During the Detroit Pistons game against the Washington Wizards on Monday night, former Pistons legend Dennis Rodman delivered the game ball to the team in a brief pre-game gesture.
Afterward, the half-time ceremony brought in former players from the championship teams, most notably; Isiah Thomas and Rick Mahorn, Ben Wallace, and Chauncey Billups, along with Tayshaun Prince and Richard Hamilton.
The players gathered around three Larry O’Brien trophies at center court and received a standing ovation from thousands of fans. The current team fell to the Wizards 105-101, but the night was about celebrating the legends of the past and their accomplishments.
The Palace of Auburn Hills in Michigan has been home to the Detroit Pistons for the past 29 years. The team moved to the suburb area in 1989, when the Bad Boy Pistons won their first championship led by Thomas and Joe Dumars. Subsequently, the Bad Boys ended up winning back-to-back titles and sparked the beginning of a winning tradition in Detroit.
The next championship season would come in 2004 when the Pistons upset the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. Led by Billups and Wallace, the team managed to close the series at the Palace, reaching the peak of the NBA and celebrating with fans that were hungry for a title in Detroit.
They would return to the Finals the next year and ultimately lose to the San Antonio Spurs in a hard fought seven-game series. The team would never return to the NBA Finals but reached the Eastern Conference Finals in six consecutive seasons, before trading away their captain and point guard Billups in 2008.
The Palace will also be remembered for the infamous ‘Malice at the Palace’ when a huge brawl broke out between the Indiana Pacers players and fans in the arena. The melee was a black eye for the league at the time.
However, swift punishment was dealt out to the players involved in the incident which set the precedent for a stricter NBA.
Pistons fans will remember the Palace of Auburn Hills as an arena that hosted three championship banners and a lifetime full of basketball memories.
The team will be moving to the Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit next season and will be sharing the facility with the Detroit Red Wings, one of the most successful hockey franchises in NHL history.
The 28-year-old plays like a man who won’t be denied, so it’s fitting he’s put together a tour de force season that makes it difficult to deny him the MVP either.
In any other year, Westbrook’s case wouldn’t even be up for discussion, but because this campaign has seen several players have career seasons and perform at such high levels, we’re somehow left deliberating whether a man averaging 31.9 points, 10.4 assists and 10.7 rebounds has been the best player.
Or, it should be clarified, the player who has produced the most this season. The title of best basketball player is already held in a vice-like grip by LeBron James. But there’s a reason why James doesn’t win MVP and Gregg Popovich doesn’t earn Coach of the Year every season – they’re season awards, not generational honours.
And yet, James is still in the discussion due to the monster 2016-17 he’s had, along with other top candidates James Harden and Kawhi Leonard. You could hand the MVP to any of the four and be justified, but it’s become harder and harder to look past Westbrook.
In theory, it’s weird not to have your MVP picked out this late into the season, as if a handful of games will make a difference on a year-long award. But that’s how difficult it’s been to distinguish one MVP frontrunner from the other.
Any voter that was left undecided, however, has likely been swayed by Westbrook’s tidal wave during this month, which has included him locking up the first triple-double average for a season since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62, before breaking the Big O’s record for most triple-doubles in a campaign.
Westbrook not only set the mark though, but did it in spectacular, storybook fashion by knocking down a 36-footer at the buzzer to eliminate the Denver Nuggets from playoff contention and cap off a jaw-dropping stat line of 50 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists.
Forget the triple-doubles for a second and eliminate all the rebounds he’s grabbing – which could be considered ‘stat padding’ or inconsequential – and you still have to marvel at the fact he’s scored 40 points or more while dishing at least nine assists four times in the past seven games.
Meanwhile, James’ Cavaliers have continued to struggle post All-Star break, Harden’s efficiency has dipped and Leonard has remained, well, Leonard. If this was a horse race, Westbrook would be pulling ahead in the home stretch by a head.
Individual play isn’t the only factor though and Harden has somewhat of a point in saying: “I thought winning is what this is about – period.”
