Professional basketball players don't earn elite status in the regular season, no matter how much they improve, no matter how many miles they run to get themselves into great condition, no matter how true their jump shooting is between Thanksgiving and Easter. A great performance in June is more valuable than 10 in February. And when you torch the other guy for 31 points in the NBA Finals when it's notoriously difficult to score, when you outscore Shaq and Kobe by yourself, stardom just might be calling your name.
All the Detroit Pistons can play defense, but only one can deliver big points virtually every night: Richard Hamilton. Yep, little Rip is all grown up now. He rebounds, plays defense, but most of all, for an offensively challenged team, he scores. Ask the Lakers if they're impressed. In Game 3 Thursday night in Michigan, the Lakers were intent on holding down Hamilton, yet all he did was hit 11 of 22 shots. Kobe scored 11 points, Shaq had 14, Hamilton had 31.
Jalen Rose, the Toronto Raptors guard who has played against Hamilton for five years in the NBA and who is working for the Fox network during the finals, said of Hamilton: "I could see this coming . . . I could see his career getting to this point because Rip makes shots. Lots of guys can shake you, jump over you, run by you. Rip makes shots, baskets, buckets. That other stuff, jumping over you and running by you, will leave you at some point because you hurt a knee or you start getting older. Look, I appreciate athleticism, but skill lasts. You pop those jumpers, and you can hurt some people. Everybody talks about how skinny he is. You always hear people say about him, 'Gain 20 pounds or you can't be a prototype two-guard in this league . . .' Well, after a couple of years of postseason success you might just get to be yourself."
Rose pointed out that Hamilton has played better in the playoffs than in the regular season, and he also has gotten better in every round. The stats back Rose. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2000, his second of three seasons with the Wizards, Hamilton has averaged 18.8 points. But in the playoffs, he's averaged 22 per game. In the first round this playoff season, he averaged 20.2, in the second round 20.6, in the conference finals 24.2 points, and so far in the NBA Finals 23 points, and that despite scoring just a dozen points in Game 1. Other than Kobe, Hamilton is as polished and as efficient a scorer as there is playing shooting guard in the NBA.
Not only that, but in a series that includes Shaq, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace and Kobe, guess which player is leading the NBA Finals in offensive rebounds? Yes, skinny little Rip Hamilton with 11 through three games. When several of the Pistons, Hamilton included, said before the start of the finals that Hamilton is the best-conditioned player in the league, you could hear some cynics snickering. It lessened when Hamilton got the best of Reggie Miller and Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals.Three games into his first league championship series, it would be pretty stupid to keep laughing. Maybe Hamilton is the best-conditioned player in the league. He certainly appears to be the best-conditioned player in the finals. How else could a 6-foot-7, 190-pound guy lead a brutally contested championship series in offensive rebounds? Did I say 190? "Not with rocks in his pockets," Ben Wallace said. Hamilton has to be in constant motion because he's not strong enough to muscle anybody around the basket.
The Pistons seem to have become the team of choice in the finals for folks around here because they have four ex-Wizards (Hamilton, the Wallaces and Darvin Ham) on the roster. The Wallaces, at least, were raw talents when they played here. Hamilton averaged 18 points in his second year here, 20 in his third when he played alongside Michael Jordan, who then traded him rather than give him the maximum contract, a financial commitment Jordan thought should be reserved for a true superstar. Much of that status suggests box-office and marketing appeal, too, which Hamilton doesn't have -- yet. Even so, the deal has backfired enormously since Jerry Stackhouse has become such a bust and since owner Abe Pollin extended Stackhouse rather than letting him walk to free salary cap room.
So the question for Hamilton is, could he have become this same finished product, capable of clutch playoff performances if he had remained in Washington?
"Yes, I think it would have happened in D.C. in another couple of years," he said during a conversation in Los Angeles earlier in the series. "I think it was on the verge of happening anyway. I thought with the team we were assembling then that the sky was the limit. Now, I'll admit that when I was traded to Detroit I joined a team with several veterans [Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Corliss Williamson] who already knew how to play, and it was probably an easier situation to continue to get better."
And where did all this postseason bravado come from? How is it he averages nearly four points per game more in the playoffs, when there are fewer possessions because the game slows to a crawl and when defense is ratcheted up to the level of suffocation? "I've always been able to concentrate in the postseason," Hamilton said. "I've always been a pretty good postseason player, back to when I was at U-Conn. and we played in the NIT my sophomore year . . . I led the NIT in scoring that year. I love that time of year."
At the time, Joe Dumars was just wrapping up his career and preparing to become the Pistons' president of basketball operations. "At U-Conn. I looked at him and thought, 'That skinny kid can shoot the ball pretty good,' " Dumars said. "It was when he was playing down in D.C. that the first comparison that came to my mind was with Reggie. The nonstop movement coming off screens was good; he was fast running the court and filling the lane. . . . "
Hamilton's problem, of course, was playing defense. Most stars in college aren't asked to play much, if any. But Dumars rammed home the point that if Hamilton was as well-conditioned as he claimed to be, if he could run all day on offense, then he could do it on defense, too.
"At first, I'd say to him, 'Hey Rip, fool me. . . . At least pretend you're trying to guard somebody,' " Dumars said. "You can't talk in technical terms to somebody about defense. You learn how to keep people in front of you and make a hell of an effort. I told him, 'You run that hard to get a shot, you can run that hard to get in front of somebody. Don't tell me you can't run through that screen when I see you run around it to get a shot.'
"I told him, 'If they're saying you're not a good defensive player two years from now, then you don't have the heart to do it.' But he does have the heart to do it. After about six months, I knew he'd make it."
Dumars also saw somebody who was willing to work hard enough to maximize the skills he already had. And now, with Hamilton playing more than acceptable defense and the leading the way offensively, the Pistons are two victories from an NBA championship, and Hamilton is close to a level of accomplishment that has eluded plenty of bigger stars.