Much like now, 40 years ago the Detroit Pistons were clawing their way back to respectability. They did not quite manage a winning record, but set themselves up for future success.
While the ‘Bad Boys’ and ‘Goin to Work’ NBA championship are still fondly remembered by Detroit fans (whether they were alive at the time or not), there was a very long period of time where the Pistons were not part of title talk.
How long? Well, between 1956 (when they were still in Fort Wayne) and 1988, the Pistons never made an NBA finals. That is 32 years of watching other teams play for a title.
Things finally turned around in the late ’80s, with an appearance in the finals in 1988 and championships in 1989 and 1990.
But the ‘Bad Boys’ did not suddenly pop up out of nowhere. It was a slow, process of building by general manager Jack McCloskey began in 1980, when he took over running the club from Dick Vitale (Yes, Dickey V!).
By the 1982-83 season Detroit was hoping for its first playoff appearance in six years. They had gone 39-43 and almost made the playoffs the year before so fans expectations were higher than since the Bob Lanier era.
Coach Scotty Robertson had come with McCloskey in 1980 and provided stability, entering his third season.
Some of the pieces for the later title teams were already present, Isiah Thomas, Vinnie Johnson and Bill Laimbeer. They also had Kelly Tripucka, who was a star in his own right before injuries curtailed his career. He led the team with 26.5 points average and scored a team-record 56 points against Chicago..
Former University of Detroit standouts John Long and Terry Tyler, holdovers from the Vitale era, were also contributors.
Maybe the Larry Bird-led Boston Celtics or the Philadelphia 76ers of Julius ‘Dr. J’ Erving were not shaking in their boots about facing this team, but, on paper, it looked like a decent team.
Detroit Pistons misfire, miss playoffs
It appeared the high hopes for the season would be realized. The Pistons opened the season, 7-2, with one of its losses to the 76ers. They were 12-6 after a win over the Spurs, but things went downhill after that.
In March, they lost seven of eight games to knock themselves out of playoff contention. Detroit finished the season losing its last two games, and finished with a record of 37-45, two games worse than the previous year.
The regression cost Robertson his job. McCloskey decided to hire a coach with an career record as a head coach of 9-32 in Chuck Daly. The move seemed to work out, as the Pistons went 49-33 the following year and made the playoffs.
Similarities to the 1982-83 Detroit Pistons and this years?
There are not exactly the same circumstances (Detroit in 1982 was coming off 39 wins while the Pistons won 23 last year) but there are definite similarities between the teams.
The Pistons of 40 years ago were also young (remember this is a time when many played four years of college) in terms of experience. It had only one player over 30 (backup center Tom Owens) and no experience in being on a winning teams.
The 2022-23 Detroit Pistons are also young (12 players 24 or under) and all the homegrown players have known nothing but a lot of losing.
While it remains to be seen if the foursome of Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart will be as successful as Thomas, Tripucka, Johnson and Laimbeer, they bring a sense of optimism to fans, just like those players 40 years ago.
The lesson of 1982-83 to be drawn?
Success is not linear. Sometimes to take two steps forward, a team has to take a step back.
So, if this year’s Pistons do not have a much better record than last year, that does not mean they have hit a detour on the road to success. It can be just a little bump, like the 1982-83 Detroit Pistons.