Chevette to Corvette No. 2: The 1989-90 Detroit Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 59-23
  • Pythagorean record: 57-25
  • Offensive Rating: 109.9 (11th of 27)
  • Defensive Rating: 103.5 (2nd of 25)
  • Arena: The Palace of Auburn Hills
  • Head coach: Chuck Daly

Playoffs

  • Beat the Indiana Pacers in first round, 3-0
  • Beat the New York Knicks in Eastern Conference Semifinals, 4-1
  • Beat the Chicago Bulls in Eastern Conference Finals, 4-3
  • Beat the Portland Trail Blazers in NBA Finals, 4-1

Leaders

  • Points per game: Isiah Thomas (18.4)
  • Rebounds per game: Dennis Rodman (9.7)
  • Assists per game: Isiah Thomas (9.4)
  • Steals per game: Isiah Thomas (1.7)
  • Blocks per game: John Salley (1.9)

Top player

Isiah Thomas

Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

Isiah Thomas’s studied, mature orchestration of the Detroit Pistons’ NBA championship last week went a long way toward changing his image among basketball purists. Thomas kept the tempo at a controlled, even pace, which disrupted the fast-breaking Portland Trail Blazers. And when he wasn’t doing that, he was creating something from nothing, with long-distance jump shots, body-twisting drives and steals in the open floor. Six other NBA guards, including teammate Joe Dumars, were selected by the media ahead of Thomas on the three All-NBA teams this season. But by the time the Pistons had beaten the Blazers 92-90 in Game 5 to clinch their second straight championship last Thursday night in Portland, there was only one great guard still playing basketball—Isiah Lord Thomas III.

Key transaction

Lost Rick Mahorn to Minnesota Timberwolves in expansion draft

Associated Press:

Unfortunately for Rick Mahorn, it was the classic "penthouse-to-outhouse“ day.

Mahorn began the day Thursday celebrating the Detroit Pistons‘ National Basketball Association championship in a victory celebration attended by an estimated crowd of 125,000 in Detroit.

Then the Pistons went to a rally attended by 12.000 fans at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich. Mahorn stood up, led the crowd in a “Bad Boys” cheer and publicly thanked general manager Jack McCloskey for convincing him to lose weight and making him a better player. Before Mahorn sat down, he slapped hands with McCloskey.

Mahorn left the podium. Then, at a locker room meeting, McCloskey told the starting forward that he would be playing next season for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who took him in the expansion draft.

As the Pistons paraded through Detroit, McCloskey had a portable phone with him, hoping to call the expansion teams and try to talk them out of taking Mahorn by making a trade.

“It was lousy timing,” McCloskey said.

Mahorn returned to The Palace for a late-season game that got ugly. Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

with 3:40 left, Thomas took a swing at Mahorn after running into him. The blow grazed Mahorn’s shoulder, but Thomas was ejected.

That was a mere prelim. With 14.8 seconds left and Philly leading 105-95, Mahorn slammed home a dunk that seemed to add unnecessary punctuation to the Sixer win. Piston forward Dennis Rodman fouled Mahorn on the play, after which Mahorn made a semitaunting gesture at Rodman, but both the foul and the gesture were minor. The ugliness started in earnest when Laimbeer, trailing the action, arrived on the scene and shoved the ball in Mahorn’s face.

Mahorn did not move to retaliate, just as he had not gone after Thomas a few minutes earlier. (We do not often find Smilin’ Rick on the high road, do we?) But Barkley charged at Laimbeer and landed a couple of punches, including one to Laimbeer’s left eye.

Both benches then cleared, and soon players were grabbing one another and falling to the floor. Detroit reserve forward Scott Hastings landed what referee Jake O’Donnell later called a "sucker punch" on Barkley’s back as bodies rolled around the floor. Mahorn, meanwhile, stayed on the fringe of the melee, at one point severely testing the elasticity of James Edwards’s Piston jersey when he pulled Edwards away from the pile. Mahorn and Edwards are close friends—Barkley would say later that "Rick hates everybody on that team except Vinnie [Johnson] and Edwards"—but as Edwards’s scowl indicated, he didn’t appreciate Mahorn’s attention.

After order was restored and the game was finished—the 76ers won 107-97—several players called the fight, which lasted about 10 minutes, the worst they had seen in the NBA, though no one was hurt.

Trend watch

Repeat

The Pistons won their second straight championship, following the footsteps of the Los Angeles Lakers the two years prior. Detroit made it a trend, and the next eight years were carried by teams winning consecutive championships.

Why this season ranks No. 2

As defending champions, the Pistons opened the season on a 51-15 tear before finishing on an 8-8 stretch. But once the playoffs hit, they kicked into gear again. The Pistons easily dispatched the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks – two teams a few years from making serious noise – in the first two rounds.

That set up Detroit’s third playoff matchup with the Bulls in the last three years – a 4-1 second-round victory followed by a 4-2 conference finals victory. Chicago was closing the gap, but Detroit employed the Jordan Rules to hold off the Bulls one last time. Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

Against the Pistons, the wide-open spaces through which Jordan normally knifes his body often close up. Getting open without the ball, which Jordan normally does by maneuvering Astaire-like through his teammates’ picks, takes on the frantic character of a prison break when Detroit is the opponent. The Pistons can’t spell "uncontested"—they prefer the technique of knocking Jordan to the floor. "Sometimes I wish I could be my teammates looking at that defense," says Jordan. "It must be nice. But it isn’t nice for me."

Okay, it’s not always artful. The Pistons’ mean streak is a key factor in their success with Jordan. To be blunt, they treat him rudely. Shots that would result in three-point plays against other teams don’t even come close when Jordan takes them against Detroit, because he is usually careeemed, not merely fouled. The Pistons have never claimed that they intimidate Jordan, but they have certainly worn him down and chipped away at his seemingly indomitable will to score.

The Pistons aren’t just ornery, though. They also have talent and commitment. "Other teams could play the same way but wouldn’t get the Pistons’ efficiency, because they don’t have the people," says Jordan.

That appeared to be the toughest series the Pistons would face, and they’d cruise to a title over the Portland Trail Blazers. But the Trail Blazers stole Game 2 at The Palace and, suddenly, things looked dicey. Detroit hadn’t won in Portland in 16 years, suffering 20 straight losses. With three straight home games, the Trail Blazers might not even return to The Palace.

They didn’t.

The Pistons won all three in Portland, capped by Vinnie Johnson’s :00.7 shot to win game 5:

Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

The mantle of NBA Champions has never fit comfortably around the broad shoulders of the Detroit Pistons, as deserving as they are to wear it. Something about them is just so different from other champions of recent vintage, like the Lakers and the Celtics. The Pistons win with balance, not superstars. They win with defense, not skyhooks, fast breaks and three-point shooting. And they win not by playing classic, film-library basketball, but by playing ugly, by grinding down their opponents, then gleefully vacuuming up the pieces.

By winning, the Pistons, who had adopted the slogan of Hammer Time, had shifted the narrative. They were still the Bad Boys, but no longer recognized as cheats. Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

The modus operandi for today’s Pistons is, for the most part, hard but not dirty—the court just seems to shrink when they play their brand of manic defense.

Previously

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