It was an odd sight at The Palace on Sunday afternoon, when a host of Cavaliers fans made the Pistons feel like visitors in their own home. (Robin Buckson/The Detroit News)
It was great for a while, a good long while, and then it got old. The Pistons got old. Their attitude got old.
And perhaps most telling, Rasheed Wallace got old, in every way. His legs. His act. The angry edge he brought to the Pistons five years ago was indeed the missing piece in their 2004 championship. So now that it's over, it's fitting that Wallace's edge is gone, and he should be too.
The Pistons capitulated as we figured they would Sunday, swept by Cleveland and LeBron James, losing by a humiliating 99-78 as thousands of Cavs fans cheered wildly in the stands. The Superstar Era never really went away, but it finally swept away the Pistons, and sent them back where they started. People should appreciate what they had here -- six straight Eastern Conference finals -- because it could be a long time before the Pistons get back.
Going to Work is going to the archives now, and we knew it even before the Cavs delivered final rites. It was gone when Joe Dumars traded Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson, but it also was gone when Wallace began to fade, and no longer was accountable to his team or his coach.
If Dumars had a notion to bring Wallace, 34, back in a reduced role next season, that should be gone now too. Wallace has nothing left, 0-for-7 in what should be his final game as a Piston. His contract expires, as does Iverson's, and a scant five years after the Pistons were champs, their greatest asset is empty dollars on the salary cap.
"Rough season, man, rough season," is all Wallace had to say as he walked out of the locker room. So who knows where he hopes to play next season, but no way can it be here, and he won't be the only one to leave.
It's sad, certainly, but a team that lived on the edge, that played on a string with tight-knit teammates, lost its edge a while ago. Ultimately, this falls on the core group, because as we know, changing coaches sure didn't change anything.
Michael Curry had a bad rookie season, but trying to pin all this on him is just silly. This team's fate was sealed when players stopped being accountable, when Richard Hamilton and others couldn't adjust to Billups' departure, when Iverson proved to be an amazingly horrible fit.
Once so good, now so long
Some will argue the Pistons underachieved during this six-year stretch, winning one championship. I'd say that's true, but they didn't underachieve by much. They barely lost a Game 7 to San Antonio in the 2005 Finals, and they lost control of that series when Wallace left the Spurs' Robert Horry wide open in Game 5. Big Shot Bob hit the clutch shot in a 96-95 overtime thriller in Auburn Hills.
Wallace brought plenty to the Pistons, and no one should deny it. In the end, he took plenty too, defying Flip Saunders' coaching and campaigning for Curry's appointment. Um, how'd that work out? Ben Wallace had acted similarly toward Saunders, and while this is no grand defense of Saunders, it's an acknowledgement that once the Wallace Wall began to crumble, the Pistons' slide was irrevocable.
How odd indeed on the final day of the season and the era to see the Cavs' Ben Wallace chatting with Hamilton in a Palace hallway, perhaps recalling stories of old conquests. As painful as this was, it doesn't get remotely easier now. Dumars has a reasonable plan, which is why the fateful Iverson experiment was attempted. He has cap space, but where will he spend it? Utah's Carlos Boozer and Chicago's Ben Gordon are the top free-agents, before a batch of stars are scheduled to pop free in 2010.
But there will be plenty of suitors for James and Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, so no one should expect an automatic quick fix. Dumars will be tested mightily, and he'll try to pull a big trade this off-season. He'll have to consider dealing Tayshaun Prince to do it. And he'll have to wrestle with the idea that young Rodney Stuckey might not become quite as good as projected.
It had to end eventually
I asked Stuckey if he grew as much as he'd hoped this season.
"Yeah," he said. "I've seen it all, the good side and the bad side. From my point of view, I don't ever want to feel like this again. This season was pretty much a waste of time. I'm glad the misery is over."
From mastery to misery, the Pistons finally completed the run. In some ways, it began when Rasheed Wallace arrived in trade in February, 2004. It ended when Billups left and Rasheed stopped being a force.
Farewell to Rasheed and the unique skill and snarl he brought, and the teammates he once helped bond. We suspected it wouldn't end cleanly for this group, and it sure didn't.