AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - NBA commissioner David Stern has a wonderful marketing opportunity right under his nose and he refuses to wake up and smell the coffee.
The Detroit Pistons entered Game 5 of the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers last night at The Palace needing one more win to capture their first championship in 14 years.
That's right, the superstar-less, defensive-obsessed, team-oriented, couldn't-score-100-points-in-an-empty-arena Pistons.
The Pistons go against everything that Stern's hyped-up, glitz-aplenty NBA stands for.
The Pistons aren't glamorous. They lack star power.
Stern loves to promote his stars. If you don't believe me, go back and check the TV commercials aired during the playoffs.
It's never, "Tune in to see the Lakers against the Timberwolves in the Western Conference finals."
It's always, "Watch Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant and the Lakers against Kevin Garnett and the Timberwolves."
The NFL markets its teams. No player is bigger than any team. The NBA markets its players. No team is bigger than its best player.
Except, of course, in Detroit.
One of the problems facing the NBA in its attempts to promote the Pistons on commercials and game telecasts during the Finals has been the Pistons are a tough sell under the league's current marketing strategy.
That's been one of the league's biggest hangups.
When Michael Jordan was leading the Chicago Bulls to six titles, the Bulls were as easy sell for the NBA.
People watched because Jordan was the game's best player and his teams always won.
But when Jordan retired following the 1997-98 season, the league hit a tailspin.
The NBA's marketing gurus continued to utilize the same strategy, but players such as Allen Iverson, Vince Carter and Garnett weren't as likable as Jordan and their teams didn't produce championships.
Tim Duncan led San Antonio to two championships, but because the league marketed Duncan as a laid-back, controversy-free superstar instead of the next Bill Russell, ratings for Spurs games in the Finals were significantly lower than for the Lakers with O'Neal and Bryant.
Fast-forward to the 2004 NBA Finals. The NBA can't successfully promote a single player on the Pistons, the way the league and ABC have hyped O'Neal and Bryant.
The Pistons can't be marketed as a one- or two-player team.
Ratings for the Finals are much higher from a year ago, but that's primarily because the Lakers are more popular than the Spurs, who played New Jersey in last year's championship series.
What happens next year?
The Pistons are a team on the rise. If the team remains intact, they have the potential to appear in several more Finals in the upcoming years.
The Lakers probably will be broken up. No Shaq and no Kobe and perhaps no Phil Jackson means bye-bye to those solid ratings in the Finals.
The Pistons are an individual team.
The Lakers are a team of individuals.
In other words, you can't promote Chauncey Billups without also promoting Richard Hamilton.
You can't promote Ben Wallace without also promoting Rasheed Wallace.
And you certainly can't promote Tayshaun Prince without mentioning him as one of Detroit's five starters.
The Pistons win as a team, lose as a team.
The Pistons are, in fact, a lot like the New England Patriots in that regard. When the Patriots beat the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, it was viewed as an upset.
Taken individually, the Patriots players didn't have the same name recognition as the Rams. But, taken collectively, the Patriots were unbeatable.
The NBA could learn a lot from the Pistons.
There's something to be said for promoting a team that, according to Detroit coach Larry Brown, plays the game "the right way."
The Pistons weren't built to stand alone. Divided, they fall.
"We do a good job of really playing together, helping each other out, not just on the defensive end but the offensive end, too," Hamilton said.
"We come together for one common goal and that's to win."
So what that the Pistons don't have a legitimate star. They're a legitimate basketball team.
The best in the NBA.
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