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Best Starting Five Alive: Utah Jazz can follow 2004 Pistons blueprint

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Becoming like the 2004 Detroit Pistons is not what you think it is.

Detroit Piston coach Larry Brown celebra Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

When NBA fans think of the 2004 Detroit Pistons, they think of an underdog championship team devoid of stars. They overcame the odds and beat a Los Angeles Lakers superteam that had Gary Payton, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, and Shaquille O’Neale. Few pegged them as a legitimate NBA Title threat—even though they were seen as a strong regular season team—due to their only All-Star being a defensive minded and offensively limited center in Ben Wallace. The Utah Jazz can relate to a team like that. Despite making power moves in NBA Free Agency, they’re once again overlooked and a darkhorse for the title. The good news is Utah is already following the 2004 Detroit Piston’s “Best Five Alive” model.

Back in April, Chauncey Billups told Yahoo sports, “From the masses, we didn’t have a top-five player, top-10 player, to what the people thought. But if you ask people who played against us, there was nothing but respect. We played on that, we really did.”

When casual—and even hardcore—NBA fans look at the current roster for the Utah Jazz, there’s a common theme: no “stars.” Great defensive players, good young talent, overachieving veterans, sure, but no “stars.” The term star gets thrown around so often when referring to NBA players that its meaning becomes flimsy. For the most part, star is referring to a player who happens to be really good and really well known. Small market franchises know this feeling all too well. One of the Jazz’s best franchise players, Deron Williams, never was considered a “star” in Utah, but somehow he hit stardom the minute he put on a Nets uniform. The market plus the talent seems to be the equation for being a star. That’s why Chauncey Billups in his quote uses the qualifier “to what people thought.” People didn’t think the Pistons had a Top Five or Top 10 player, but somehow a Pistons team without any “stars” steamrolled their way through the second half of their season and the postseason.

AllThatAmar put it best back in 2013 when writing about that Detroit team as a possible model for team building.

That Detroit team was a collection of guys who were really good basketball players, and while the recognition of that became greater AFTER they won a title -- they were by no means a bunch of ‘also-rans’ before. They were good players. They were always good players. And they had the hardware to back it up.

One might recognize soon to be NBA All-Star Mehmet Okur on that list as one of the Pistons role players. For a team that had no All-Stars, that team was stacked. When you’re a marginalized team overlooked and counted out, having no “stars” is a common misconception. If you take a look at good old Amar’s chart above, you’ll see that once Detroit won an NBA Title, their players finally got the recognition they deserved. They were seen as star-laden. Winning a championship does that.

The narrative that the Detroit Pistons were one of the worst NBA Finals teams is one that needs to die, however. As you’ll soon see the Detroit Pistons had one of the best defenses of the modern era.

Utah tried to follow in Detroit’s footsteps last year

One of the biggest reasons the Detroit Pistons found themselves in the NBA Finals back in 2004 was due to a trade made at the deadline for Rasheed Wallace. Prior to the deadline the Pistons only had a positive point differential of +3.1 points. Their defense was suffocating—only allowed 86.4 points a game—but their offense was similar to Utah’s last year. They relied on Richard Hamilton to bail them out on possessions. They didn’t have enough wrinkles on offense to counter teams. The trade for Rasheed changed their offense and made them more difficult to guard. Their offense became more efficient, they started hoisting more threes, and—crazy enough—their defense became even more of a wrecking ball. After the trade deadline teams only averaged 80 points a game against them. Their point differential jumped to +11.3.

According to PIstons Powered, their defensive rating is legendary:

The Pistons also had a defensive rating that will boggle the mind for generations to come. After adding Sheed, they only allowed 86.5 points per 100 possessions. There’s no modern comparison, and that’s not hyperbole.

That midseason move was almost emulated by the Utah Jazz when they went after Mike Conley. Utah needed another wrinkle to their offense. Their defense was already great, but they needed help on offense. Utah would have had the same chance to become better on offense and improve defensively if the trade for Mike Conley would have gone through as Utah was trying to move just Ricky Rubio and draft picks while avoiding losing Derrick Favors in the deal.

Dennis Lindsey has said multiple times that the Utah Jazz targeted Mike Conley for acquisition because they felt like he was the best fit. It wasn’t because they didn’t feel they could land a big free agent, rather, they felt that Mike Conley gave them a higher ceiling and fit their identity better. Looking at the Detroit Pistons, their acquisition of Rasheed Wallace was as much of needing additional firepower as it was matching their team identity.

Unfortunately, the deal never got to the finish line at the last trade deadline, and we got a look into what would have happened if the Pistons never pulled the trigger on a the deal for Rasheed Wallace. Utah’s defense was great, but a lack of variety and playmaking on offense did them in against the Rockets.

The Best Five Alive Strategy

The common analysis for the Utah Jazz’s 2019-2020 roster is Utah has one of the most balanced starting fives in the NBA, but they “lack star power”. Sounding like a familiar narrative? That was the same narrative building around the 2003-2004 Detroit Pistons. Their preseason odds to winning an NBA Championship were +1500 with an Over-Under of 49.5 wins. The Utah Jazz for comparison have a +1400 for the NBA Championship with an Over-Under of 52.5 wins. So how did the Detroit Pistons do it? They didn’t care about the star power on the other side of the ball, they just cared about having the Best Five collectively on the court. To quote Chauncey Billups:

“We felt like the favorites. We didn’t listen to what everyone else was saying. We didn’t care about the names that was over there.”

Collectively on offense—after the addition of Rasheed Wallace—they had the firepower to win games. But defensively, the feared no one. That’s what made their team so great. They knew their bread and butter. They knew what brought winning—better offense—but they knew their identity and foundation started with defense. Not just any defense, a league best defense. That defense led by Ben Wallace made average defensive players look like good defensive players and good defensive players look like All-NBA defensive players. Chauncey Billups to this day says that Ben Wallace was their only good defensive player and he was so damn good he made them all look that good.

