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The Palace of Auburn Hills: Where greats earned the crown

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Michael Jordan came through here. LeBron James came through here. The NBA itself came through here.

They were tested.

And they emerged stronger.

Late Pistons owner Bill Davidson built The Palace of Auburn Hills, a sparkling, privately funded arena years ahead of its time that opened in 1988. Lower-level suites and on-grounds parking generated millions. Davidson’s Pistons won three championships while playing at the venue.

But current Pistons owner Tom Gores wants to return the franchise to Downtown Detroit, where the Pistons will join the Red Wings – who leave Joe Louis Arena, which opened in 1979 and was years behind its time – in a new shared arena.

So, the stars of those Pistons title teams – including Isiah Thomas, Dennis Rodman, Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups – gathered one final time at their old home to celebrate and reminisce.

The Pistons leave The Palace with a whimper, a 105-101 loss to the Wizards on Monday. The Pistons haven’t won a playoff game, here or anywhere, in nine years.

But The Palace will stand as a proving ground for the biggest stars of its generation.

Jordan started 1-6 in playoff games at The Palace, including 0-4 in a seven-game loss in the 1990 Eastern Conference finals. The Pistons double-teamed him, knocked him down, bullied him.

Finally, he and the Bulls turned all their frustration into Bad Boys-level competitiveness, paired it productively with their superior talent and swept the Pistons in the 1991 conference finals. Jordan won his first of six championships that year and became the greatest player of all time.

LeBron James was 1-5 in playoff games at The Palace when he scored the Cavaliers’ final 25 points in a double-overtime win over the Pistons in the 2007 Eastern Conference finals. That 48-point game was the first we saw LeBron truly unleashed, and he finished off the Pistons a couple nights later to reach his first of seven NBA Finals.

The most infamous moment at The Palace, of course, came in 2004: the Malice at the Palace. As then-Ron Artest laid on the scorer’s table during type of player fight the Bad Boys normalized at the arena, a fan pegged him with a cup in the chest. Artest leaped into the stands looking for a fight, and Stephen Jackson followed. Fans and Pacers brawled on and off the court for an extended period.

It was a low point for the NBA, which was still trying to find its way post-Jordan.

But the league too became stronger than ever after facing peril at The Palace. The NBA committed to improving its image, and a deep group of stars have the league more popular than ever.

The post-Malice debates – starting with the dress code – weren’t always clean. There’s a tension in a league where most players are black and most paying customers are white.

That was particularly felt with The Palace – about 30 miles north of downtown, in the wealthier suburbs and literally one of the largest symbols of white flight in area still feeling the effects of the 1967 riots. Truthfully, Detroit was probably better off without a taxpayer funded arena. But the entire region, in and out of the city, has an attachment to the city of Detroit. People, especially an older generation, here like the idea of the Pistons playing downtown. It feels right to them.

The Pistons made Auburn Hills their home for 29 years anyway, and it worked, because, at their best, the Palace-era Pistons embodied the attitude Detroit. The Pistons might provided Jordan with an NBA education, but when the petulant student became the teacher, they darn sure didn’t shake the Bulls’ hands.

Respect wasn’t earned easily here. Jordan didn’t get it until years later – begrudgingly. Grant Hill, the Pistons’ own hotshot who bridged eras, was far too widely unappreciated here. The fans still paying attention are grumbling about Stan Van Gundy’s current group.

Yet, those who prove themselves are welcomed back forever. Rodman, who joined the Bulls after leaving the Pistons and then embarked on years of sideshow antics, drew one of the night’s biggest ovations when he delivered the game ball. Thomas, 23 years after his last game here, still drew the largest media swarm with his infectious smile. And Wallace paraded around as if he owned the place.

“When you’re in The Palace, you always feel like a king,” Wallace said, resting a Larry O’Brien trophy on his shoulder.

The Pistons were never the NBA’s darlings. They just beat the NBA’s darlings.

