Building the Bad Boys
Jonathan Daniel (NBAE/Getty)
Building the Bad Boys
by Ryan Pretzer
On Tuesday, Pistons.com revisited the early years of Jack McCloskey’s tenure as Pistons GM, which included the drafting of Isiah Thomas and Kelly Tripucka, trades for Vinnie Johnson and Bill Laimbeer and the hiring of head coach Chuck Daly. This nucleus ended the Pistons’ seven-year playoff drought in 1984, but McCloskey knew there was still work to be done.
“I mean, we were there”
Following their first-round playoff exit in 1984, the Pistons went 46-36 each of the next two seasons and even won their first playoff series in nine years in 1985. But a first-round loss to Atlanta in 1986 compelled McCloskey to tinker again. That summer McCloskey sent Tripucka and Kent Benson to Utah for another prolific scorer, Adrian Dantley. “Kelly was an outstanding player for us but was not an inside power player,” McCloskey explained. “Adrian, even despite his size, was a power player inside, so that was the difference and why we made that trade.”
After hitting the jackpot twice in 1981, McCloskey struggled to find dependable contributors in subsequent drafts. That changed when he plucked guard Joe Dumars from McNeese State in 1985. The following June he added length and athleticism in 6-foot-11 shot swatter John Salley and the tireless 6- foot-7 Dennis Rodman. McCloskey’s maneuvers helped the Pistons make the leap to serious championship contention. The 52 regular-season victories were legitimized by a remarkable postseason run. They reached the Eastern Conference Finals under the current playoff format for the first time in franchise history and squared off against the defending NBA champion Boston Celtics.
After splitting the first four games, the Pistons were on the verge of stealing Game 5 at the Boston Garden. Then Larry Bird stole the inbounds pass from Thomas and passed to a trailing Dennis Johnson for a layup. Seventeen seconds away from a 107-106 victory, the Pistons lost 108-107. The Celtics took a 3-2 series lead and prevailed at the Garden in Game 7.
In 1987-88, the Pistons won a franchise-record 54 games, their first Central Division title and their rematch with the Celtics in the conference finals. The Pistons carried the momentum to Los Angeles, where they stunned the Lakers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. The Pistons also won games 4 and 5 at the Silverdome and were one minute away from clinching the championship in Game 6, leading the Lakers, 102-101. This time, a steal would not be the Pistons’ undoing but rather a questionable foul called on Bill Laimbeer. Two free throws by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar provided the last, crushing points of the night: Lakers 103, Pistons 102. As the Celtics had done the year before, the Lakers closed out the Pistons in Game 7 at home, 108-105, to retain their NBA crown.
“Those two losses were devastating to me. I mean, we were there, and we made mistakes. We made mistakes, and we literally blew two championships away,” McCloskey said. “But the thing that is eye opening is that very few people and teams could come back after two such very disastrous results and then win two world championships after that. That was the thing that showed me that they had this tremendous intensity and competitive feeling.”
Dumars: “Pinnacle of my career”
The Pistons moved to The Palace of Auburn Hills for the 1988-89 season and it was probably for the best. The Silverdome now held too many painful reminders of championships that had slipped away. The new surroundings were not enough for McCloskey, who felt his team needed another shake-up. Dantley’s prowess as a scorer on the low block was the reason McCloskey brought him to Detroit. Three seasons later, the emergence of Dumars and other contributors required a more free-flowing offense with greater ball movement, which meant fewer passes to Dantley in the post. The fundamental shift led to some discontent.
“Dantley was having some trouble relating to the coaches. And I sat down and talked to him and said, ‘You’ve got to sit down with Chuck and whatever problem you have, work it out.’ He refused to do that,” McCloskey said. “So I said, ‘If you don’t do it, I’m going to trade you,’ and we got a heck of a player for him. Adrian was an outstanding player too, but our chemistry was not good.”
The Dantley-Aguirre swap was consummated on Feb. 15. The Pistons, who were 32-13 when the deal went down, rediscovered their edge. They lost only eight games the next five months and went 44-6 with Aguirre in the starting lineup. Aguirre, who like Tripucka and Dantley was one of the NBA’s top scorers in the ‘80s, accepted a less prominent role offensively and turned out to be the final piece to the Pistons’ championship puzzle.
Ironically, had the Mavericks chosen Thomas instead of Aguirre with the No. 1 pick in 1981, he might have been the first piece. The quirk of fate was not lost on Aguirre. “I think Mark did (realize it),” McCloskey said, breaking into his familiar, hearty laugh. “Because he’s always talked to me about that.”
Nathaniel S. Butler (NBAE/Getty)
“In terms of playing, no question about it, the pinnacle of my career, to win a world championship in the NBA and to be the Finals MVP,” Dumars said. “There is absolutely nothing on the basketball court you can do from an individual standpoint that can top that, so it’s the pinnacle for me in terms of my playing days.”
The celebration was bittersweet for Rick Mahorn, who found himself an ex-Piston just two days after Game 4. The Minnesota Timberwolves swiped the bruising forward in the expansion draft. McCloskey acquired Mahorn from Washington in 1985 for his intimidating defense and desperately wanted to keep him. He preferred to expose Johnson, whom other expansion teams had declined to take the year before. “But the coaches felt Rick’s back was a big problem at the time and they convinced me Rick would be the guy who could go on that list and people would pass on him,” McCloskey said. “I put him on there, and that was not the case.”
One Bad Boy short, the Pistons carried on. The 1990 championship encore came to the tune of 59 victories, a tougher challenge in another conference finals showdown with Chicago and a five-game dismantling of the Portland Trail Blazers in the finals. Thomas was named Finals MVP, fortifying his Hall of Fame credentials.
“Obviously you feel very emotional about the fact we built a team that won two championships. It’s just an amazing thing,” McCloskey said. “I think that if we had won those two prior games [against Boston and Los Angeles], I think the Detroit Pistons would be ranked as one of the great teams of all-time. But that didn’t happen, and I think we’re ranked as an outstanding team with those two championships.”
“It was that simple”
McCloskey had constructed the Pistons to overtake the giants of the 1980s, the Celtics and Lakers, and they had done so in epic fashion. But it left them vulnerable to new challengers. After three consecutive playoff defeats to the Pistons, the Bulls smashed through in the 1991 conference finals.
The Pistons’ two-year reign ended in a sweep at the hands of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. A new era in NBA basketball had dawned, and McCloskey’s Pistons would not be a part of it. As the final seconds of Game 4 dwindled away, television cameras followed Thomas, Laimbeer and others as they walked off the court and toward the tunnel, where McCloskey was waiting.
Thomas retired three years later, his last game ended unceremoniously by an Achilles tendon injury. By then, McCloskey was general manager of the Timberwolves. He stepped down as Pistons GM the next spring, in 1992. And so the ending that Pistons fans most fondly remember is that Game 4 defeat at The Palace, where a raucous crowd saluted its two-time champions for the last time. It was outside the tunnel that McCloskey and Thomas, the architect and the leader, said goodbye to the Bad Boys.
“It was just an emotional moment for me, that ‘OK, this proud group of guys that won two championships was finally defeated’ and I thought it was going to be tough on them. I always felt part of it,” he said. “It was tough on me, too.”
Through keen evaluation and calculated risk, McCloskey had assembled the greatest teams in Pistons history. He had kept the nucleus of those teams together far longer than most GMs would today. Johnson’s series-clinching jumper in Game 5 of the ’90 Finals came eight years after he came to Detroit. How many teams could keep the same bench player in the same role that long?
“I kept them together as long as they could play well,” McCloskey reasoned. “It’s that simple.”
And that is how you build a champion.