The Spider. The Worm. The Microwave. Zeke. Buddha. Lambs. Daddy Rich. Bad Boys. These are the names that stick with us in Detroit. The Bad Boys-era Pistons changed the way the game was played. Outside of Detroit, they were hated, but here, they were adored. But it was a long road from the beginning, when Jack McCloskey drafted a reluctant Isiah Thomas in 1981 NBA draft, to the building of the Palace of Auburn Hills prior to the 1988-89 season, to the pinnacle 25 years ago this June, the defeat of the legendary Lakers in the NBA Finals. That dominating victory cemented the Bad Boys as one of the greatest teams to ever take the court in the history of the NBA. Over the next two weeks, Swami looks back at the rise, dominance, and fall of the Bad Boys, the team you either loved or hated.
Setting the Stage
After a decade of trades and draft picks, Jack McCloskey had built a team centered around the play of Isiah Thomas. He had brought in Vinnie Johnson, Bill Laimbeer, Joe Dumars, Rick Mahorn, John Salley, Dennis Rodman, and Adrian Dantley. These core players brought on a change in the NBA, an era of physical play that the likes of had never been seen before. They became known as the Bad Boys for their rough play and fighting on-court with rivals like the Celtics and the 76ers. They had risen from the depths of the NBA to the NBA Finals. Now entering the 1988-89 season, they had a new arena, the Palace of Auburn Hills, and an Eastern Conference title to defend.
The 1988-89 Pistons were the favorite to win the title for most experts in the preseason, but halfway through, something looked amiss. Everything started coming to a head at a game in Boston, when Chuck Daly wanted Dennis Rodman in late in the game, only for Adrian Dantley to refuse to leave the court. Dantley and Daly got into a screaming match, which continued back in Detroit. Daly was looking out for the best interests of the team, while Dantley thought his shooting was key, that he was the difference maker of the team. Soon after, the Pistons traded Dantley to the Mavericks for the final piece, Mark Aguirre. Aguirre was the only player picked ahead of Isiah in the 1979 NBA Draft, and grew up next door to Isiah. They had been friends for years, and this has led towards an animosity over the years, as Dantley contends that Isiah went to Trader Jack and pushed for the trade. Isiah and Trader Jack deny this to this day. The stage was now set.
Bad Boys For Life“The biggest problem was the Detroit Pistons. They kicked our asses.” – Pat Riley, Lakers coach, 1988-89 NBA Finals
In the 1988-89 Eastern Conference Finals, the Pistons once again faced Michael Jordan and the Bulls. After a tough loss in Chicago, Isiah went to sit and think about how to stop Jordan. He came up with what became known as The Jordan Rules, forcing Jordan inside into aggressive double and triple teams. With no real supporting cast in Chicago yet, Jordan was rendered ineffective, and the Pistons returned to the Finals to face the Lakers again.
The Lakers were getting old. They had shared dominance with the Celtics for most of the last decade. They were tired and old. The Bad Boys strategy was to wear them down, starting with Magic Johnson. They had Joe Dumars run plays against Magic multiple times in a row. The strategy worked, as a pulled hamstring late in Game 2 effectively ended the usefulness of Magic for the series. The focus shifted to James Worthy, who Rodman was matched up with, and Rodman played mental ball, getting inside Worthy’s head. Worthy broke during Game 4, and the Pistons completed the sweep at the Forum in Los Angeles, becoming the NBA Champions. In the locker room, the chants were heard and broadcast to the world. “Baaaaad Boys! Baaaaad Boys!”, and they were Bad Boys indeed, physically intimidating their way to the top of the pile, amassing previously unheard of amounts in fines for fouls.
The glory of the Finals win shortly became bittersweet, as the NBA Expansion Draft was held the day the Bad Boys returned to Detroit. No team could protect more than eight players, and the core Bad Boys numbered ten. During the festivities at the new Palace of Auburn Hills, the Bad Boys were informed that the new Minnesota Timberwolves had selected Rick Mahorn, who was one of the most intimidating forces in the Bad Boys lineup. When the Bad Boys visited the White House, Isiah mentioned the loss of Mahorn an said “This WAS the Bad Boys. There can only be one Bad Boys basketball team, and this was it, and there can never be another one.”
Repeat and Finale
“You had to be mentally tough and physically tough to beat them.” – Michael Jordan
After the loss of Mahorn, the Bad Boys looked lost. It took Mark Aguirre removing himself from the lineup for Dennis Rodman for the Bad Boys to return. Rodman was given the opportunity, and rose to it, winning the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award in 1989-90. The Bad Boys, despite what Isiah had said, were still the Bad Boys.
In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bulls were starting to come into their own. The Jordan Rules no longer applied; Jordan was bigger, stronger, and tougher. He also had some help now as Scottie Pippen was coming into his own. The Pistons changed strategy, let Jordan run wild, and focused on mentally breaking Pippen. It worked, and the Bad Boys wrapped it up in seven, and took the Portland Trailblazers in 5 to repeat as champions.
But all fairy tales come to an end, and for the Bad Boys, the end was the following season. The NBA had adopted a flagrant foul rule, stifling the Bad Boys gritty play. The Pistons once again returned to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Bulls, but the Bulls were even better than the previous years, and took the first three games. The Bulls forged a huge lead in Game 4, and that set the stage for the most controversial end to a great team in NBA history, if not in all of professional sports.
The Bulls had a double digit lead with 7.9 seconds left at the Palace in Game 4. Suddenly, and without warning, the Pistons bench cleared as players and coaches walked off the court. The Bad Boys were finished. The press jumped on this, and, as with all things related to the Bad Boys during their time, the blame fell on the shoulders of Isiah Thomas. Many in the press, including in the Detroit media, believed Isiah was behind the team leaving the court, not shaking the hands of the Bulls. It was perceived as the actions of a sore loser, and Isiah was the pariah, even possibly being the cause of his exclusion from the NBA Dream Team in 1992. However…“Oh yeah, I was the one that was the instigator of walking off the court,” says Bill Laimbeer proudly in the recent ESPN documentary Bad Boys. “Did it feel good for me? AB-SOL-UTE-LY.”
Aftermath and Legacy
It took 10 years and 38 trades for Trader Jack McCloskey to build the Bad Boys, but as it is in professional sports, it took a lot less to tear them down. Within 2 years, Chuck Daly and McCloskey were gone, Rodman had left for the Spurs, older veterans were traded away, and core players, like Laimbeer and Isiah, started to fight. The end had come, as Laimbeer retired before the 1993-94 season, and Isiah at the end. Joe Dumars was the lone remaining Bad Boy, and he stuck around until 1999.
The legacy lives on though. Michael Jordan credits the Bad Boys with pushing the Bulls to their best, saying “I don’t think we would have won those six championships without getting over that hump of Detroit.” Strong words from a man who 23 years ago said the NBA, and the world, would be a better place without the Pistons.
In the beginning, you had Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Afterwards, you had Michael Jordan. All three were in the league at the same time, all three dominating the game. But for two years, an unlikely team from an unlikely city rose up, making everyone forget the glitz and the glamour of those three, with their no-holds-barred, no-backing-down style of gritty play, so tough the powers that be had to make stricter rules to stop them. The Bad Boys. OUR Bad Boys.