- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 17, 2004

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — The Detroit Pistons’ stunning five-game victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals not only marks the first time since 1998 that an Eastern Conference team won the championship, it signals the end of an era as the glamorous Lakers enter a murky offseason.

Detroit general manager Joe Dumars made one brilliant move after another to put together a young, athletic team of ferocious defenders who actually like playing together.

He suckered teams into trading him players like Ben Wallace, the former Washington Wizards player he stole from Orlando for injured Grant Hill, and Richard Hamilton, the one-time Washington lottery pick who has developed into possibly the best intermediate jump shooter in the world and looks like a steal in the Jerry Stackhouse trade.

Dumars replaced competent coach Rick Carlisle with Larry Brown, who became the first coach to win both NBA and NCAA titles. With the 23rd pick in the 2002 draft, he selected Tayshaun Prince, who took Kobe Bryant completely off his game. And Dumars’ gamble on sometimes tempestuous talent Rasheed Wallace — a late-season acquisition that might have backfired — turned out to be the final piece of the puzzle.

Perhaps no other player epitomizes Dumars’ approach to building a team more than finals MVP Chauncey Billups. Billups, the No.3 pick overall by Boston in the 1997 draft, played for four other teams before landing in Detroit.

“I don’t think people will stop taking those guys,” Dumars replied when asked about the absence of superstar players on the Detroit roster. “People will always take great players. I just felt there was a different way to do it. You don’t stop building around the superstars like the [Allen] Iversons or the [Tracy] McGradys. If you can get those guys, you absolutely have to take them. But if you don’t, you haven’t doomed yourself.”

No Pistons starter is over 30. The biggest question mark is Rasheed Wallace, a free agent this summer who made more than $16million this season. Wallace certainly won’t make that kind of money next season, but if he does return the Pistons could be favored to repeat.

“I’m going to bask in the glory for the moment,” Wallace said. “I probably won’t make any type of decision for a couple of weeks. I have to talk it over with my wife and my kids and get their input. I have to take all of that into consideration. My family has the biggest say in it all. But don’t get me wrong: I think it’s a great group of guys that I’m playing with.”

The same cannot be said about the Lakers, who almost certainly will have a different look next season.

Los Angeles added aging certain Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton to the triumvirate of Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and coach Phil Jackson this season, and from the start it looked as if Jackson would win an unprecedented 10th championship as a coach and the Lakers’ fourth title in five seasons. Now that those hopes have been dashed, the team faces a summer of uncertainty.

Bryant, who has feuded with O’Neal for the spotlight for years, reiterated following the loss he might opt out of his contract and play somewhere else. That option may not be available, however, if he does not beat the rape charges against him in Eagle, Colo. But if he does, no one is ruling out the possibility he might return to the Lakers. Free agent destinations could include the Los Angeles Clippers or the Phoenix Suns.

Jackson’s contract negotiations broke down at midseason, and it appears he might not be back.

“Right now I would say that it’s a pretty slim chance that I will be back coaching next year,” Jackson said.

Malone, 40, has tossed around the idea of retirement all season, and after finishing on such a disappointing note — a knee injury rendered him useless against the Pistons — he could bow out. Payton never fit into the Lakers’ triangle offense, but since he holds the option on the final year of a contract that stands to pay him $5.4million, it is unlikely he will opt out.

In Los Angeles, the decisions are many, the future unsure.

“The summer is going to be difficult for a lot of people,” O’Neal said. “Everyone is going to do what’s best for them, including me.”

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