Luckily for Utah, they have one of those transcendent Defensive Player of the Year caliber players in Rudy Gobert. Average defensive players look good on the court, and good defensive players look like gods on the defensive end. The problem for Utah has just been that they haven’t had the juice to capitalize on their identity. If defense is the foundation and scaffolding of the building, offense is the electricity. It keeps the lights on and powers the team. While Utah’s defensive identity has allowed them to bottom out high powered NBA Ferrari offenses in the mud, their offense has not had reliable power when they needed it most—late in close games.

Utah’s defense has allowed them to bury bad teams so they can’t fight their way out of a hole, but when they got to go blow for blow, it gets messy. That changes this upcoming season. Utah has the opportunity to have the best five alive against every NBA Title contender.

Starting Fives - NBA Contender

Position Utah Jazz Denver Nuggets Los Angeles Clippers Los Angeles Lakers Houston Rockets Milwaukee Bucks Philadelphia 76ers
Position Utah Jazz Denver Nuggets Los Angeles Clippers Los Angeles Lakers Houston Rockets Milwaukee Bucks Philadelphia 76ers
Point Guard Mike Conley Jamal Murray Patrick Beverly Rajon Rondo Russell Westbrook Eric Bledsoe Ben Simmons
Shooting Guard Donovan Mitchell Gary Harris Landry Shamet/Lou Williams Danny Green James Harden Wes Matthews Josh Richardson
Small Forward Joe Ingles Will Barton Paul George LeBron James Eric Gordon Khris Middleton Tobias Harris
Power Forward Bojan Bogdanovic Paul Millsap Kawhi Leonard Anthony Davis PJ Tucker Giannis Antetokounmpo Al Horford
Center Rudy Gobert Nikola Jokic Ivica Zubac DeMarcus Cousins Clint Capela Brook Lopez Joel Embiid
Bold = Opposing Player Advantage, Italics = Jazz Player Advantage, No format = Draw

Just from the rankings above, it’s easy to see why a lot of experts are saying that there’s quite a bit of parity in the NBA this season. Depending on the team and matchup, some teams have an advantage over the other and vice versa. Utah’s main task will be to gel and become greater than the sum of their parts. This season, however, that won’t be a veiled message that they lack the pieces to contend.

What a lot of national pundits are missing about the Utah Jazz is they literally scraped and clawed their way to a #15 ranked offense in the NBA last year. Their roster of misfits and spare parts only had one player capable of taking over and yet, they still were an average offense. While it’s easy to point to other squads that may have more “star power” (aka players that have been recognized as stars due to popularity + talent), Utah an advantage few other contending teams in the West have: Quin Snyder.

Quin Snyder’s advantage offense was able to duct tape Utah’s offense this season into an average offense. Now imagine what happens when it gets special offensive talent. In Snyder’s time in Utah, the only time he has had multiple playmakers who could get their own shot was 3 seasons ago when the Jazz had contract year George Hill, and over the hill Joe Johnson, and contract year Gordon Hayward. He was also working with a steadily improving Joe Ingles. That lineup—WHEN HEALTHY—could destroy teams when executing Snyder’s advantage offense.

Now fast forward to this season with Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, and Bojan Bogdanovic. If Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder, and Rudy Gobert equaled an average NBA offense, just imagine the results with an All-Star caliber point guard and near All-Star caliber forward in Bojan Bogdanovic.

Other NBA contenders’ coaches are either inexperienced or not known for their offensive wisdom. No one is talking up Frank Vogel as an offensive mastermind—watch the Indiana Pacers teams with Paul George and Roy Hibbert, they are brutal slogs. Mike Malone—while a great coach—doesn’t get the same reputation as Quin Snyder for cooking up offensive sets. Mike D’Antoni has pushed the Rockets to the outermost edges of what an NBA offense can do, but it remains to be seen if it’s James Harden’s talent and performance that is the real catalyst there—especially after a drama filled offseason in Houston. Mike Budenholzer is the spring from whence Snyder’s knowledge came, but Snyder has the potential this year to outpace his teacher. Brett Brown’s 76ers were one bounce away from going to the NBA Finals, does he have the capacity to work with an EVEN MORE unorthodox roster and bring it success? Doc Rivers is the only coach that has a championship pedigree AS A COACH, and is one of the top 5 coaches in the league. The only one on this list of contenders that can probably outmaneuver Quin Snyder’s ever whirring brain.

Becoming the Detroit Pistons doesn’t mean becoming the Detroit Pistons

If there’s a lesson to gain from the Detroit Pistons—or any championship team—it’s that you can’t copy a winner. You can only be true to the winner within yourself. The Pistons bought into the identity of being the downtrodden underdog. They were high profile lottery picks that became castaways. They identified through that commonality.

For the Utah Jazz to become Pistons-esque they will have to rally behind an identity that is more than just “We play good defense.” It will be the identity that pushes the chip on their shoulder into the shoulder blade. It will be the identity that keeps them up just a little bit later to study film. It will be the identity that gets them to regroup faster after losses, and the identity that drives them to put their foot on the gas even harder during blowouts. It will be the identity that makes them feel like they belong in every game they find themselves in.

The 2003-2004 Detroit Pistons famously carried a WWE-like championship belt wherever they went. They weren’t just ready to hoop it up, they were stepping into the ring every game. They were fully prepared to be the heel and send opposing fans home pissed. They didn’t want to just win, they wanted to demoralize opponents with their punishing defensive style.

Can Utah find an identity beyond defense? If they do, they’ll become better than the sum of their parts and be the best Starting Five Alive every time they step onto the court.