The incumbent starters to open the season were Isiah Thomas, who at 25 already had been a four-time All-Star and a two-time All-NBA first-team selection who was well on his way to the Hall of Fame status he would eventually claim; and John Long, who had averaged 16.7 points a game in the first six years of his NBA career and was one of the league’s top stand-still shooters.
Behind them was Vinnie Johnson, the face of sixth men for his generation and newly dubbed “The Microwave” for the 22-point fourth quarter he’d laid on the Larry Bird-led Boston Celtics in a Pistons playoff win the previous spring that forced a Game 6 in Boston Garden.
And added to the mix was the draft choice McCloskey knew he’d stolen with the No. 18 pick, Joe Dumars, good enough as a rookie to force his way into the starting lineup before the season’s midway point and wind up averaging 9.4 points and 4.8 assists while shooting nearly 50 percent and exhibiting the type of defense that would eventually lead him to become Michael Jordan’s greatest nemesis just a few years down the road.
Chuck Daly’s practices that year … well, practices that year helped set the stage for the championships they would win four three and four years later.
“We had a unit before Joe got there that was a force to be reckoned with,” Long said. “You start with Isiah and myself and then bring Vinnie in the game for either one of us and there wasn’t a whole lot of change. You had to guard the three of us. That made our practices so competitive. You play against the best competition every day, it takes your game to another level.
“We were so competitive going against each other in practice, it made the game easy. It was no picnic in practice every day. We had some wars in practice. When we were going against other guards, it was a cakewalk. Every day in practice prepared us for game situations.”
Long asked for a trade following the 1985-86 season – the Pistons needed frontcourt depth, Dumars was entrenched as the starter and Johnson as sixth man, so he was the odd man out – but returned to a transformed Pistons team in February 1989. Dennis Rodman, John Salley, James Edwards and Mark Aguirre had been added to the frontcourt and the Pistons were poised to butt heads with the Lakers in the NBA Finals.
The practice backcourt competition he recalled was still there – with promising young point guard Micheal Williams added to the mix, it was even hotter – but suddenly a second unit of Rodman, Salley and Edwards up front made the frontcourt battles just as intense.
“We prepared and went at one another,” Long said. “We wanted the competition. Every single day, it was a war in practice. Chuck loved it. We flat-out went at one another. Our second group – when you’re talking about Salley and Rodman and James Edwards and Vinnie and myself going up against (Bill Laimbeer) and Rick (Mahorn), Isiah and Joe and those guys, we felt we were just as good as the starters. When Chuck came in with guys off the bench, he didn’t lose anything.
“Chuck used to have a saying: ‘I’m going to go golf, but I tell you right now, we can go hard an hour and 15 minutes or if you want to be here messing around, we’ll go longer.’ We’d go at it hard for an hour and 15 and he didn’t want to see any more. He knew we were well-prepared for those games. When we played other teams, we knew what we went through in practice every single day.”
The depth they enjoyed allowed Daly to turn his players loose in practice. He didn’t have to worry about holding players back because he didn’t ask anyone to play 40 minutes a night.
“We would say that how you practice is how you play in games,” Long said. “Even when I was at the University of Detroit, our practices were so competitive, the second unit was putting a lot of pressure on you. You had to play. That prepared you and made you better. The same thing applied in the pros. Our practices were unbelievable. You wouldn’t have it any other way. The last thing you want to do is practice every single day and not get anything out of it. Practice is to prepare you for game situations, so when it came time for the game you’ve already worked on everything. You know what you have to do.”
They did it well enough to take two NBA titles home to The Palace.