The 2004 NBA Finals were equally a dream come true for the Pistons (and their fans) as well as the start of a crippling disposition. It has been three long years since Detroit ruled the NBA which is far too long for a team that annually boasts “the best starting five in the NBA.” With Chris Webber essentially replacing Ben Wallace, this season has been no different. The Pistons have a strong bench to compliment its bevy of All-Star starters. Unfortunately, three years of “the best starting five” has yielded a big, fat pile of nothing. I believe that something happened in 2004 that may very well prevent the Pistons—at least this version—from ever winning a championship again: complacency.
I know treading in the waters of psychobabble is a dangerous endeavor but I think it applies here. The Pistons are obviously a good basketball team. They have reached the Eastern Conference Finals in each of the last four seasons and barely missed a second NBA Championship against the San Antonio Spurs in ‘05. In both seasons since the Championship, though, the Pistons have underachieved. They should have beaten the Spurs in the Finals. They played two dreadful basketball games in games one and two. It was as if they relished falling behind two games to none. Then, of course, they stormed back with three straight wins and very narrowly missed winning game six. Some might applaud the Pistons’ effort in that series but I think it’s evident that had they come to play in game one, things may have turned out differently. Last season, the Pistons coasted through the regular season with one of the best starts in NBA history. The playoffs proved, yet again, to be another disappointment. They were dismantled by Miami. It looked like the Pistons felt they had the series won before it even started thus keeping them from ever really showing up.
While the last two seasons seem to be compelling evidence of the Pistons’ complacency since 2004, following the regular season closely proves to be even more revealing. The Pistons often play lackadaisical in the first half of games. They seem to relish falling behind early in the same way that Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers did in the 80s. The problem is that the Pistons are nowhere near as dominant as those Oilers teams. They cannot afford to fall behind or coast against any of the upper echelon teams in the NBA. It may work against the Indiana Pacers but it won’t work against Miami, San Antonio or even a Chicago Bulls team missing Ben Wallace and Andres Nocioni. Every so often, the Pistons play with a certain level of authority and the results can be resounding (i.e. the second half of the April 3 Pacers game). I know teams can’t play perfectly every night. But, the Pistons seem to play flawlessly on most occasions when they are down in the second half. That proves to me that they hold back. I’m not suggesting it’s a conscious decision. In fact, that is just the problem. I believe it is an almost unavoidable unconscious problem.
A few years ago, my weight was close to that of a walrus. I assure you that it was not a pretty sight. Nonetheless, I got to a point where I had to do something about it. I started running on the treadmill everyday. I started off with a near-walking pace until I could build up my stamina to run. Every week I got better and better. I worked out hard in the gym and soon the pounds were melting off of my body. Each new accomplishment brought even more determination. Weeks became months and my weight loss went from 10 to 20 to 50 to 97 pounds. In just six months I had chiseled off 97 pounds of fat and what was left was a specimen fit for an amateur bodybuilding competition. I still remember the day that I lost that 97th pound. I couldn’t believe it. Unfortunately, that was the only day where I would keep that 97th pound off. Something happened to me that day. It is four years later and while I am nowhere near that walrus-weight, I am far from happy with my current physical conditioning. No matter how hard I try, no matter what technique I use, I cannot regain that determination. My reference point for what is an acceptable weight has continually increased for three years. Each time my weight increases, I end up rationalizing that I’m still in pretty good shape and if I wanted to, I could “turn it back on”. That has led to the contradiction of contradictions: the fact that I know I can do it is making it impossible for me to do it. It is a weird phenomenon. It’s almost as if I would have been better off losing 70 pounds and then losing the rest at a later time.
I see so many parallels between my own complacency and what seems to be the Pistons’ complacency. My inability to regain that fire that allowed me to reach places I never thought I could reach is not something that I enjoy. I want it back in a bad way. I believe the Pistons fight the same demons. They achieved success so quickly and so unexpectedly that they never developed the sense that if they don’t play well, they will lose. The Pistons often have “team meetings” that result in a few games of superior play. Those spurts are always followed by a return to complacency. Again, I can relate. Numerous times I have attained a drive strong enough to get me through two, three and even six weeks of intense exercise and healthy eating. But, it always ends disastrously. I always end up back at the same place.
Just because the Pistons seem to be surrounded by an unwavering level of complacency does not mean they aren’t trying to fight through it. It’s so easy to say, “Chauncey needs to drive more”, or “‘Sheed needs to play in the post”. I’ve said both of those things numerous times. But, that’s like someone telling me that I need to eat better or run more. I’m well aware of how important those two components are. The problem isn’t knowing what to do. It’s doing it.
Even though I have failed to regain that determination over and over again, I am still trying to recapture it. I have confidence that one day I will get back to the shape that I dream of when my mind wanders. Whether that’s a fools dream or not, I have no idea. The fact that my complacency has lasted four years and the Pistons’ complacency has lasted three years does not bode well for either of us. As much as I can assure you that I will not stop trying to break away from my mental constraints, I am convinced the Pistons will do the same. Unfortunately, trying is only half the battle.