The Teal Era: When everything went wrong for the Pistons

In six seasons with the Detroit Pistons, Grant Hill could never get the team past the first round in the NBA Playoffs.

There’s no record as to what Chuck Daly said when he saw that his former team, the Detroit Pistons, had changed their logo and adopted a teal color scheme for the 1996-1997 season.

I’d venture to guess it was something like, “BLECH!”

That reaction would have been shared by Pistons fans, who groaned in unison when the franchise revealed their new duds in the summer of 1996.

What the hell were they thinking? Is the question that pops to mind. In retrospect, it seems the marketing department was afforded way too much power, or perhaps there was a coup d’etat somewhere in the bowels of The Palace. Picture men in business suits with slide rulers and color swatches holding their letter openers to the throats of top Pistons officials. “Give us teal or give us death!”

The Pistons were not in miserable condition in 1996, though looking back we can see now that this was the “lost period” in franchise history. They had posted winning records in 11 of the previous 13 seasons. Their two losing seasons, coming at the time of and the year after the retirement of Isiah Thomas, landed Detroit a lottery pick in the NBA Draft.

The previous year, the Orlando Magic had won the NBA Draft Lottery despite having less than a 2% chance of doing so. All those bouncing ping pong balls aligned just right and the Magic got University of Michigan star Chris Webber, a year after winning Shaquille O’Neal in the draft lottery. The outrage over the Magic getting the #1 pick resulted in the NBA changing the odds for the ’94 lottery. The Pistons, who tied for the second-worst record in the NBA in 1993-1994, had a 16.4% chance of getting the #1 pick. Milwaukee, who ended up with the same record as Detroit, ended up with the #1 spot, Dallas would pick #2, followed by the Pistons.

Two other Wolverines were available in the draft that year: guard Jalen Rose and forward Juwan Howard. After the Bucks selected Glenn Robinson and the Mavericks took Jason Kidd, the Pistons were on the clock. It didn’t take long for the Detroit “war room” to submit their choice. They took a player they’d had their eye on for months: Duke guard Grant Hill. Many NBA insiders considered Hill to have the best chance for a long, star-studded NBA career. Some were comparing him to Michael Jordan, which was grossly unfair. But that was the level at which Hill was regarded at the time.

A year after Isiah had hung up his sneakers, the Pistons had a player who they felt could replace his scoring and on-court instincts. At small forward, Hill was a “slasher”, said Dick Vitale, who was practically peeing himself at the prospects of Hill playing for his former NBA team.

So it was Hill, two years later, starting his third NBA season, who donned the new teal Pistons uniforms. Not only had the colors changed, but the logo had too. Gone was the simple, elegant, traditional circle basketball. It was replaced with a fire-breathing horse head. It symbolized the horsepower of the Detroit automotive industry, we were told. Hill and the aging Joe Dumars put on the new jerseys, looking more like they were on a Disney pick-up team than on one of the most storied franchises in the league.

The Pistons had improved in the Hill era, winning 28 and then 46 games in his first two seasons. The year after getting Hill, once again with their ping pong balls in the hopper for the NBA Draft Lottery, the Pistons traded their #1 pick for two lower first round picks via Portland. It proved to be a shrewd decision, as Detroit nabbed Theo Ratliff, a gifted power forward, and Randolph Childress, a nifty point guard, at #18 and #19. Ratliff was a spark off the bench almost immediately, though Childress never materialized largely due to injuries.

The 1996-1997 Pistons, dressed in their new robes, rode Hill and guards Dumars and Lindsey Hunter to 54 victories, their most since their Bad Boys days. Terry Mills and Otis Thorpe provided the presence up front in what was really a jump shooting team, but a good one. Coached by Doug Collins, a frizzy-haded hyperactive gym junkie, Detroit lost in five games in the first round of the playoffs to Atlanta. It was their second straight opening round playoff loss.

When the team started the 1997-1998 season slowly, Collins was axed at mi-season, replaced by assistant coach Alvin Gentry. It didn’t make a difference, and neither did the return of Rick Mahorn, in his 16th NBA season, with an ass as big as ever. The Pistons missed the playoffs despite the 21+ points per game from Hill and the solid play of Jerry Stackhouse and Bison Dele, who had been acquired in a deal for Ratliff. Things would have to change in Detroit if the Pistons were to get back to level of their glory days in the 1980s and early 1990s. Rather than Bad Boys, they were in danger of just being bad.

