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Bidding Adieu to the Palace of Auburn Hills

Joel Brigham looks back at the history that took place at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

Joel Brigham

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When the Palace of Auburn Hills originally opened back in the late 1980s, its address was 1 Championship Drive, fitting for a building constructed at the peak of Detroit’s “Bad Boys” Pistons-mania. Now, almost three decades later, the address has changed several times over, now 6 Championship Drive, a nod to the six titles that professional basketball teams have won under the roof of the most royal-sounding building in the NBA.

The Detroit Pistons announced earlier this week that they’d be moving to Downtown Detroit, joining the NHL’s Red Wings at Little Caesar’s Arena starting next season. There also are plans to build a new community center and practice facility somewhere nearby, all of which puts an end to a successful stint in Auburn Hills, a Detroit suburb a little over 30 miles to the north of the city.

When construction broke for the Palace back in June of 1986, the Pistons had just wrapped up their third consecutive trip to the Eastern Conference playoffs after a six-year drought. The team hadn’t gotten out of the second round of the playoffs since the early 1960s and hadn’t appeared in a championship series since the team was in Fort Wayne. By 1986, the franchise had existed for just shy of 40 years and had never won a championship.

That, obviously, was all about to change, and the building itself would have something to do with the resurgence. As the paradigm for the new “modern arena” in that era, plans for The Palace included 180 luxury suites, which was excessive in the late 1980s. The building also would create seating for over 22,000 fans, which at the time made it the largest arena in the league. The United Center has since surpassed it, but even with 27 NBA arenas having been built since The Palace, it remains the second-largest in the NBA in terms of seating capacity. The place was absolutely cavernous by the era’s standards, ready to accept a throng of fans about to be treated to the best Pistons basketball they had ever seen.

In fact, by the time The Palace opened a little over two years later Detroit was a legitimate championship contender, having just lost the 1988 Finals the previous June to the L.A. Lakers. With a coach like Chuck Daly and players like Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars leading the charge, Pistons fans felt ready for a new era of Detroit basketball, and was it ever coming.

On November 5, 1988, the team played its first game in the new arena. Detroit won, of course, their first of 63 regular season games, to this day the second-winningest regular season in team history, and in the summer of 1989 the team would win its first championship in a four-game sweep over the very same Lakers team that beat them the previous year. They clinched the series at the Forum in Inglewood, but the Palace, in its very first year of existence, served as host for Games 1 and 2, both of which turned out to be wins.

Things didn’t slow down the following season. Detroit won 59 more regular season games, fought off a nasty up-and-coming Chicago Bulls team in a seven-game Eastern Conference Finals, then dispatched the Portland Trail Blazers in five games in that year’s Finals. Once again, only the first two games of the series were played in Auburn Hills, but in two years’ time, with two NBA Finals have been played there, the Bad Boy Pistons had never lost a game on their home turf.

The Palace was off to a great start, but after three consecutive grueling seasons in which the team played over 300 games, it was inevitable that they’d eventually succumb to a younger, hungrier team, and by 1991 the Chicago Bulls superseded them as the league’s next great team.

That didn’t mean The Palace was devoid of success in the remainder of the ‘90s. In 1998, the WNBA’s Detroit Shock moved into the building, winning their first championship within five years. It would be the only time that the Shock would win the Finals at The Palace.

Later, when former “Bad Boy” Bill Laimbeer took over coaching duties, the Shock went from finishing 9-33 in 2005 to winning the WNBA title just a year later. Between 2006 and 2008, the team would appear in three consecutive WNBA Finals, winning two of them and putting the exclamation point on one of the most dominant eras in the league’s history, particularly notable since the team moved to Tulsa in 2009.

All the while, the men’s team had reinvented itself into a new sort of perennial NBA powerhouse without a discernible superstar. Behind the efforts of Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace and Tayshaun Prince, the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons shocked the Goliath-like L.A. Lakers, which that year featured not only Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, but also Gary Payton and Karl Malone.

The series shocked the entire NBA community, as the Pistons upset the Lakers in only five games, this time winning the championship on The Palace floor for the first time. It only took 16 years, but the Pistons finally gave their hometown fans a title to celebrate on home soil, and it remains arguably the most euphoric moment in the building’s history.

Detroit hasn’t won a title since and made the playoffs last season for the first time since 2009. That, coincidentally, was the longest playoff drought since before the team moved into The Palace, and with a quiet resurgence over the last two seasons, one has to wonder if ownership believes a change in venue will energize the players and the fan base the way it did back in 1988.

Either way, the team will move closer to the majority of its fan base, which makes sense as Detroit boasts one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country, leaving the Palace to be demolished and redeveloped in Auburn Hills. It’s an area that is booming, and early indications are that the 100-acre plot of land, once cleared of all that historic rubble, will be sold and serve as home to a new research and development park.

In other words, it won’t face the same fate as the Pontiac Silverdome, which sat either vacant or sparsely-used for the better part of the last 14 years. All physical memories of The Palace will vanish over the course of the next few years, but it’s important to remember one of the most historic buildings currently in the game.

Only Madison Square Garden has been in use longer than The Palace, and coincidentally those are the only two arenas left in the NBA without garish corporate sponsorships attached to the marquee. The arena has been good to its fans, even if it was a bit of a pain to get out there, but the Detroit Pistons can really be the Detroit Pistons now.

The only sad thing is that no one will ever punch “7 Championship Drive” into their navigation system.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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NBA

Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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