What’s that you say? The Pistons are in need of frontcourt help and they’re keeping an eye on the waiver wire in hopes of providing some semblance of depth?
Yeah, we’ve been there before. Of course, circumstances were a bit different.
Detroit never quite got around to replacing Ben Wallace after he bolted for Chicago in 2006 (worth noting, as a 31-year-old beginning the downside of his career, we could never quite blame him for leaping at the overly healthy four-year, $52 million deal tendered by the Bulls).
After winning a title in ’04 then racking up a franchise record 64 wins in ’06 with Wallace manning the middle, the Pistons suddenly found themselves heading into the 2006-07 regular season with Nazr Mohammed as their new stopgap. The results were predictably unspectacular. Through 36 games, the Pistons stood at just 21-15, contrasting sharply to their 31-5 start a year prior.
Their much-needed midseason boost would come in the form of hometown hero Chris Webber, a Detroit Country Day graduate and famed member of the University of Michigan’s Fab Five. The Pistons signed the 33-year-old Webber just days after the Philadelphia 76ers bought out the remaining year and a half of his deal as a means of kick-starting their rebuilding process (a process that lives on to this day, by the by).
While a handful of years removed from his prime, Webber yielded a fraction of Wallace’s defensive presence but his passing awareness and post savvy provided an offensive advantage in the middle that the Pistons hadn’t seen since Bison Dele.
“We think Chris is going to be a great fit for the way we play,” head coach Flip Saunders said at the time. “The guys are excited, I’m excited and the town’s going to be excited.”
Webber’s measured debut didn’t exactly leave folks dancing down Woodward. Two points in 17 minutes resulted in a last second loss to the Jazz (despite Carlos Delfino’s last second above-the-rim theatrics).
Once Webber entered the starting lineup, combined with Chauncey Billups’ return from an ankle injury that’d caused him to miss eight games, the tide began to turn. It started in Minnesota, when Webber ripped off 16 points, seven rebounds, and four beautiful assists in Detroit’s 104-98 double overtime victory over the Timberwolves.
From there, the Pistons began rolling, wrapping up the regular season on a 32-14 run, including a stretch that saw them lose just once in the month of February. The cherry on top: Webber’s strong-arm of two Bulls defenders for a game-winning tip-in during Ben Wallace’s first return to The Palace.
Detroit’s late season rally was enough to earn their second consecutive No. 1 seed heading into the 2007 playoffs. There remained little doubt that the Pistons were no longer the defensive juggernaut that shut down Kobe Bryant and the Lakers just three seasons earlier, but the sudden offensive outpost the Pistons found in Webber (11.3 points and 3.0 assists) put the league on notice that the post-Larry Brown, post-Ben Wallace Pistons may still be a force to be reckoned with afterall.
Alas, Webber’s dream of walking off into the sunset with a home-bred Pistons championship to his name lasted through two and a half rounds before grinding to an abrupt halt.
After jumping out to a 2-0 series lead against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pistons appeared primed to make their third finals appearance in four years. But after Cleveland battled back to even the series, Detroit soon found out that compensating for the defensive void left by Ben Wallace with a slow footed Webber was going to have damning limitations.
The trouble began with 28.6 seconds left in the first quarter of Game 5, when one of Detroit’s few reliable interior defenders, Antonio McDyess, was ejected for a flagrant foul on Anderson Varejao.
Still, with an aging interior core of Webber and Rasheed Wallace, the Pistons held a healthy seven-point lead with 3:02 left in the fourth.
Then LeBron James happened.
Too strong for Tayshaun Prince and too fast for Jason Maxiell, James unleashed one of the most dominant performances in NBA playoff history, complementing a dazzling array of step-backs and fallaways with largely uncontested forays into the vacuous paint where Ben Wallace and Antonio McDyess once stood strong.
The result—James scored 29 of his team’s last 30 points in a 109-107 double overtime victory—effectively put an end to any championship aspirations for C-Webb and the Pistons. The Cavaliers took no chances in Game 6, using a 20-point, 14-rebound, 8-assist performance from James to close things out in Cleveland.
Webber, playing the final game of his abridged run in a no. 84 Pistons jersey (a pair of digits recommended by his nephew Colton upon his arrival), finished with 13 points and six rebounds in his hometown finale.
A year later, after a short stint with the Warriors, Webber called it a career. A five-time all-star who once managed to turn the city of Sacramento into a basketball hotbed, Webber’s 59-game stint in Detroit is but a blip on the radar. But even for a brief moment in time, it was nice to have him home.