Yesterday marked the 14-year anniversary of the day that Grant Hill left the Detroit Pistons, and as a result, there’s perhaps no better time to examine how it helped to shift the basketball landscape in the Motor City. The loss of Hill proved to be the advent of a new era of glory in Detroit, and although it didn’t look pretty on paper, a lot of current NBA general managers could learn from the deal that sealed his move away from the Pistons.
Hill had been selected third overall by the Pistons in the 1994 draft, and from that point on he went on to make five All-Star appearances during his six seasons in Detroit. The post “Bad Boys” era Pistons finally had their own superstar, the only problem was that he wasn’t returning the silverware in the manner in which Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and company had done, in the not too distant past.
Still, when word emerged that Hill was leaning towards joining the Orlando Magic in free agency, it hit Detroit hard. The front office immediately got to work on trying to find ways to yield a return for their star, and although few thought so at the time, they did a good job.
With it clear that Hill planned on moving to Florida, the Pistons and Magic set to work on a mutually beneficial sign-and-trade deal. Detroit was desperate to just try to take anybody of use back in a deal. Then on the other side, for Orlando, their priorities were to tie Hill down long term at the higher rate he was entitled to for his time with the Pistons, while also offloading some cap space for their pursuits of Tim Duncan and Tracy McGrady.
When negotiations were finalized, and the Pistons return was confirmed as second year point guard Chucky Atkins, and middle of the road big man Ben Wallace, there wasn’t a lot of excitement amongst fans. Whether Rick Sund had a moment of great foresight, or Wallace just felt more at home in Detroit, something clicked in the deal though, and all of a sudden, Detroit still had something to build around.
Almost overnight, Wallace went from being a solid defensive player with pedestrian production levels, to one of the most dominant defenders in the league. With Wallace earning so little in comparison to other formidable defensive bigs around the league, and the Pistons roster generally flexible, the team was in prime position to stage a quickfire rebuild that would leave them better than they ever were with Grant Hill onboard.
Over the following couple of years, Detroit’s front office added the likes of Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Mehmet Okur, via a combination of the draft, trades and free agency. The team may not have had a superstar, but more importantly, and similarly to the previously successful Detroit squads, they had an identity.
By the end of the 2004 season, the Pistons were parading a championship in downtown Detroit, while in Orlando, Grant Hill had only suited up for the Magic on 47 occasions since the two teams’ “one-sided” trade four years prior. Timing is everything in the NBA, and just as difficult as it is for a team to give up their superstar, how valuable is a mediocre team built around one player?
Grant Hill was outstanding in Detroit, but it took a team of balanced and talented players like those of 2004, to bring the taste of success back for the Pistons. With so much talk of the value of superstars this summer, particularly in small market franchises, NBA executives and fans alike could do much worse than casting their minds back to Grant Hill’s departure from Detroit.
The Pistons lost a five time All-Star in exchange for two undrafted guys, and yet four years later they were NBA champions. Basketball is a team sport, and sure elite talent makes a big difference, but it’s not the be all and end all of success.
The Pacers are right to have a team constructed around Paul George‘s immense talent on both ends of the floor, but now following his horrid and unfortunate injury, and the team’s decision to allow Lance Stephenson to leave, how will they fare next year?
Kevin Love is undoubtedly one of the best players in the NBA, but why shouldn’t the Minnesota Timberwolves trade him?
Just like Ben Wallace and a flexible roster helped the Pistons to advance further than Hill could take them, why couldn’t Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, or Klay Thompson and David Lee, help to form the start of a Minnesota squad that actually will make it to the playoffs in the coming years?
Of course, it rarely ends up as simple as that, but that doesn’t mean that team’s shouldn’t try and hope for the best.
A superstar’s decision to leave Detroit, and the franchise’s willingness to look for any semblance of value in the return helped to turn the Pistons around back in the early 2000s. If only more people around the league would occasionally look back, as well as forward, in their search for success, they could learn a thing or two.