The Bad Boys at 30: Yes, indeed, they’d still be elite in today’s NBA

Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and the Bad Boys would have thrived in today’s NBA just as they did in the rough-and-tumble 1980s and ’90s
Nathaniel S. Butler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – It’s been 30 years since the Bad Boys won their first NBA title, an achievement they’ll acknowledge at Little Caesars Arena on Saturday with the Portland Trail Blazers in town – the team they beat 29 years ago in going back to back.

For every fan who comes to celebrate the memory of that remarkable team, there’ll be at least another – maybe two others – who have no recall or only very fuzzy memories of those Pistons, the first NBA champions in franchise history.

And given the generational instinct to write off what came before as of lesser consequence, you should know that the Pistons built by Jack McCloskey and coached by Chuck Daly – and how McCloskey hasn’t joined Daly in the Hall of Fame remains a black mark on its credibility – were as worthy as any champion the NBA has ever crowned. They rose to prominence despite the existence of two of the NBA’s most lasting dynasties – Larry Bird’s Celtics and Magic Johnson’s Lakers – while holding off the thundering charge of Michael Jordan’s Bulls behind them.

And know this about those 1989 and ’90 Bad Boys: If technology would allow us to reconstitute them today in their exact state of being then, they’d be every bit as formidable and relevant despite the dramatically different nature of today’s NBA.

Or maybe they’d be every bit as formidable and relevant because of the dramatically different nature of today’s NBA.

Start with their Hall of Fame backcourt, Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. Give them today’s rules – no hand checks, no tolerance for third-degree assault when attacking the rim – and they’d be impossible to defend. They’d be Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum on steroids. Big men were the holy grail of NBA front offices in that era. Everybody wants shooters and playmakers now. A Thomas-Dumars backcourt today would be more valued than ever.

But, you object, what about their 3-point shooting?

True, Thomas was a career 29 percent 3-point shooter. It’s because he took very few. His 121 attempts, or 1.5 per game, in that title-winning season of 1989 easily led the Pistons. That’s two weeks for Steph Curry.

Nearly all of Thomas’ triples were chucked up to beat the shot clock. None of them were taken as part of the blueprint unless the Pistons were down three in the final seconds. If you’d have said “analytics” in an NBA locker room in 1989, you’d have gotten the same puzzled looks as if you’d told players that one day people would pay to watch other people pretend to be NBA players playing video games.

Today’s Isiah Thomas at the same point in his career he was while the Bad Boys were winning titles would take 40 percent of his 3-point shots from the arc and make them at close to 40 percent. So gifted and so singular minded was Thomas, whatever he focused on he became outrageously successful at doing. He’d be a tremendous 3-point shooter under today’s rules and the obsessive emphasis on creating open threes.

And forget trying to guard him off the dribble in that case. Also, he shot 34.6 from the arc in playoff games and hit 11 of 16 in winning MVP of the 1990 Finals. Yeah, don’t think he wouldn’t have been on the leading edge of the 3-point revolution.

Dumars’ career started and ended just long enough after Thomas’ that he wound up making more of the 3-point line. In fact, he was a pioneer. Dumars came to the NBA as an attacking guard and developed a sophisticated post-up and mid-range game. He never shot more than 55 triples in a season over his first six years, then took six a game in his last two seasons. By the end of his career, more than half of his attempts were triples and he shot them at 40 percent or better.

Now throw Vinnie Johnson into the mix. Today, given Dumars’ elite defense and ability to guard bigger players, Daly would have worn teams out using all three to close out games. Death lineup? Put Dennis Rodman with them as a rim runner and to smother opposition offenses together with the three guards and whichever other one from Daly’s deep bench fit best – Mark Aguirre or John Salley or Bill Laimbeer or James Edwards or Rick Mahorn – and good luck matching up with that.

Laimbeer absolutely would translate to today’s game. He practically invented the pick-and-pop big man so integral to today’s offense. Aguirre would have adored a coach who encouraged 3-point shooting and become an even more devastating force. All the space created by the shooting of their big men and the lethal slashing ability of their guards would have amplified Rodman’s historically great offensive rebounding.

Beyond all of that, there is something else you should know about the Bad Boys, something that transcends rules changes or fads or eras: They were beyond any shadow of a doubt the most tough-minded, fearless, orneriest cast of competitors as ever existed in American professional sports.

That travels. So if you’re among the crowd when the members of the 1989 and ’90 championship Pistons take their bow at Little Caesars Arena and someone who didn’t experience them asks you how they’d do against Golden State or Milwaukee or the best of today, you let them know: The Bad Boys would do just fine. Just fine, indeed.

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