Chevette to Corvette No. 1: The 1988-89 Detroit Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 63-19
  • Pythagorean record: 56-26
  • Offensive Rating: 110.8 (7th of 25)
  • Defensive Rating: 104.7 (3rd of 25)
  • Arena: The Palace of Auburn Hills
  • Head coach: Chuck Daly

Playoffs

  • Beat the Boston Celtics in first round, 3-0
  • Beat the Milwaukee Bucks in Eastern Conference Semifinals, 4-0
  • Beat the Chicago Bulls in Eastern Conference Finals, 4-2
  • Beat the Los Angeles Lakers in NBA Finals, 4-0

Leaders

  • Points per game: Adrian Dantley (18.4)
  • Rebounds per game: Bill Laimbeer (9.6)
  • Assists per game: Isiah Thomas (8.3)
  • Steals per game: Isiah Thomas (1.7)
  • Blocks per game: Bill Laimbeer (1.2)

Top player

Isiah Thomas

By this season, Isiah Thomas had fully sacrificed his individual numbers to help the Pistons win. Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

Why has the race opened up? For several reasons. The teams with the best records in the NBA, Detroit and the Cleveland Cavaliers, do not have serious MVP candidates. (Perhaps that’s why they have the league’s best records.)

Isiah Thomas won’t win. If any other player had staged the phenomenal 43-point show he put on for the Pistons in Game 6 of last year’s NBA Finals, then returned to play on a severely sprained ankle in Game 7, that man would have been a candidate for canonization. But there is something about Isiah’s style—his seeming lack of interest in games against weaker teams, his occasional carelessness with the ball—that prevents him from being a serious MVP candidate, although he is the leader of the NBA’s best team.

Thomas received one point in MVP voting, equalling Joe Dumars.

Key transaction

Traded Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre

Patrick already wrote a fantastic post on this trade that examines the deal from every angle.

Trend watch

First NBA title

After steadily rising – first round to Eastern Conference Finals to NBA Finals losses the previous three years – the Pistons finally won a championship, the first in franchise history.

Why this season ranks No. 1

Even before the season started, the Pistons locked in an upgrade. They into The Palace of Auburn Hills. Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

The 21,519-seat Palace is situated in Oakland County, one of the richest counties in America. And the Palace reflects that, what with its $2 million TV studio and 180 private boxes, which will generate about $11.2 million annually for Piston owner William Davidson, who owns 80% of the building.

Sports Illustrated predicted before the Pistons would win the championship, and sweeps of the suddenly old and broken-down Boston Celtics and the talented and tough Milwaukee Bucks in the first two rounds of the playoffs reinforced that.

But the Pistons ran into a little trouble with the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals. Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

A few steps from the summit of the NBA’s mountain, the Detroit Pistons suddenly looked down and felt dizzy. The Pistons are a team ideally suited to the role of underdog, and perhaps the pressure of living up to preseason expectations has affected them. They played without interest and lost Game 1 of their Eastern Conference finals to the Chicago Bulls and, even though they won, appeared disorganized in Game 2. Champions are made of sterner stuff.

Despite an 86-80 victory at Chicago Stadium on Monday afternoon, which tied the series at 2-2, the Pistons seemed slightly dazed and confused, fighting to regain the competitive fire and Bad Boy nastiness that stoked them to the NBA Finals and a seven-game loss to the Lakers last season.

The Pistons won the next two games to take the series, their focus tightening as they entered their second straight NBA Finals. Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

True, they stayed out of major fights in postseason play, and they even swore off alcohol as proof of their commitment to winning the title. (Laimbeer has been the lone offender so far, paying a $100 fine recently, after he joined in a family toast celebrating his father-in-law’s successful open-heart surgery.) But they were still the Bad Boys, the jive-talkers, the finger-pointers, the fist-raisers, the elbow-throwers, the fine-payers and, most of all, the defense players.

Injuries hit the Los Angeles Lakers hard in the Finals, and the Pistons swept their third opponent to finish the playoffs with an incredible 11-2 record. Beating their old foe in the final round wasn’t as large a struggle as expected, but that’s no letdown for the best season in Pistons history – one that included their second-most regular-season wins and their first NBA title. Eli Zaret’s “Blue Collar Blueprint”:

Inside the winning locker room, Thomas obsessively kissed the championship trophy. He looked up long enough to say, “It feels like I’m in heaven and I’m floating. Aguirre had tears running down his face and trouble saying. CBS attempted a few post-game interviews amid the screaming and the spraying of champagne as Mahorn and the other players chanted, “Bad Boys, Bad Boys, Bad Boys.”

Previously