Chevette to Corvette No. 25: The 1976-77 Detroit Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 44-38
  • Pythagorean record: 38-44
  • Offensive Rating: 100.3 (9th of 22)
  • Defensive Rating: 101.3 (17th of 22)
  • Arena: Cobo Arena
  • Head coach: Herb Brown

Playoffs

  • Lost in first round to the Golden State Warriors, 2-1

Leaders

  • Points per game: Bob Lanier (25.3)
  • Rebounds per game: Bob Lanier (11.6)
  • Assists per game: Kevin Porter (7.3)
  • Steals per game: Chris Ford (2.2)
  • Blocks per game: Bob Lanier (2.0)

Top player

Bob Lanier

At 28, Lanier had one of the best seasons of his career, averaging 25.3 points, 11.6 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 1.1 steals per game. He finished fourth in MVP voting behind a dominant Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a healthy Bill Walton and a volume-shooting Pete Maravich.

That this wasn’t clearly Lanier’s best season is a testament to how great he was.

Key transaction

Drafted Marvin Barnes from the Spirits of St. Louis with the No. 4 pick in the ABA dispersal draft

When the NBA merged with the ABA, two ABA teams didn’t join the NBA: the Kentucky Colonels and the Spirit of St. Louis. That meant their players were sent to the NBA in a dispersal draft.

Luckily, for the Pistons, they had the fifth pick. Artis Gilmore (Chicago Bulls), Maurice Lucas (Portland Trail Blazers) and Ron Boone (Kansas City Kings) went off the board first, leaving the Pistons to decide between Marvin Barnes and Moses Malone.

They chose Bad News, literally and figuratively.

Barnes had been nicknamed “Bad News” for good reason. Linda Witt of People:

Barnes’s problems with the law date back to 1972 when he was a Providence College All-America. Accused of smacking a 6’10", 240-pound teammate with a tire iron, Barnes insisted he was acting in self-defense but pleaded guilty at a 1974 trial "so that all this will end here." Ordered to pay his victim $10,000, he also drew three years probation. Then, last October 9, he was arrested in Detroit’s Metro Airport with a handgun in his carry-on luggage. (He said a ticket agent told him to take the gun to a security officer who would check it onto the plane.) A Providence judge sentenced Barnes to a year for violating probation and refused to allow him to substitute youth work, saying, "He is not a model to be emulated by the young and impressionable."

Barnes tends to agree. "I’m not your apple pie and ice cream guy like Doc [Philadelphia star Julius Erving]," he says. "I’m the baddest. I’m a for-real black." He lives with the hungers of the Providence ghetto where he grew up. When he first signed as a pro with the Spirits of St. Louis in 1974 for $2.1 million, he leased an apartment with 13 phones and bought a silver Rolls-Royce, a diamond initial ring for each hand and a ruby necklace spelling "News."

"Money is the root of all my evils," Barnes acknowledges. During his career, he has often missed team flights and once, chartering his own plane, he arrived at a Norfolk, Va. arena moments before the game—and then scored 43 points.

In Detroit, some of Barnes’ demons got the best of him, and his play suffered. He averaged just 9.6 points and 4.8 rebounds per game in 1976-76. Keep in mind, he 24 and 11 player in his final year with St. Louis. The Pistons eventually benched him, leading to perhaps the greatest quote in franchise history:

“News didn’t come here to sit on no wood.”

Unfortunately, Barnes’ self-destructive tendencies rubbed off on teammates who weren’t as well-equipped to handle the life Barnes led. Eli Zaret’s “Blue Collar Blueprint”:

“In the ABA, Marvin Barnes was a great, great player that had issues,” says Lanier. “They took a chance on him, but Marvin was still into street life and he affected Eric Money. Money (a Detroit product, who played college ball at Arizona) could shoot the in-between jumper and he might’ve been one of the best that ever played.

“A few years ago, Lanier continues, “I ran into Marvin in Houston and he said, ‘Bob, I used to get get high all the time and Eric started to get high with me.’ When somebody tells you that and this is 20-some odd years later, you want put your fist right through their head. And I adored Marvin Barnes – I liked his personality and he’s as charming a guy as you’d ever want to meet. But in terms of him trying to be part of the team that wins a championship … man…” Lanier trails off.

Trend watch

Reached playoff for fourth straight season

By 1977, the playoffs had become commonplace for the Pistons. They had made it each of the previous three years and slipped in again in 1977.

That streak followed a 10-year stretch where the Pistons reached the playoffs only once. Unfortunately, after 1977, they headed back in that direction, missing the postseason for six straight seasons.

Why this season ranks No. 25

This season was absolutely insane, probably the craziest in Pistons history. They won a lot of games, but were completely dysfunctional. And Marvin Barnes was only the start. John Papanek of Sports Illustrated:

Money replies to a suggestion from Brown during a crucial time-out while the Pistons are beating Cleveland at home by screaming, "Hey, if you don’t like what I’m doing don’t put me out there." Whereupon Lanier, the team captain, gets up and walks away. Brown calls after him pleadingly, "Bob. Bob. Come back, Bob. Please." At Washington, Ford is about to take a jumper when he hears Brown shout at him, "Chris, don’t shoot!" He runs by the bench and shouts at the coach, "Don’t you ever yell at me during play!" Kevin Porter is removed from a game, and, as usual, trots angrily past Brown heading for the last seat on the bench. Finding it occupied, Porter sits down in the middle. At a time-out the rest of the Pistons get up and huddle around Brown. Porter moves quickly to the vacated end seat and resumes his pout from there. In a game against San Antonio, Barnes shows up at halftime, full of painkillers after having four teeth extracted ("Dentist said, ‘Marvin, was you eating rocks?’ ") and is ordered into uniform by the team doctor and General Manager Oscar Feldman. Barnes does not want to dress. "Fans be yelling ‘News! News!’ " he says. "I don’t want to disappoint ‘em." Sides form quickly—the doctor and general manager vs. Lanier and Ford—and an argument rages that can be heard outside the closed locker-room door. If the Pistons were a TV mini-series, they would make Roots seem like Ding Dong School.

Herb Brown,  was no more composed than his players. John Papanek of Sports Illustrated:

His coaching style—he screams a lot, jumps off the bench and is notably free with criticism—was not what the Pistons were used to after the taciturn Scott. And they resented it, partly because they did not feel Brown had the credentials to be coaching them—most recently two years at C.W. Post College on Long Island and 30 games with the Israel Sabras in the late great European Professional Basketball League. Brown’s brash and scratchy Noo Yawk accent didn’t help either. "I just don’t like the way he sounds when he’s criticizing me," says Lanier. "What he’s saying may be right, but sometimes I just can’t listen."

Brown leaned on Lanier to sooth some of the team’s problems, and Lanier got tired of the added responsibility. The star center even threatened to leave the team, and so did Barnes (for completely different reasons). Linda Witt of People:

Even before he broke his hand in a game near the end of the regular season, Barnes, 24, was threatening to boycott the NBA playoffs in one of his periodic quarrels with Pistons management. And on May 16 he is scheduled to begin serving a year in a Rhode Island jail.

The way Barnes’ on-court game had fallen apart, he likely wouldn’t have made a difference in a first-round loss to the Warriors, anyway.

How the 1976-77 Pistons still played so well despite so much drama is a great mystery. One thing is clear, though: there will never be another team like them.

Previously

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