BY: KWAME FISHER-JONES
In sports, time will distance fiction from fact and create a disproportionate view of a team or player. In the case of the Detroit Pistons time, and what appears to be the intentional effort of others, have completely removed the 1989 and 1990 NBA Champions from our collective minds. This removal from NBA allure has denied the Pistons their true place among the NBA's elite.
To say the orginial Bad Boys have been robbed of their well-deserved glory is misleading. Mainly because it implies they once had glory bestowed upon them, which was never the case. Only losers bask in the glow of a well fought defeat, a winner bears the agony until victory is seized.
The Pistons did not just defeat teams on their way to the crown; they annihilated them. Thus leaving nothing but a trail of dismay and bitterness from how said opponent was defeated.
In the eighties repeating champions were not the norm, in fact the Boston Celtics were the last team to accomplish the feat in 1969. It was not until 1988 that the Los Angeles Lakers were able to also claim to be repeaters. 19 years and only two franchises could claim to be repeat champions.
The Pistons did not have a storied history of the Celtics, with Bill Russell and Red Auerbach. The Motor City Maulers could not boast of glorious draft picks and NBA Finals defeats, like the Lakers with Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain. The Celtics and Lakers owned the NBA in not just the late eighties, but for most the league’s existence.
Enter the Detroit Pistons.
Nicknamed the Bad Boys because of their detail to destruction, the Pistons crashed the Larry Bird and Magic Johnson party that took place in the late eighties. Then the begrudged champions refused to leave the dance floor in a timely manner when it was Michael Jordan’s time to dance solo, which left a plethora of party goers frustrated at what they were forced to partake in.
The Bad Boys were fearless in their pursuit of a title and were not intimidated by the players who had already achieved what they desired. Detroit’s style of play was called dirty by some, aggressive by others, but all will agree it was ferocious. Isiah Thomas and crew played every defensive assignment with malice and with the intent to physically impose their will on the opponent.
What has been forgotten, or perhaps ignored was how flawless they were in executing on the defensive end, both as individuals and as a collective unit. Every ball was denied, every passing lane had a hand in it, and every penetrator was proudly pounded.
The pride exemplified on defense was breathtaking. Rarely if ever was there a broken assignment and the numbers reflected their commitment to a unified front. From 1986 to 1991 the Bad Boys never finished lower then third in opponents field goal percentage. Since the league began keeping the statistic in the 1970 – 1971 season no other back-to-back champion can make that claim.
Another testament to their greatness was their lack of star power. Detroit was a collection of grimy small college players who gladly used force instead of finesse. Imagine players from such college powerhouses as McNeese State, Southeastern Oklahoma State, and Hampton University controlling the NBA landscape. Even the players from your standard collegiate monsters would never be considered overwhelming.
The one player who symbolized the Piston’s commitment to defense was Dennis Rodman. The 6’8’ small college star was a terrific defender and rebounder who was a physical irritant that would agitate a player until they chose to respond and then that’s when the fun started. Rodman also was a tenacious rebounder who controlled paint not with size but with heart.
Then there was Joe Dumars, who was the quintessential role player that thrived alongside the explosive Isiah Thomas. “Little Joey” was seen as the good cop to some, but was just as fearless a competitor as the “bad cop”. Joe took pressure off of Thomas in critical spots with his ability to get to the basket. The shooting guard’s best attribute was his stout defense. The Hall-of-Famer used his strength to neutralize both smaller and bigger guards. The Louisiana native would make the NBA All-Defensive team five times in his career.
John Salley and Rick Mahorn provided defense both above and under the rim. Salley was able to use his quickness and athleticism to block shots and rebound, while Mahorn used his size and strength to manhandle opposing players. The Hampton University alum was crafty and physical.
However, the worst of the Bad Boys was Bill Laimbeer. The 6’11 center was hated in all continents and some often questioned if his mother liked him.
Laimbeer was slow and couldn’t jump over a shoelace, but he gave his body up for the cause. For 10 straight seasons “Lamb” averaged nine or more rebounds and for seven of those 10 seasons the center averaged a double-double.
The center was known to get under opposing players skin and do whatever he could to gain a competitive advantage. The center was involved in at least one scuffle per game and sometimes those scuffles would evolve into a full fledge brawl. Through it all, Laimbeer was consistent and reliable, and at the end of the day he was a champion.
The general of the troops was Lord Isiah Thomas.
In life strong leadership can overcome weak personnel. This was never more evident than with Thomas’ Bad Boy crew. Every player on the roster had a glaring weakness except for Thomas. Every player on that roster gave something; however, Thomas gave it all.
History should remember Thomas as being the single greatest guard of all-time, yet he is an afterthought.
The Pistons were nothing when Thomas arrived; when he left they were considered an elite franchise. Head Coach Chuck Daly was an assistant from the 76ers who earned his stripes while coaching at the University of Pennsylvania. Daly now rests in the Hall-of-Fame. Joe Dumars was a good scorer and great defender, who might be remembered in the ilk as Mitch Richmond or Alvin Robertson had he not played alongside No.11.
When people ask for the greatest point guards or shooting guards of all-time the Lord’s name is often mentioned after players like John Stockton and Gary Payton, if Thomas’ name is mentioned at all. Isiah, aside from a few documentaries and an occasional mention, is barely discussed. If one were to poll the top players in NBA history No. 11 would be somewhere outside of the top 20 on most list.
Lord Thomas is arguably the greatest guard of all-time. Every player who has ever won a title has had the benefit of another great player, except Thomas. Yes, Dumars rest in the Hall, but what part of his game was Hall worthy. He was an adequate player who benefited from playing next to an extraordinary talent.
The root of his omission is not known. What is known, or what was witnessed was a disregard for history by Thomas. The proper order had been laid out and the guard was not on the list. How else can one explain history’s blatant refusal to acknowledge the Pistons reign. Only the Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and Detroit Pistons can say they played in three straight NBA Finals. The leaders of those units are congratulated at what times feels like hourly, while Thomas is ignored.
The league found it prudent to turn a blind eye to the team from Motown. Conversely, the NBA has spent an abundance of money selling the Jordan Dream in hopes everyone would forget the Motown nightmare.
Interestingly, it is unconceivable to relive the triumph of the only team that defeated Magic’s Lakers, Bird’s Celtics, and crushed Jordan’s Bulls. In this denial the NBA has done a tremendous disservice to the Dynasty that was “The Bad Boys”.
They were aggressive but they were also extremely disciplined. They habitually crossed the line of physical play but also were flawless in execution on both ends of the floor.
The Bad Boys were the epitome of team play which is why they should be celebrated for championships instead of chastised for their competiveness.
Were they overt perhaps, but the docile rarely conquer.
NBA history will tell you the throne went from Bird and Magic directly to Michael and that was not the case. The Pistons ruled the NBA and were not just Sir Jordan's stepping stone. Yes, their measures were extreme, but crown is ever given?
When Detroit took the floor for each and every contest their goal was simple to become champions and they were unapologetic when asked about their “by any means necessary” approach. The reward has been being labeled “renegades”, who destroyed the fabric of the game.
This misconception is tragic, because this group was nothing more than hard workers who overcome and eventually where able to overtake the most monumental of obstacles.
The Bad Boys should be celebrated for the success they achieved; they conquered the players history told us were unconquerable.
Few players can ever claim to have maximized their potential the way the Detroit Pistons did, and someday the NBA will remember them for that feat.