Chevette to Corvette No. 5: The 1987-88 Detroit Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 54-28
  • Pythagorean record: 54-28
  • Offensive Rating: 110.5 (6th of 23)
  • Defensive Rating: 105.3 (2nd of 23)
  • Arena: Pontiac Silverdome
  • Head coach: Chuck Daly

Playoffs

  • Beat the Washington Bullets in first round, 3-2
  • Beat the Chicago Bulls in Eastern Conference Semifinals, 4-1
  • Beat the Boston Celtics in Eastern Conference Finals, 4-2
  • Lost in NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers, 4-3

Leaders

  • Points per game: Adrian Dantley (20.0)
  • Rebounds per game: Bill Laimbeer (10.1)
  • Assists per game: Isiah Thomas (8.4)
  • Steals per game: Isiah Thomas (1.7)
  • Blocks per game: John Salley (1.7)

Top player

Isiah Thomas

ESPN’s John Hollinger ranked Thomas’ performance in Game 6 of the Finals as the seventh-best Finals performance ever:

This was the best Finals game ever by a player whose team lost. Nobody who saw this game will ever forget Thomas’ sheer determination in rattling off 25 of his 43 points in the third quarter despite spraining his ankle midway through the quarter when he landed on Michael Cooper’s foot. Thomas had just scored 14 straight points, but limped to the sideline.

Not for long, however. With the Pistons one win away from a first-ever championship, he re-entered the game after half a minute and bravely hopped along … and kept scoring.

I can’t embed the video, but watch highlights of the quarter. It’s incredible.

Key transaction

Traded Ron Moore and a second-round pick to the Phoenix Suns for James Edwards

Keith Langlois of Pistons.com:

Still fully capable of logging starter’s minutes, content to come off the bench and possessed of both an amiable personality that was a fit in their locker room and a low-post scoring presence that suited their needs, Edwards not only was ideally suited for the Pistons but came at preposterously little cost.

All it took for McCloskey to get the Suns to bite on his request for Edwards was a little-used, little-known 7-foot project, Ron Moore, and a 1991 No. 2 pick. Acquired by McCloskey the previous June from the Knicks, who’d drafted him, for Sidney Green, Moore wouldn’t play in the NBA after that rookie season and wound up with nearly as many personal fouls (34) as career points (38).

“That, to me, was a no-brainer,” McCloskey says today of the Edwards trade. “When I was an assistant coach with the Lakers, we drafted (Edwards) and Kareem was hurt in the early part of the season. You could see, boy, he could score. And he had a great personality – terrific personality, just the nicest guy. So I grabbed him.”

Edwards had a fairly limited role his first half season with Detroit, serving as fourth big man behind Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn and John Salley (and sometimes Dennis Rodman, who was playing more small forward then). After playing off the bench again in 1988-89, Edwards became a starter the following two years. In either role, he was a key piece of the Bad Boys.

Thankfully, this was the only trade the Pistons made with the Suns at that time. Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

McCloskey also considered giving Phoenix two of his better young players, guard Joe Dumars and forward-center John Salley, for either point guard Jay Humphries or point guard Jeff Hornacek and standout forward Larry Nance.

Trend watch

First NBA Finals in 31 years

For the first time in 31 years – and first time in Detroit – the Pistons made the NBA Finals. After reaching the Eastern Conference Finals the year before and the second round two years before that, the Pistons’ Finals berth was the next step on a clear upward progression.

Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

Reserve center Chuck Nevitt, who was a member of the 1984-85 Lakers, was the only Detroit player who had ever been in a championship series, yet none of the Pistons seemed nervous. Before the game, starting guards Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars admitted to each other that neither felt as if he were about to play anything except a regular-season game. "I said to Isiah, ‘I wonder how you’re supposed to feel,’ " said Dumars later. "Maybe it was good that we didn’t know."

Why this season ranks No. 5

Before the season, Sports Illustrated predicted the Pistons would lose in the Finals to the Lakers, which ultimately happened. The Pistons were excellent and getting better, and everyone knew it.

They also had fully developed their distinct style by this point. Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

But Detroit’s physical game is effective only if it also works on the minds of its opponents—there’s a method to the Pistons’ badness—and that’s exactly what happened in the early moments of Game 3 on Saturday when the direction of the weekend was established.

Detroit center Bill Laimbeer was whistled for an offensive foul when he set a hard, Piston-style pick on Jordan. But Jordan thought that Laimbeer continued with the pick after the whistle, so he gave Laimbeer an elbow in the gut as they headed upcourt. Laimbeer shoved Jordan and, lo and behold, Jordan came back swinging, landing two blows before he was separated from Laimbeer. Jordan, who was charged with a technical, later said that it was the first time he ever threw a punch on a basketball court.

Less than a minute later Detroit power forward Rick Mahorn, a fellow who would win an NBA popularity contest only if he were running against Laimbeer, took a swing at Chicago forward Charles Oakley as they wrestled for a rebound. Mahorn drew the T this time. The early fireworks, minor though they were by Piston standards, threw the Bulls off their game. "It got me out of sync," is the way Jordan put it.

After beating the Washington Bullets and Chicago Bulls, the Pistons moved to the conference finals to face the Boston Celtics, an old rival that had beaten the Pistons in all three playoff series between the teams. Keith Langlois of Pistons.com:

When their Eastern Conference finals series opened on May 25 at the Garden, the Pistons’ losing streak there sat at 21 games. Their last win had come on Dec. 19, 1982. Scotty Robertson was their coach. Only Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and Vinnie Johnson remained from the team that would finally snap the losing streak.

It happened fast – in Game 1 of the conference finals. Chuck Daly had been 0-20 as Pistons coach at the Garden before that moment. Isiah was brilliant that night, scoring 35 and passing for 12 assists.

The Pistons won the series in six games and took a 3-2 NBA Finals lead over the favored Lakers. Holding a one-point lead in the closing seconds of Game 6 – see the “Top player” section above for how they got it – the Pistons appeared poised to win their first title a year ahead of schedule.

But Bill Laimbeer was whistled for what has become known as a “phantom foul.” Bill Davidson:

Well, the worst loss was out in L.A. (in 1988) when I was in the room with David Stern getting ready to accept the trophy, and they call a foul on Bill Laimbeer against Kareem. Bill pulled down a clean rebound, and Hugh Evans calls a foul. You know that he was set up, and you know … I don’t say he had a bet on the game, but that was … that was unconscionable! And that cost us a championship, which we should have had. Which we had.

Abdul-Jabbar made both free throws, and the Lakers won Game 7. Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

As for the Pistons, their defeat seemed more a coronation than a wake. With a few more favorable calls, a few more wise decisions in the clutch and a few more minutes of playing time from Isiah Thomas (whose severely sprained right ankle limited him to 28 minutes in Game 7), the Pistons could have won their first NBA title ever. At the very least, Detroit is next season’s early favorite in the clubhouse.

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