry Brown-coached Philadelphia 76ers in 2001, and a 4-0 sweep against the New Jersey Nets in 2002).
  • The Lakers had the two best players in the series – Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, and both were playing well in the playoffs. I will note that notwithstanding the then-overlooked evidence going into the Finals that the Pistons had performed better all season, there is no serious argument against the assertion that Messrs. O’Neal and Bryant were the two best players on either team. The counter-point would be that at least six of the eight next best players in the series were on the Pistons.
  • The Pistons were unusually constructed for an NBA champion. While the Pistons had the best starting lineup balance in the league (Tayshaun Prince was the weakest of the Pistons’ 5 starters and he was good enough to harass Kobe Bryant into the worst shooting playoff series of his career), it is fair to say that the Pistons did not have a top-10 player in 2003-04 (Chauncey Billups had a case for such a designation in 2005-06, but not 03-04). The last NBA champion arguably similarly constructed was the 1989-90 Pistons. The champions between the Pistons in 89-90 and 03-04 were led by (noting best player only), in order: Michael Jordan (3X), Hakeem Olajuwon (2X), Michael Jordan (3X), Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal (3X), and Tim Duncan– all of whom were among the top 2-3 players in the NBA at the time of their championships. (The 89-90 Pistons were led by Isiah Thomas, who was a Hall of Famer and one of the finest point guards in NBA history, but neither he nor any of the other Pistons players on that championship team have the statistical profile of Jordan, Olajuwon, O’Neal, or Duncan.)
  • While I established that the Pistons playoff run was very good, I suspect some pundits held their near loss to the Nets, which were not as good in 2003-04 as they had been in the previous season, against them. Moreover, as the Nadel article noted, the Pistons win over the Pacers was so painful to watch that people may not have given Detroit full credit for what was a quality victory over a very strong 61-win Pacers team.
  • Conversely, the Lakers beat what was widely viewed to be the next best team in the NBA, the defending champion Spurs, before toppling the NBA MVP Kevin Garnett and the top-seeded Wolves in the West Finals. While I noted that the Timberwolves did suffer a key injury in game three, they were still a good team – albeit not good enough to threaten the Lakers – even without Mr. Cassell.
  • The Lakers were generally healthy after having had injury problems for much of the season.
  • 2003-04 was a bit before looking to advanced stats like offensive/defensive rating or focusing on margin over raw win/loss totals was in vogue. Thus, evidence that the Pistons had consistently had a better margin than the Lakers over the course of the season may have been overlooked. Moreover, the playoffs has a way of flattening things since the best players play heavier minutes and factors like depth – which favored the Pistons over the Lakers – become less significant. (Of course that goes both ways – the Pistons could ratchet up the minutes for its excellent starting lineup.)

Even in hindsight, I do not think the Lakers being favored – even granting the pro-Pistons evidence — was unreasonable. The NBA is very much a strong-link league, and the Lakers had the two most productive players – with a relatively in-shape Shaquille O’Neal still having a solid case as the best player to have on your side in a best of seven series. As terrific as that Pistons team was, there is a reason why NBA champions tend to have one-to-two elite players who are a notch above the Pistons’ ensemble cast (note that the Pistons would send four of those same starters to the All Star game in 2005-06 – so saying that they were not individually on the same level as Messrs. O’Neal and Bryant is not to say they were not very high level performers). But while I think favoring the Lakers was fair, it was not required – and the evidence did not support making the Lakers the overwhelming favorites that they were deemed going into the Finals.

What Actually Happened

Game one of the NBA Finals took place in Los Angeles, with the Lakers having home court advantage, and it did not go at all as expected. Despite some belief that the Pistons were ill-suited to guard Mr. O’Neal, the undersized Ben Wallace spent a great deal of time covering Mr. O’Neal with unusually little help and doing an admirable job at the task. Mr. O’Neal had a strong game with 34 points on 13-16 shooting to go along with 11 rebounds, but Mr. O’Neal did not receive much help – lest one not look too deeply into Mr. Bryant taking 27 shots to score 25 points – and the Pistons pulled away in the second half to win 87-75. The Detroit Free Press began to feel confident.

