The Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers share several similarities. They play in neighboring states. They play in the same division. They are small-market teams with harsh winters. They are blue-collar teams. They share a history of fierce competition, highlighted by the early and mid-2000s. Here I will briefly recap the height of their inter-division rivalry.
Larry Bird’s tenure as head coach of the Pacers was very successful. Indiana was the team closest to defeating the Chicago Bulls dynasty during the 1990s with a full season of Michael Jordan. In 1998, they took Chicago to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. The following season, after the lockout ended, Indiana was again eliminated in the Eastern Conference Finals, this time by the New York Knicks. The defeat was in large part due to a phantom four-point play by Larry Johnson in game three of the series. To be sure, this moment certainly still stings for Pacers fans. In 2000, Bird’s last season on the bench, the Pacers reached the NBA Finals. There was no shame in losing to the Los Angeles Lakers, who went on to win three straight NBA championships.
Meanwhile, the Pistons, were just an OK team at this time. Grant Hill was a legit superstar, but Detroit failed to surround Hill with talent. This era is overshadowed by the loss of Allen Houston in free agency a few years prior. Houston has averaged 20 points for Detroit in 1996.
After losing Grant Hill, the Pistons rebuilt around Jerry Stackhouse. The results were about as a mixed as you would expect. Some guy named Ben Wallace became a prominent defense of specialist for the Pistons. In 2002, they traded Stackhouse for Richard Hamilton and signed Chauncey Billups in free agency. From 2002 to 2008, the Pistons reached the ECF each season. After acquiring Rasheed Wallace in 2004, Detroit made the Finals in consecutive seasons, winning the championship in 2004.
The Pacers were probably the biggest competition in the East to the Pistons in the mid-2000s. After trading for young players Jermaine O’Neal and Ron Artest in 2000 and 2001, the Pacers jump-started a quick reconstruction of their roster and were poised to contend for several years.
Indiana won the most games in the NBA in 2004 and took Detroit to six games in the Eastern Conference Finals. The series is remembered for “The Block” Tayshaun Prince made on Reggie Miller in the final moments of game two. The following season, the Pacers were early favorites to make the Finals. Then, the Malice at the Palace happened. The Pacers didn’t fully recover for years, spoiling what might have been the best Indiana squad in franchise history.
In the years following, the Pacers floundered, but were able to rebuild half a decade later around Paul George and David West. They have since traded George for Indiana-native Victor Oladipo, a star in his own right.
The Pistons have been a mediocre team since 2008 and look to be stuck in limbo ever since. With that said, Blake Griffin is the best singular talent Detroit has had since Grant Hill.
I’m hoping the Oladipo-Pacers and Griffin-Pistons can reignite my favorite rivalry in the NBA. It’s been a pretty boring dozen years.