In Game Two of the 2007 NBA Eastern Conference Finals, the Detroit Pistons suffocating defense held the Cavaliers to 76 points. Luckily, the Pistons scored 79 points of their own and grabbed a two games to none lead in the series. But that would be their last victory of the season. The Cavaliers, behind a 22-year old star named LeBron James, swept the next four.
The loss in that series marked the second straight year the Pistons had been vanquished one step away from the NBA Finals. For the first time however, it happened without Ben Wallace, the big man in the middle who served as the heartbeat of the defensive unit. Wallace, a four-time Defensive Player of the year, left Motown as a free agent in July of 2006, leaving a gaping hole.
The loss to the Cavs, with their great young superstar, marked the fifth straight year Detroit had advanced to the Conference Finals. But general manager Joe Dumars was fearful that it marked the end of that group of players opportunity to get to the promised land. Not long after losing Game Six in Cleveland, Dumars went to work to try to remake his roster.
Across the country in southern California, the once mighty Lakers were at a low point. Three years removed from having lost to Detroit in the 2004 NBA Finals, the Lakers were in turmoil. Phil Jackson, who had moved from the sidelines to the front office, had returned to the head coaching role after failed experiments with Rudy Tomjanovich and someone named Frank Hamblen. Shaquille O’Neal was gone, and the only good piece left from the Lakers threepeat from 2000 to 2002 was Kobe Bryant.
Bryant was unhappy in LA after three early tosses from the playoffs. He was tired of hearing that he only won in LA because of O’Neal. He was tired of Jackson. As they say, familiarity breeds contempt. In the 2007 offseason, that summer, Kobe let Jackson and the Lakers front office know he would appreciate a change of scenery.
Teams don’t like to deal the face of their franchise, especially an athlete as great as Kobe Bryant. But the Lakers also didn’t want a sulking superstar, so they started to make phone calls. The most interesting call was made to Dumars, who was ready to make a big trade.
At that time, in 2007, Bryant was only 28 years old. He was essentially Michael Jordan-lite. As close to His Airness as anyone was ever going to be, a nearly unstoppable offensive force from the guard position, and a tremendous defensive player. He had the “clutch gene” too. Dumars started to work with his roster to try to make a deal to get the two-time scoring champion.
The Lakers and Pistons eventually agreed on a deal that would send Bryant to the Motor City in return for Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, and two draft picks. But the deal wouldn’t get done because of a heart-to-heart conversation.
Lakers’ owner Jerry Buss called Bryant to discuss the trade and his trade demands. He told Kobe that if he really wanted to leave the team, he would approve the deal. But Buss told his star that he wanted him to stay, wanted him to finish his career as a Laker. (Kobe would have to agree as well, since he was the only player in the NBA with a no-trade clause). After a long conversation between Buss and Bryant that lasted late into the night, Kobe agreed to remain in LA.
The next day, Dumars got the bad news. The trade was dead. Kobe wouldn’t wear red-white-and-blue for the Pistons.
The Pistons kept Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun. With basically their same team back in 2008, they advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals for a sixth straight year, but lost to the Celtics. It was the last gasp of their dynasty.
Kobe made the correct decision, In 2008 he led the Lakers to the NBA Finals where they lost to Boston. But the following year they won the NBA Finals, and the year after that Kobe won his fifth title when he guided the Lakers past the Celtics in the NBA Finals. In the three years after he nixed a deal to Detroit, Kobe went to the NBA Finals each year. He finished his career with the Lakers as one of the greatest guards in history.
Dumars stepped down as president of basketball operations with Detroit following the 2013-14 season. He never got the team back to the Finals, but he built a legacy of success in the front office. He was the first african american to win an NBA title as a general manager. He led the Pistons to six division titles, eight playoff appearances, and those six straight conference finals appearances, as well as two trips to the Finals and one title.