Outside the city of Detroit, most NBA fans loved to hate the 1989 Detroit Pistons. They were the Bad Boys, and the team some liked but many hated! However, if you asked them if they cared they would have a simple response. No! That, of course, would be the clean version of their response. They were the very definition of team. No Pistons player finished in the top 20 in scoring, or top 10 in steals, blocked shots or three-point shooting. Isiah Thomas would finish ninth in assists, and Bill Laimbeer was also ninth in rebounding. Dennis Rodman was their only league leader with a .595 field goal percentage.
It had been a very long decade or so for general manager, Jack McCloskey, and the Detroit Pistons. Isiah Thomas was drafted by Detroit in the 1981 draft and brought the team a future star that they needed for a title. However, the growing pains had been rough. Bill Laimbeer was brought over from the Cavaliers in 1982, as well as Vinnie Johnson from the Sonics. Head coach, Chuck Daly, was hired in 1983 with his only NBA coaching experience being with a losing Cleveland team. However, Detroit management truly thought it was lack of talent in Cleveland, not coaching ability for Daly. They were right! Daly brought confidence and bravado to the Pistons. Rick Mahorn was added to the lineup in 1986 from Washington. Detroit had gradually improved year after year, but could not seem to take out the Boston Celtics come playoff time. The Celtics had become the Pistons bitter rival. It could have been the 1986 draft that turned the tide, however. The Pistons drafted both Dennis Rodman and John Salley that year, and they added the depth that the Pistons very much needed. It took the nucleus a couple of years, but in 1988-89 the Pistons were ready. It had taken over 30 trades according to Jack McCloskey, and a decade to put Detroit into the right position, but the Bad Boys had the talent and the mental toughness for a title.
The Detroit Pistons didn’t have everything go their way though. That would be too easy for the Bad Boys! Detroit management decided to make a trade just three days after all-star break. This was a controversial and shocking move, but there were apparent chemistry issues surrounding the team. The Pistons traded high-scoring Adrian Dantley and a draft pick to Dallas for small forward Mark Aguirre, who was a close friend of Isiah Thomas. It was viewed as a big gamble by most, but the Pistons finished the season with a league-best 63-19 record.
The 1988-89 season saw the last season for the 42-year, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Lakers captain retired after winning league MVP honors six times, becoming the all-time scoring leader and playing on six NBA championship teams. New expansion franchises began play in Charlotte and Miami, with Minnesota and Orlando set to begin during the 1989-90 season. It was also business as usual as Michael Jordan won his third straight scoring title and Magic Johnson won his second Most Valuable Player Award.
Magic Johnson would once again lead his Lakers into the playoffs and Los Angeles would sweep their way into the NBA Finals going 11-0 in the Western Conference. The Pistons swept the Larry Bird-less Celtics in the first round, the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round, but would struggle some against the up-and-coming Chicago Bulls to survive 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Unfortunately for the Los Angeles Lakers, a third straight trip to the NBA Finals might have been too much. The back-to-back champions would lose Byron Scott with a torn hamstring in game #1, and then Magic Johnson also suffered a hamstring injury in game #2. “It’s like you have a real nice sports car and a great driver,” Adbul-Jabbar said of the circumstances, “and then all of a sudden you have to find somebody who has been driving a bus to be a driver. That’s a learning experience.”
The Pistons, who had nearly won the championship in the previous season, outplayed what was left of the Los Angeles Lakers and swept four straight games, including the clincher in the Great Western Forum. Joe Dumars torched the Lakers with the hot hand in the series to win the MVP. Isiah Thomas was very busy feeding his backcourt mate the ball. “I just happened to get into one of those zones where a couple of shots went down and I wanted to touch the ball every time it came down the floor,” Dumars explained. Isiah Thomas knew Joe was hot and at one point asked the shooting guard, “what do you want?” meaning what play do you want. Joe Dumars simply stated, “Just the ball.” That’s about how it was. “Just give me the ball.”
This Detroit Pistons team was one of the most interesting in NBA history. You may have hated them or loved them, but there was not doubt they believed in each other and played as a team. They displayed the ultimate power of the team all season. They could have been the most mentally tough team ever, but they had been made that way from great rivals like the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. The 1988-89 Pistons were the first team to win the championship other than the Celtics, 76ers or Lakers in a decade. Now that is Bad Boy tough!