The Lakers very much needed to win game two at home with games three-through-five being in Detroit. The Pistons led by three before Mr. Bryant hit a clutch three pointer with 2.1 seconds to play to tie the game and force overtime. The Lakers then outscored the Pistons 10-2 in overtime to even the series at 1-1 going into the three-game stretch in Detroit. Both Messrs. O’Neal and Bryant played well, with the former scoring 29 points in 20 shots and the latter 33 on 27, including the game-saving three.

Perhaps the Lakers had righted the ship. But as we know, that would be the final time Messrs. O’Neal and Bryant played together in Los Angeles.

The Pistons felt like they let one get away in game two – and they responded with a dominant 88-68 win at home in game three, holding the O’Neal-Bryant duo to 25 points. The Pistons backcourt of Billups and Hamilton combined for 50 points on only 33 field goal attempts. The Lakers problems were compounded by the fact that Karl Malone, then 41, left the game with injury – leaving the Lakers without their two best power forwards (Horace Grant had already been out with injury). Mr. Malone would play his final career game in game four, missing game five. Lakers point guard Gary Payton insisted that the Pistons were not better and were just out-hustling the Lakers, but at this point even the Lakers partisans were beginning to see the writing on the wall.

Game 4 went only marginally better for the Lakers. The score was tied at 56 after three quarters, but the Pistons pulled away in the fourth to win 88-80 and take a 3-1 series lead. Note at that time no team had come from 3-1 down to win the NBA Finals, and it only happened subsequently on one occasion (2016 Cavaliers over the Warriors). Shaquille O’Neal had his best game of the series with 36 points on 21 shots and 20 rebounds while Kobe Bryant again struggled to 20 points on 25 shots. The Pistons backcourt of Billiups and Hamilton had 40 points on 23 shots while Rasheed Wallace chipped in 26 points on 23, perhaps taking advantage of the Lakers’ newfound lack of healthy power forwards.

The Lakers were facing elimination in game 5, but a win would return the series to Los Angeles for game 6 and a potential game 7. However, it was not to be. The Pistons led 55-45 at halftime and extended that lead to 82-59 after three quarters. The fourth quarter proved to be a coronation wherein the Lakers chipped away to make the final result – 100-87 – look a bit more respectable. The O’Neal-Bryant duo closed an era with 44 points on 34 shots. The Pistons starting lineup closed the series in perfect fashion, which the five starters scoring between 11 and 21 and notching 81 points on 59 shots.

The Pistons demolished the Lakers.

For the Finals, the Pistons posted a 106.7 offensive rating while holding the Lakers to 96.1 (net Pistons +10.6). Other than Shaquille O’Neal, who had a .615 true shooting percentage (this accounts for free throws and three pointers), no Lakers starter topped .487, and Kobe Bryant struggled at .456 while the Lakers team posted .477. The Pistons were not too much better in terms of true shooting percentage (.514), but the Finals MVP, Chauncey Billups, posted an outstanding and series-best .696 TS% while averaging 21.0 PPG, 5.2 RPG, and 4.0 APG in the Finals. Mr. Billups was the rightful Finals MVP, albeit Mr. O’Neal was still the best player on the floor. But the Pistons proved their superiority to the Lakers over five games in all respects. But for a spectacular game-tying three by Kobe Bryant in game two, the Pistons would have almost certainly won in a clean 4-game sweep.

Final Thoughts

I opined that the Lakers should not have been prohibitive favorites going into the Finals and that there was a case for the Pistons – especially had people taken time to consider that the Pistons were perhaps uniquely capable of managing Shaquille O’Neal on the defensive end. By the same token, to say that people should have seen the Pistons blowing the Lakers out in 3 of the 5 games in the series would be extreme – the evidence did not suggest a dominant Detroit win, especially when one considers the Lakers equities. As Mr. O’Neal acknowledged, the loss of Karl Malone was a big blow to the Lakers (the Lakers were significantly better all season with Mr. Malone on the court), but I see no reason to believe that a healthier Karl Malone would have ultimately changed the result of the series.

