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Heart Over Hype: Remembering The NBA’s Most Unlikely Champions of the 2000s

How is it that two teams who were almost void of superstar talent were capable of beating two respective “super teams”?

Illustrations of Ben Wallace of the Detroit Pistons and Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks headline our chronicling of the top underdog NBA teams of the 2000s.
Credit-NBA/Getty/Joker Mag

When I sat down to come up with a pitch for a new piece, I thought, hmm, let’s steer away from the normal tale of an individual who has beaten the odds and overcome challenges to succeed, and let’s focus on a team that stunned the sporting world.

Being that hoops are my thing, I was like, easy, no problem, the 2011 Dallas Mavericks are a great place to start.

Oh, but then what about the 2004 Detroit Pistons?

Ironically, both teams are well deserving of the spot, for various reasons. And while they are very similar, they are also both completely different.

This caused an issue as I began to argue with myself about which team was the most deserving of the spot. 

Both teams have multiple Hall of Fame members from their respective championship seasons, but aside from the superstar forward from Germany, either they were in the twilight of their careers or were not exactly household names. In fact, of the combined thirty-one players to suit up for both teams, only Dirk Nowitzki was selected for the All-Star Game.

Speaking of All-Star level talent, the Mavericks’ legendary forward was the only player among the two teams that season to average more than twenty points per game (23.0). As for the Pistons, you could toss a coin for their best player being either Richard Hamilton (17.6ppg) or Chauncey Billups (16.9ppg). 

So how is it that two teams who were almost void of superstar talent were capable of beating two respective “super teams”?

2004 NBA Playoffs

Illustrations of Ben Wallace during his time in the NBA with the Detroit Pistons
Credit-NBA/Getty/Detroit Pistons/Joker Mag

The story of the 2003-04 season was the creation of the LA Lakers’ super team filled with five feature Hall Of Famers (if you include Phil Jackson).

In addition to Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, winners of a three-peat championship just one season prior, the Lakers added perennial All-Stars Karl Malone and Gary Payton. For Laker fans, this was a kid in a candy store moment.

Let’s be honest, Jeanie Buss may have well just filled the rafters of Staples Center with the balloons that weren’t used in 1969 and planned the parade route. The chip was all but in the bag.

Meanwhile, over in the Eastern Conference, the Pistons were slowly piecing together a team built on castoffs, advancing to the ECF the year prior after a series of first-round losses sprinkled throughout the last decade.

Whereas the Lakers had added superstars, the Pistons were going with blue-collar players such as Hamilton, Billups, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace (no relation), Mehmet Okur, and youngster Tayshaun Prince. Oh and let’s not forget the least heralded member of the 2003 draft class, Darko Milicic.

As mentioned earlier, not exactly names that would strike fear into the hearts of championship contenders. 

Hanging their hat on their defensive efforts, the Pistons tied the San Antonio Spurs for the least amount of points allowed during the regular season with 84.3 per game. Sure they didn’t score a lot, ranking 24th in offense at 90.1 points per game, but their opponents scored even less.

With 54 wins to their name, the Pistons entered the playoffs as the second seed in the Eastern Conference but still lagged behind the Indiana Pacers and New Jersey Nets to represent the Left Coast in the NBA Finals. 

After dismantling the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round, the Pistons outlasted the Nets in a seven-game series, moving on to take on the Pacers in the ECF, a matchup that they won 4-2.

Meanwhile in the Western Conference, despite having a historic year with a 58-24 record, few believed that the Minnesota Timberwolves were capable of knocking off either the Lakers or the San Antonio Spurs to represent in the NBA Finals. Although their super team had some hiccups (to be fair to those involved in the Bryant / Colorado situation, it was more than a mere hiccup) and injuries, the Lakers managed to advance to their fourth Finals in five years. 

In a matchup of contrasting styles in every way possible, the glitz and glamour of Hollywood versus the grit and grind of Detroit, even ABC analyst Al Michaels noted at the beginning of the first game, “A lot of people think [the Lakers] will sweep.”

After splitting the first two games in Los Angeles, Pistons coach Larry Brown was about to address his team on the bus following the overtime Game 2 loss. It was then that Billups declared Detroit would win their third NBA title. 

“Go back to the front of the bus. We’re not coming back to LA,” the Pistons’ point guard declared.

A raucous crowd of fans outside the Lakers’ Detroit hotel, combined with a stifling Pistons defense led to the visiting team scoring a pathetic 68 points in a Game 3 blowout.

Five nights later the Pistons dismantled the once dominant Lakers dynasty, closing the series out with a 100-87 victory in Game 5.

2011 NBA Playoffs

Corey Brewer on the Miami Heat making fun of Dirk Nowitzki's illness during the NBA Finals: "Oh for sure Dirk took it personally...they were making fun of the big guy. You can't make fun of the big guy."

In their thirty-one years of existence (at that time) the Dallas Mavericks had only been to the NBA Finals twice. Ironically, both trips would come against the Miami Heat. Five years after losing to the Heat, only Nowitzki and Jason Terry would return for a shot of redemption.

Standing in their way was a superteam consisting of LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade, a trio who during the Heat’s preseason pep rally declared that they would win multiple championships.

Following a 4-2 series victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, a sweep of Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, and a “gentlemen’s sweep” of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Mavericks headed to South Beach for a date with the “Heatles”.

Side note: American Airlines made a killing on this series, as the lead sponsor of the American Airlines Arena (Miami) and American Airlines Center (Dallas). Talk about a win-win situation. 

If it wasn’t noticeable enough that the Mavericks hitched their wagon to Nowitzki in the regular season for scoring, it was completely obvious in the playoffs as the German was just one of three Mavericks to average double figures for the playoffs and he outscored Jason Terry by ten points (27.7 to 17.5).

After splitting the first two games in Miami, the Mavericks dropped Game 3 by just a bucket, but then pulled out a squeaker two nights later, winning 86-83 to tie the series.

Nowitzki was a man on a mission, leading the Mavericks in scoring in the first five games, hitting for 27, 24, 34, 21, and 29. Although Terry led the Mavs with 27 points in Game 6, the Diggler still dropped 21 in the final game.

Before Game 5 James and Wade even took it upon themselves to question Nowitzki, mocking the fact he was sick during Dallas’ Game 4 victory, adding extra motivation for the Mavericks star.

“Oh for sure Dirk took it personally,” teammate Corey Brewer noted.

“Everybody did. We saw it, everybody saw it. They were making fun of the big guy. You can’t make fun of the big guy. If you make fun of the big guy you’re making fun of everybody, and I guess that’s kind of the way we went out there and played. We played some great basketball in that series.”

Despite being the better team on paper, the difference between the Mavericks and the Heat at that point was the fact that the Mavs were built around the definition of the word “team” – just like the Pistons were seven years earlier – not around a handful of talented superstars looking for their turn in the spotlight.

RELATED: How Ben Wallace Went From No-Name to Undrafted NBA Legend

Written By

Life-long sports fan and avid basketball junkie in every sense of the word. The same passion I have for the Lakers translates to my extreme dislike for the Duke Blue Devils. As much as I cheer for the favorite and the dynasty, I appreciate and applaud the underdog and the grind whether you are a weekend warrior or a professional, both on and off the field.

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