The irony behind Harden’s comment is that while it appeared aimed at Westbrook, it strengthens Leonard’s case, with the Spurs winners of 60-plus games and above Houston in the standings.
But winning is also what Westbrook has done, almost single=handedly, in carrying Oklahoma City to the playoffs after the departure of one of the five best players in the world in Kevin Durant. The minus-13.1 net rating difference when Westbrook plays and is off the court speaks for itself.
When we look back at this season, there’s no single player we’ll remember more than Westbrook. The definitive MVP case is being on the right side of history.
JAY ASSER SAYS YES
We’re so used to seeing LeBron James’ teams stroll to the NBA Finals year in and year out that it’s against our nature to pick against his squad to come out of the Eastern Conference.
While no one should bet against LeBron, it’s obvious there’s more of a vulnerability to the Cleveland Cavaliers this year than in the past two. And that’s not a sentiment drawn from a small sample size – we have half-a-season’s worth of data that suggests Cleveland are beatable.
Since the All-Star break and up to the loss to Atlanta in the first of a back-to-back, the Cavaliers were 12-12 with a point differential of minus-0.7. While their offence has mostly held strong with a 111.4 offensive rating during that span, it’s been the other side of the ball that’s turned into a legitimate liability.
Only the Los Angeles Lakers have a worse defensive efficiency in the second half of the season, with Cleveland surrendering 111.2 points per 100 possessions. They’ve been leaky and it’s no surprise considering they have few average to above average defenders.
And yet, they’ve likely done just enough to retain the top seed after dominating Boston in a game that could have very well tipped the scales against the Cavaliers had they lost, at least from a confidence perspective.
It would be short-sighted to write off the Celtics in a series against Cleveland simply off that one performance, as dismal as it was, but Boston may be the least of the Cavaliers’ concern in the playoffs, with threats also posed from the nation’s capital, as well as north of the border.
Washington have multiple scorers, while Toronto are one of the most balanced teams in the league.
The Raptors appear to be the East’s best chance to beat the defending champions and their mid-season trades of Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker have bolstered their toughness and defence – they own the third-best defensive rating post All-Star break at 102.7.
The Cavs’ decline, coupled with other teams’ improvement, spells a more wide open battle in the East.
JAMES PIERCY, SPORT360 EDITOR, SAYS NO
This season it’s been a little more challenging for Cleveland as, at various stages Boston (who could still get there), Toronto and Washington have had ideas on LeBron’s Iron Throne.
But still the Cavs stand above them, with the feeling there is a little more in the tank. And while that is hypothetical, what has to be considered is, realistically, how much better can that trio play?
Starting with the Raptors, yes, they have Kyle Lowry back at the right time and Serge Ibaka has added improvement both physical and technical at both ends of the floor, but can we expect DeMar DeRozan to go for 25+ points each game beyond Saturday? Or Lowry to be shooting 41.4 per cent from 3-point range (having averaged 30.4 in the postseason last year)? Or Jonas Valanciunas and Ibaka to stay out of foul trouble?
All that has gone so right could easily go so wrong. And they’re also historically awful in the playoffs.
The Wizards are this season’s surprise package with coach Scotty Brooks reinvigorating a stale-looking roster and given John Wall and a finally-fit Bradley Beal the freedom to play.
But Wall has a pretty poor shooting average (37.6 per cent) in the postseason (including a wretched 20.4 from 3-point range), and while he’s clearly a better player that, you’re still not backing him up against Kyrie Irving. At least not yet.
Beal, unlike Wall, has put up some impressive playoff numbers but may find himself having too much to do with a supporting cast of Markieff Morris, Otto Porter Jr. and Bojan Bogdanovic (combined playoff games: 0.
Boston have depth, defence and a clutch scorer to end all clutch scorers in Isaiah Thomas but can a team without a winning record against any of the East’s top six be relied upon to beat the very best in a seven-game series?
Finally, and perhaps most conclusively, it’s those numbers which paint the Cavs superiority in the best light as their regular season record against the next best three reads: 3-0 v Toronto; 3-1 v Boston; and 2-1 v Washington.