The 2003-04 Pistons are remembered for their major upset of the Lakers and for being a championship team without a single elite player. I thought it would be fun to study that latter point. Below, you will see a list of the best players by three advanced statistics on the 2003-04 Pistons and the four champions before and after that Pistons team (I went with four on each side to avoid the lockout-shorted 1998-99 season).

SeasonChampionPER LeaderWS Leader*BPM LeaderVORP Leader***
99-00LakersO’Neal 30.6 (1st)O’Neal 18.6 (1)O’Neal 9.3 (1)O’Neal 9.0 (1)
00-01LakersO’Neal 30.2 (1)O’Neal 14.9 (1)O’Neal 7.7 (1)O’Neal 7.1 (2)
01-02LakersO’Neal 29.7 (1)O’Neal 13.2 (4)O’Neal 8.0 (1)O’Neal 6.1 (5)
02-03SpursDuncan 26.9 (3)Duncan 16.5 (1)Duncan 7.6 (3)Duncan 7.7 (4)
03-04PistonsBillups** 18.6Billups 11.3 (8)Billups 3.6 (18)B. Wallace 4.3 (12)
04-05SpursDuncan 27.0 (3)Duncan 11.2 (11)Duncan 7.6 (3)Duncan 5.4 (6)
05-06HeatD. Wade 27.6 (4)Wade 14.4 (8)Wade 7.7 (4)Wade 7.1 (5)
06-07SpursDuncan 26.1 (4)Duncan 13.0 (3)M. Ginobili 7.8 (4)Duncan 6.2 (3)
07-08CelticsGarnett 25.3 (4)Garnett 12.9 (8)Garnett 8.2 (4)Garnett 6.0 (7)
* Win Shares is affected by playing time, so missing games puts a dent in the total. For example, Messrs. O’Neal and Duncan missed 15 and 18 games respectively in 01-02 and 04-05, which put a dent in their Win Shares. The other three stats are not affected by missed games.
** Rasheed Wallace had an 18.8 PER, but I decided to make an exception and designate Mr. Billups as the top Piston since Mr. Wallace played most of his regular season games with the Portland Trail Blazers. Mr. Billups and Ben Wallace led the other categories, so no exception was needed for those.
*** Explained in BPM link.

The Pistons stand out. Mr. Billups was an excellent player – and he was even better in future seasons than he was in 2004-05, but he was not on the level of an O’Neal, Duncan, Wade, or Garnett.

(Mr. Billups’ best regular seasons came in 2005-06 and 2007-08. He ranked 13th and 10th respectively in PER, 3rd and 5th in Win Shares, 9th and 5th in BPM, and 8th and 4th in VORP. While Mr. Billups was still not what one would have ordinarily thought of as the best player on a championship team in those two excellent seasons, it is worth noting that he rated as an elite player at his peak using some of the status in the above table.)

Some of the champions listed also had a second-best player who had a superior statistical profile to anyone on the Pistons (Kobe Bryant for the three Lakers championship teams, Shaquille O’Neat on the 05-06 Heat, and arguably Manu Ginobili on the two Spurs championship teams and Paul Pierce on the 2007-08 Celtics). There is no question, however, that the Pistons had the deepest starting lineup of all five of these championship teams (Tayshaun Prince was certainly the best fifth starter) and a solid bench behind its high class starting lineup.

The Pistons were an unusual champion – but a deserving one. They proved that they were not a fluke in their title defense season. After performing slightly worse in the regular season, the Pistons returned to the Finals, overcoming Shaquille O’Neal for the second straight year, this time on the Miami Heat instead of the Lakers. In the Finals, the Pistons faced the Spurs who led the NBA in net rating for the second straight year. Despite being a legitimate underdog by every meaningful measure in 2004-05, the Pistons narrowly outscored the Spurs over a close seven game Finals defeat. The Pistons would return to the Eastern Conference Finals every season through 2007-08, but 2005 marked their final Finals trip and the era was effectively closed with the trade of Chauncey Billups early in the 2008-09 season.