Chevette to Corvette No. 37: The 1981-82 Detroit Pistons



  • Actual record: 39-43
  • Pythagorean record: 39-43
  • Offensive Rating: 105.8 (17th of 23)
  • Defensive Rating: 106.6 (11th of 23)
  • Arena: Pontiac Silverdome
  • Head coach: Scotty Robertson


  • Points per game: John Long (21.9)
  • Rebounds per game: Bill Laimbeer (11.3)
  • Assists per game: Isiah Thomas (7.8)
  • Steals per game: Isiah Thomas (2.1)
  • Blocks per game: Terry Tyler (2.0)

Top player

Kelly Tripucka

The Pistons drafted two players in the first round of the 1981 draft: Isiah Thomas (No. 2) and Kelly Tripucka (No. 12). We all know Thomas had a better career, but Tripucka – who played four years at Notre Dame to Thomas’ two at Indiana – came in the league a bit more ready to contribute. Tripucka averaged 21.6 points per game on 50 percent shooting, and he rebounded and passed well enough.

Tripucka even finished 11th in MVP voting, six spots ahead of Thomas.

Key transaction

Drafted Isiah Thomas with No. 2 pick

Keith Langlois of

"There were three players considered ahead of the field for that 1981 draft: Mark Aguirre, a born scorer who’d restored his long-dormant hometown DePaul program to national prominence; Buck Williams, an enforcer at power forward in an era when every NBA team was on the hunt for a bruising tough guy; and Isiah Thomas, the quicksilver sophomore point guard out of Chicago who’d just carried Bobby Knight to the second of his three NCAA titles at Indiana."

Bruce Newman of Sports Illustrated:

"Dallas has the first pick in the draft and now seems likely to use it for Indiana Guard Isiah Thomas, rather than Aguirre. "To be honest with you," says Allen Stone, the Mays’ director of public relations, "we’re a little afraid of what we’ve heard about Aguirre’s attitude problems.""


"Isiah Thomas (G, 6’1", 180 pounds, Indiana) There’s an old NBA axiom that if good centers are hard to find, then good point guards are even harder. Thomas is more than a good point guard, he’s a great one. He’s one of those gifted playmakers who can dominate the entire flow of a game, a rarity for a small man in the NBA. He’s the first guard since Kansas City’s Phil Ford who seems capable of creating his team’s tempo, distributing the ball on the break, reading defenses and realizing who’s hot and making sure that player gets the ball. Moreover, Thomas is a much better shooter than Ford; in fact, he’s a better shooter than any point guard currently in the league."


"Dallas had the first pick and obliged McCloskey by drafting Aguirre after Thomas, as he would tell me several years later, intentionally undermined his own chances to be the No. 1 pick with a lackluster predraft interview with Mavericks management. Among other things, when Mavs owner Donald Carter wanted Thomas to pose for Dallas media by wearing a cowboy hat, he refused."

I don’t exactly buy Thomas’ story. Of course, he’d want people to believe he could’ve been drafted No. 1 if he wanted to be.

Regardless of his reason, Thomas didn’t wear the cowboy hat, Dallas drafted Aguirre, and the Pistons got their man.

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Fast track to success

The Pistons went from 16 to 21 to 39 wins, and their 18-win improvement from the year before matched a franchise high. The mark was more impressive than their previous 18-win improvement,* because the Pistons’ win increase between 1948-49 and 1949-50 was aided by the NBA adding eight games to the schedule.

*Detroit would later have two more 18-win jumps.

Why this season ranks No. 37

Not only did the Pistons draft Isiah Thomas (and Kelly Tripucka) this year, they traded for Bill Laimbeer and Vinnie Johnson this season. The Bad Boys core was beginning to take shape. Anthony Cotton of Sports Illustrated:

"Thomas’s teammates will get used to him and vice versa, but Coach Scotty Robertson isn’t expecting that to happen overnight: "Last year my goal was to be competitive every night. This year I want a team that’s knocking on the door of a break-even season. I know people are going to say, ‘Gee, he isn’t even talking about the playoffs,’ but I’m a realist.""

Robertson’s realism proved correct. The Pistons finished just a bit under .500 and missed the playoffs. That was still their best record in five years.

Long after Detroit’s season ended, Isiah Thomas went to Game 6 of the NBA Finals in Los Angeles. Anthony Cotton of Sports Illustrated:

"For most of his life Isiah Thomas had dreamed of this moment—but the moment wasn’t his. Champagne and merriment flowed freely throughout the locker room of the Los Angeles Lakers last June as they celebrated their winning of the NBA championship, and Thomas took it in with the wide-eyed amazement of a child. Wordlessly he watched as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hoisted his son, Amir, in one arm and the championship trophy in the other and carried them around the room. And he spotted his friend Magic Johnson being mobbed by teammates, journalists and Hollywood stars. Traces of tears appeared in Thomas’ eyes. "Whatever it takes," he said, "I’m going to make sure this happens to me.""