Point guard Isiah Thomas led the 1988-89 Pistons in points, assists, and steals.

For years the Detroit Pistons had been knocking on the door, having risen from a 16-66 record in 1979-80 to become one of the league's strongest teams in the mid-to-late 1980s under Coach Chuck Daly. In 1986-87 it was Boston that barred the way, defeating Detroit in a spirited seven-game Eastern Conference Final. The Pistons overcame that hurdle the next season, beating Boston in six games, but were thwarted by the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, losing in seven games after having led the series 3-2. In 1988-89, the Pistons finally overcame their last hurdle and won their first NBA championship in franchise history.

The Pistons combined a tough, physical frontcourt that thrived on its Bad Boys image with a trio of skilled guards who combined for nearly 50 points per game. Bill Laimbeer (13.7 ppg, a team-high 9.6 rpg) and Rick Mahorn (7.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg), two rugged players who delighted in setting solid picks, were the starters at the power positions, backed up by veteran James Edwards (7.3 ppg) and third-year pros Dennis Rodman (9.0 ppg, 9.4 rpg and a league-leading .595 FG percentage) and John Salley (7.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg). Mahorn was a bruiser, while Laimbeer, who cultivated the image of a villain, was unusual for a center in that he was not much of a post player, but possessed a soft shooting touch that was accurate from three-point range. Edwards was the best low-post threat in the group, while Rodman was just coming into his own as a defender and rebounder and Salley could be an effective scorer and shotblocker.

Mark Aguirre (15.5 ppg), obtained in a midseason trade for Adrian Dantley and a first-round pick, was a gifted offensive talent at small forward. Point guard Isiah Thomas (18.2 ppg, 8.3 apg, 1.67 spg, all team highs), whose arrival in 1981 signaled the Pistons' turnaround, was the team's unquestioned leader and its driving force. His angelic face belied a fierce competitiveness that drove himself and his teammates all season. Thomas' backcourt partner, Joe Dumars (17.2 ppg), was a solid scorer and defender whose quiet demeanor contrasted sharply with the blustery nature of so many of his teammates. Completing the backcourt trio was Vinnie Johnson (13.8 ppg), a stocky shooter who was nicknamed "the Microwave" by Boston's Danny Ainge "because he heats up in a hurry."

With Dumars and Rodman making the All-Defensive First Team, the Pistons limited their opponents to 100.8 ppg and a field goal percentage of .447, ranking second in the NBA in both categories. Detroit closed with a rush, posting a 16-1 record in March, and won a franchise-record 63 games, best in the NBA. Detroit swept Boston and Milwaukee in the first two rounds of the playoffs, then beat Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in six games to earn an NBA Finals rematch against the Lakers, who had gone 11-0 in winning the Western Conference.

But Lakers guard Byron Scott suffered a severe hamstring injury prior to Game 1, and the Pistons' guard trio took advantage of his absence by combining for 65 points in a 109-97 win. When Magic Johnson pulled his hamstring during the third quarter of a tight Game 2 and had to leave the game, Detroit rallied to win 108-105. Magic could manage just five minutes at the start of Game 3, and without him the Lakers fought gamely but couldn't deal with Detroit's strength and depth. Dumars, the NBA Finals MVP, scored 31 points, including 17 in a row in the third quarter, and came up with a clutch blocked shot in the closing seconds as Detroit took Game 3 114-110, then completed the Finals sweep with a 105-97 decision in Game 4.