Sour deal turned out to be sweet

Updated: June 13, 2004, 1:51 PM ET
By Joe Lago | ESPN.com

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Richard Hamilton can look at his basketball idol the same way now, the only difference being that he holds just as much appreciation as admiration.

And if Rip could speak to Michael Jordan, he'd tell him ...

"Thanks."

Because if it wasn't for Jordan's decision as Wizards president to trade the 1999 lottery pick to Detroit in September of 2002, Hamilton wouldn't be where he is now, matching Kobe Bryant bucket for bucket and chiseling a playoff legend that's taking shape with every jumper and each victory in the NBA Finals.

But at the time of the six-player deal, which essentially boiled down to a one-for-one swap for Jerry Stackhouse, Hamilton couldn't understand why Jordan had sent him packing after three seasons in D.C. as one of the Wizards' supposed building blocks.

He didn't pick up on the clues, like the time when Jordan, during the first season of Comeback No. 2, sought a move from small forward to shooting guard -- Hamilton's position.

"That meant Rip got to go to the bench," Hamilton said.

"You got to look at it as, OK, this is the greatest player ever to play the game, but this is also my boss," Hamilton added. "I mean, it was a crazy situation, man. Let's just put it that way."

MJ the Teammate spurred Hamilton to average a career-best 20.0 points in the 2001-02 season. MJ the Team Prez praised Rip's progress. Then, with the start of training camp less than a month away, the Wizards' plans changed. Hamilton was no longer a part of Jordan's blueprint.

The deal came as a "slap in the face," says Hamilton, and his resentment lingered throughout the season.

"It took me six, seven months," Hamilton said. "I think about it now and I remember telling myself, 'You have to get over it. It's a great situation (in Detroit).' I had to move on."

The Wizards got an All-Star swingman in Stackhouse who could carry the offensive burden for Jordan. The Pistons got ... well, they weren't so sure, according to Corliss Williamson.

"It was the first year that this team had made it to the playoffs in a while, and at that time, we didn't know what to think about the move or what was going to happen, whether it was good or bad for our team," Williamson said. "But I think Joe (Dumars, the Pistons' general manager) has done a great job identifying what he's wanted on this team -- the type of players, the type of personnel. We just had to put our trust in him."

What Dumars did was add a scorer capable of putting up numbers like Stackhouse and, if Hamilton proved himself worthy, pay maximum money to someone three years younger. Also, by adding Chauncey Billups to an overhauled backcourt, the Pistons could spread Stackhouse's shots over two options instead of one.

The transition for Hamilton was seamless. The plays the Pistons ran for Stackhouse, they ran for Hamilton -- with a couple of tweaks here and there.

The biggest change for Rip was the final score. After three consecutive lottery-bound seasons in Washington, Hamilton experienced life above .500 in the NBA for the first time, helping Detroit claim its second straight Central Division title.

"I just fit in," said Hamilton, who averaged a team-best 19.7 points last season. "I came in and played my game and just did what I do."

"The only thing we had to get Rip to do was to slow down a little bit to see the (court)," Ben Wallace said. "He'd be out there sometimes going a hundred miles an hour but really didn't get a chance to see the game."

Leave it to Wallace, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, to point out the other glaring hole in Hamilton's game.

Richard Hamilton
Richard Hamilton has demonstrated in the Finals that he can do more than just score.
"We had to get him to play defense," Wallace said. "Use that same quickness on the defensive end."

With Rick Carlisle's defense-first preachings, Hamilton didn't have a choice. Enlightened about the tricks of the NBA defensive trade -- "Learning that you can use your forearms, not your hands," Hamilton says -- he actually looks at moving without the ball on the other side of the court as fun.

Under Larry Brown's prodding, Hamilton is no longer one-dimensional on offense. He increased his assist average to a career-best 4.0 this season while shooting 45.5 percent, also a career best, and averaging a team-leading 17.6 points a game.

But no one saw this coming from Hamilton in the playoffs: Four straight rounds with a 20-point-plus average. His scoring binge and clutch shooting has made the league take notice, drawing comparisons to a young Reggie Miller in the East finals and sharing the Finals spotlight with another Pennsylvania high-school star also averaging 23 points.

"He's just improved and continue to improve because he works extremely hard," said Bryant, Hamilton's former AAU teammate and high-school rival. "He's just gotten better."

Brown traces that improvement back to Washington and you know who. "Rip talks to me all the time about the things that he learned from Michael," Brown explained.

And if Hamilton crosses paths with Jordan, he can express his gratitude -- for the wisdom and making the best move in his NBA career. It's a trade that Dumars considers a "close, close second" to his heist of Wallace from Orlando in 2000.

"He taught me so much," Hamilton said of Jordan. "About how to be a player, on and off the court."

Joe Lago is the NBA editor for ESPN.com.

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