The 1997 Detroit Pistons were no longer the Bad Boys who won three Eastern Conference titles from 1988-90 and the NBA crown the last two of these years, but they still had Grant Hill averaging 21 points/9 rebounds/7 assists per game. Veteran Joe Dumars, a mainstay of the championship teams and the future architect of another title team in 2004 when he was GM, was still an effective two-guard.
Lindsey Hunter rounded out a solid backcourt. Otis Thorpe and Terry Mills could each score reasonably well as the inside players, but Mills—a part of the 1989 Michigan team that won the NCAA title—wasn’t a great rebounder, and Detroit lacked depth. Head coach Doug Collins had a chore in trying to compete with the Jordan-era Bulls, along with Eastern powers New York and Miami.
The Pistons got off to a blazing start, winning 10 of 11 and losing only to the Bulls and Detroit was 20-4 on December 20. The issue with matching up with the league’s elite was already showing though, and a three-game losing streak included losses at Chicago and New York. The Pistons bounced right back, won six of seven and their record reached 40-13 by the end of February. Whatever the problems, the record was one of a legitimate contender
The lack of depth Collins was dealing with came to the fore in the latter part of the NBA season. The Pistons lost five of seven at the end of March. Detroit was still 49-22 and in position to get a good playoff seed, but they lost six of their last nine and slipped to #5 in the Eastern Conference, meaning they would not have homecourt advantage in their first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks.
While Hill scored 20 points in Game 1, no one could stop Atlanta center Dikembe Mutombo, who scored 26 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and led the Hawks to an 89-75 win. To the relief of the Motor City the Pistons came back in Game 2, with 25 points from Hill leading the way to a decisive win.
Detroit came back home and knocked off the Hawks 99-91 behind a hot shooting night from the floor. But the good shooting obscured the fact they were destroyed on the boards and Atlanta used that same advantage to even up the series in Game 4, sending the series back south for the decisive game of what was then a best-of-five series.
The ending was all too fitting for Detroit. They played well and were in position to win, up by eight points after three quarters. But they were too thin on the bench and not tough enough up front and Atlanta’s rebounding advantages wore Detroit down in the fourth quarter and the Hawks would be the ones advancing.
It was a nice season for the 1997 Detroit Pistons and the fans saw some good players, led by Hill. There just weren’t enough of them.