That was the backdrop when the NBA Lockout happened, which resulted in the delay of the 1998-1999 season until January of 1999. The three months of regular season lost meant that the Pistons’ veteran shooting guard Joe Dumars got a little longer in the tooth. In 1999, his 13th NBA season, he struggled with injuries and inconsistent play for the first time. Fortunately, Hill was great and Stackhouse and Hunter solidified the backcourt. Dele was a force at center, and Hill’s college teammate Christian Laettner was acquired to add depth up front. The Pistons went 29-21 in the abbreviated 50-game season, earning a 5th seed in the Eastern Conference for the playoffs. But the Pistons offense sputtered and the team lost in five games to the Hawks in the first round.

It had now been eight years since the Pistons had won a playoff series, since the year when Jordan and the Bulls swept them aside so unceremoniously. When Isiah and the Pistons walked off the court at The Palace, refusing to shake hands with the victors. As embarrassing as that action had been, it was at least the act of a defiant defending champion, a team of bad asses with street cred. The “teal Pistons were (outside of Dumars) a gang of pretenders. Calling them a team was a mistake. Every summer the roster was shuffled around and new faces arrived, adding to the muddied mix of players that was the NBA in the 1990s. College stars were everywhere, but NBA stars were hard to find.

Dumars retired after the ’99 season, clearing the decks of any reminder of past glory. The last vestige of red-white-and-blue was gone. This was truly a teal group now. Most galling was the fact that the late ’90s Pistons were a terrible defensive unit. Detroit allowed more than 105 points per game, ranking 21st out of 29 NBA teams. Subsequently, in order to win they had to outscore their opponents. Which they did as often as they could considering the talent they had on the roster. Hill and Stackhouse each set career highs in points per game (25.8 and 23.6 respectively), and Laettner pitched in with 12+ from the power forward/center spot. Even the mid-season firing of the overmatched Gentry (replaced by assistant George Irvine) could not keep the Pistons from a playoff spot. Their 42-40 mark placed them 7th, earning a meeting with the Miami Heat. The Heat, who were playing defense like the old Bad Boys under Pat Riley, dispatched of Detroit in three straight games.

In eight seasons, from 1993-2000, the Pistons had failed to win a playoff series, had hired and fired five coaches, had lost the identity of their team in the retirements of Isiah and later Dumars, and had changed the identity of their franchise by abandoning the iconic logo that had once sold more merchandise than the Lakers, Raiders, and Yankees.

Now, in the late 1990s on the verge of the new millennium, Grant Hill was the face of the Pistons. But it was a shallow, unemotional image. Hill was gifted and clean-cut. He played above the rim, but somehow his stature seemed far lower. He was never embraced by the city of Detroit in the way other superstars had been or have been since. A few kids may have worn his jersey, in the suburbs, but the inner city fans didn’t take to him. He was Duke basketball, he wasn’t the baggy pants of U of M. He wasn’t a “Bad Boy” and he suffered in comparison to those who came before him at The Palace.

Prior to the 2000-2001 season the shadow would be lengthened on Hill. Dumars returned to the Pistons as President of Basketball Operations. Immensely popular during his playing career, the quiet Dumars quickly made an impact in the front office. Where he had bene almost overlooked and taken for granted as a player, Dumars was a strong, aggressive leader in the front office. On August 3, 2000, just weeks into his tenure, Dumars traded Hill to the Orlando Magic for Chucky Atkins and Ben Wallace. Atkins was a guard coming off his rookie season, a streaky shooter who could handle the ball and the floor. In Wallace, Dumars saw a big man who could dominate the boards much like Dennis Rodman had back in the Bad Boy era. Hill was coming off his best season, but Dumars knew he’d never have a higher value. IT was almost as if Dumars knew something having played with Hill for about five years. He knew Hill wasn’t a player you could build a championship team around. He got as much as he could for Hill when he still could.

The trade proved to be genius, of course. Hill played 47 games for the Magic over the next three seasons. He was never the same player again, and it wasn’t until his 15th season that Hill played on a team that won a playoff series.

Meanwhile, Wallace rebounded every missed shot in his general direction for the next six seasons with Detroit. Dumars and the Pistons changed the team colors back to red-white-and-blue for the 2001-2002 season, and that same season (coincidentally?) they won the Central Division and a playoff series for the first time in more than a decade.

Starting in 2003, the Pistons advanced to six straight Eastern Conference Finals, winning the NBA title in 2004. The team continued to switch coaches here and again, illustrating that it was the system that was important in Detroit under Dumars. A system that connected back to the glory days of Isiah, Rodman, Bill Laimbeer, Vinnie Johnson, and so on. Rick Carlisle, Larry Brown, Flip Saunders – it didn’t matter. The players and the Pistons system reigned supreme as the franchise posted seven straight 50-win seasons in the new century.

Under Dumars, with the “Teal Era” in the rear view mirror, the Pistons were once again one of the premier franchises in the NBA.

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