Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson made a bid in the first round, changing the Lakers to a five-man team and fooling the Phoenix Suns with three wins in the first four games of their opening series. But Steve Nash and the Suns unmasked the Lakers, who couldn't keep up the ruse and dropped out with three consecutive losses.
LeBron James averaged 35.7 points in his first playoff series, a seven-game victory for his Cleveland Cavaliers over the Washington Wizards. Gilbert Arenas might have taken that kind of step for the Wizards, but two big free throw misses at the end of Game 7 killed his team. The Cavs survive, but not for long against the Detroit Pistons, who entered the playoffs as the overall favorite.
The Pistons, distinctive as a championship basketball team that isn't built around a draft choice or two, can't be seen through the usual star power. The players who anchor champions aren't always No. 1 draft choices, but they're all in the top three: Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Isiah Thomas, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson have won almost everything for the past 25 years.
The Pistons don't have that player.
Last time the Pistons picked high, they tried the same direction with Grant Hill as the No. 3 choice in 1994, after the Thomas Bad Boys declined to nothing. But the Hill Pistons never won a playoff series. It would take one of his teammates to bring the Pistons back.
Detroit Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars doesn't usually come to mind as an important player in the NBA
Dumars played a 14-year Hall of Fame career in Detroit, winning championships in 1989 and 1990 as well Finals MVP in 1989. He was a six-time All-Star and four-time all-league defensive player for whom the league named its sportsmanship trophy.
You've seen better careers, but that's just what he did as a player. As a basketball operator, he has made numerous sharp trades that set his team up with prime talent just ripening, keeping his team at the 50-win level or better for five years with one championship, another Finals appearance and one more on the way.
One of the defensive anchors for the Detroit Pistons "Bad Boys" champions, Dumars retired as a player in 1998, took a year to learn the ropes and took over the Pistons in 2000. After a rough first season in the front office, the Pistons are the state of play in the Eastern Conference, if not the entire NBA.
All will be revealed in the coming weeks, as the Pistons whisk past Cleveland and Miami while the winner of the San Antonio-Dallas series decides the West. The Pistons are primed for their third straight Finals appearance and maybe their second championship, and it seems there's nothing LeBron James or Dwayne Wade can do about it.
From the start of his administrative career, Dumars showed a knack for deal making, raising his reputation as a talent evaluator, though he really has the good sense to remember what others forgot about players.
Dumars began in the summer of 2000 with little doubt about shaking it up. Within two months, he traded the mostly-used Hill in a single stroke that surprisingly changed the Pistons' identity. In exchange for Hill, the Orlando Magic sent over Chucky Adkins and an undrafted banger who couldn't stay on the floor for more than 25 minutes. But Ben Wallace jumped right in to average 13.2 rebounds for Detroit, where he has stamped a champion with his ferocity near the rim.
Two years later, Dumars made another heist, picking up Rip Hamilton, Hubert Davis and Bobby Simmons from Washington for Jerry Stackhouse, Brian Cardinal and Ratko Varda. At about the same time, Dumars signed Chauncy Billups as a little-heralded free agent. And the Pistons made their only productive draft pick of the Dumars years, taking Tayshaun Prince of UK at No. 23.
Hamilton had been the seventh overall draft pick in 1999, and Billups was the third overall choice in 1997. But Washington dealt Hamilton away less than three years after taking him, and Boston traded Billups after just 51 games, starting him on a long journey.
Despite the infusion of talent and advancement to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2003, Dumars kept stirring the pot. Larry Brown came available, so Dumars made room by turning out his successful coach, Rick Carlisle.
Late in 2004, Dumars pulled another trade, a three-way deal with Boston and Atlanta that netted Rasheed Wallace and Mike James. Wallace was the fourth overall draft pick in 1995, sent away by Washington in less than a year.
Do we see here a pattern of franchises that never go anywhere hastily dealing off their top draft picks, who wind up with Detroit in their mature states? That's how Dumars has built a consistent contender with only one useful draft pick of his own.
Now the Pistons are a team full of very high draft choices, none of which they made. Hamilton and Billups aren't yet 30 and the two Wallaces are 32. Antonio McDyess, formerly the No. 2 overall pick by the Clippers, also is 32 and still productive.
The Pistons seek and take in castoffs, huge talents who've been forgotten. These players are hungry for respect. Along with that, Dumars makes sure they get coached. Maybe Carlisle didn't deserve his dumping, but Dumars knew the time was right for Larry Brown. With Brown's departure this year, Dumars might have brought the Pistons to greater heights with Flip Saunders.
The Pistons aren't the kind of team with one player to tell the story. The story is the general manager who should join the short list if the Pistons go all the way.