They outlasted Larry Bird’s Celtics and Magic Johnson’s Lakers and held off Jordan’s Bulls to win championships in their first two years at The Palace. In 2004, the Pistons upset the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant-Karl Malone-Gary Payton Lakers, becoming the only home team in NBA history to sweep the middle three games of a 2-3-2 NBA Finals and win a title on its home floor.

“Even though our team won back-to-back championships, their team was the one that really, I thought, put us in that elite class where we were able to keep the winning tradition,” Thomas said, “in terms of being thought of as a championship place.”

Report: First-round draft prospect says Phil Jackson fell asleep during his workout

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Like I said, there are better reasons to criticize Phil Jackson than him saying his priority was the Knicks and that he had discussed trading Kristaps Porzingis.

Jay Williams of ESPN:

A top-15 draft pick told me the other day, because we were involved in this out of this conversation about Phil Jackson and the Knicks, and he said, “Phil Jackson was falling in and out of sleep in my workout.”

Yes. “Falling in and out of sleep at my workout.” This is what this guy told me.

Especially given Jackson’s salary and reputation for not being a diligent worker, this story is too good to check out.

O.G. Anunoby invited to NBA draft, Harry Giles declines

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The NBA’s invitations to the draft are a good indicator of when players will get drafted. The league samples executives, who are more likely to be honest here than in leaks to the media, about how they rank players. So, the list is worth monitoring.

The players who will attend tonight’s draft nearly match the leaks – with one exception. O.G. Anunoby is going, and Harry Giles isn’t.

Here are the players who will be at the draft – a reasonable placeholder for the players most likely to get picked in the top 20 – via A. Sherrod Blakely of CSN New England:

Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress:

Harry Giles declined his invite sources told DraftExpress.

Did Giles decline his invite because, with his extensive injury history, he feared falling too far? Or did he just prefer to watch elsewhere?

Was Anunoby simply 21st on the NBA’s list of players to invite? Or was the league too unsure of his medical status to include him until getting a stronger grasp now?

I don’t know, but the possibility that Giles could slip or Anunoby is more secure alters my perception of their draft stock (Anunoby up, Giles down).

Report: Knicks’ asking price for Kristaps Porzingis ‘massive’

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What has Phil Jackson actually done? He discussed trading Kristaps Porzingis with other teams and called the Knicks, not Porzingis, his priority. That’s it.

At face value, this is fine. It’s what devoted executives, not always Jackson, should do.

Jackson hasn’t traded Porzingis for meager return. He hasn’t traded Porzingis at all.

Everyone up in arms should take a deep breath.

Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe:

David Aldridge of NBA.com:

I wouldn’t rule out the Knicks trading Porzingis. The No. 1 pick got traded, after all. I wouldn’t rule out them trading Porzingis for too little return. Look at Jackson’s track record running the front office.

But wait until they do before bashing Jackson for not understanding Porzingis’ value.

There are plenty of better reasons to criticize Jackson, including overseeing the toxic culture that led to Porzingis skipping his exit interview and setting this latest “crisis” into motion. Publicly discussing trading Porzingis won’t endear Jackson to the budding star, but the problem is how it reached this point. Players in sound organizations can handle this. Jackson has engendered little confidence from his players, the distrust existed well before this round of trade talks.

Lonzo Ball recruits LeBron James to Lakers (video)

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Lonzo Ball doesn’t play for the Lakers. LeBron James isn’t a free agent.

But they’re headed that way – and Ball is already embracing it.

The Lakers are expected to draft Ball No. 2 tonight, and rumors are heating up about LeBron leaving the Cavaliers in 2018.

Why should LeBron join Ball in Los Angeles?

Ball on ESPN:

LeBron, I like to win. I know you like to win. I think our games can help each other out a lot. Any time you want the ball, just let me know. It’s going to be there.

Ball was asked to to pitch LeBron, so it’s not as if Ball is out here talking so brashly on his own. But answering the question was a rookie mistake.

Besides, I’m not sure Lonzo Ball can undo the bad blood between LeBron and LaVar Ball.