Career Crossroads

Five years into his NBA career, frustration started to gnaw at Isiah Thomas. The individual accolades had come early and often. The Pistons were a mess when Isiah joined them, fresh off of leading Indiana to the NCAA title as a sophomore. They had won 16 and 21 games, digging out from the Dick Vitale era, in the two years before Jack McCloskey used the No. 2 pick in the 1981 draft to land him.

He immediately drove them to 39 wins in a rookie season so impressive he became the rare first-year player to be named to the All-Star team. He’d earned first team All-NBA honors in 1984, ’85 and ’86 (and never again, a testament to both the star quality of the NBA at that time, with Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan putting the first-team backcourt spots in a vise grip, and to the depth and talent the Pistons would subsequently surround him with as his gaudy numbers dipped to accommodate those talented teammates). He was All-Star MVP in both 1984 and ’86.

Isiah loved the acclaim all of those individual achievements delivered for him. But he had come to know, if he hadn’t always known as much, that the only thing that confers greatness on star players is leading his team to an NBA championship. I’m not sure what drove him more: winning an NBA championship or achieving the exclusive status that automatically attaches itself to the leaders of NBA champions, but it hardly matters.

(And Isiah came to wholeheartedly believe that the barometer for greatness in the NBA necessarily started with the “championships won” category. After his playing days, I had a spirited discussion with him on that fact regarding a certain great player who never won a title but has since been voted to the Hall of Fame. I contended the player deserved inclusion in any discussion of all-time greats; Isiah staunchly disagreed. When I asked why, he held up one hand and pointed to the ring finger with the other.)

I don’t think Isiah ever loved individual acclaim more than winning, but if he ever did … well, I’m pretty sure I know the moment he crossed over: April 25, 1986.

That was the day Atlanta scored 114 points to eliminate the Pistons, three games to one, in a first-round playoff series in which the Hawks averaged 130 points a game in their three wins. Dominique Wilkins did enormous damage to them, averaging 37 in those three Hawks wins and dominating his matchup with Kelly Tripucka.

“All I know,” Isiah would say, eyes fixed straight ahead and locked on nothing in particular, jaw firmly set, amid the spartan if spacious locker room underneath the stands at the Silverdome, “is something has to change next year.”

The Pistons had stagnated in the three years in which Isiah earned first-team All-NBA, winning 49, 49 and 46 games while the Celtics and Lakers took turns winning the title.

The Pistons had Bill Laimbeer anchoring the middle and they’d added Joe Dumars in the previous draft. Isiah was sold on them. He loved Laimbeer’s toughness and saw something of himself in Dumars. When the Pistons went to training camp to start Joe D’s second season, I was in Windsor talking to Thomas about the rookie season Dumars had put in. “You all don’t know it yet,” he told me, “but Joe can do everything I can do.”

But as he sat and pondered what a first-round playoff exit meant, my sense was that Isiah felt outmanned. Other than a Thomas-Laimbeer-Dumars core, and Vinnie Johnson as instant offense off the bench, the Pistons just didn’t have enough to knock heads with the NBA’s powers. To Isiah, they must have seemed miles away from seriously challenging the bicoastal reign of Boston and Los Angeles, the league’s lasting dynasties anchored by transcendent stars Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

Instead of getting closer to them, as the expectation for a young team naturally would have been, the Pistons seemed to be slipping farther behind. If there was a young challenger emerging in the East, it now appeared to be Atlanta, with 7-footers Tree Rollins and Kevin Willis and the dynamic scoring of Wilkins.

But Isiah, who never counted patience among his virtues, knew winning titles ultimately meant the Pistons had to build a team that could bang through Boston’s door. It galled him to lose to Atlanta, but his focus was on Boston, and I think on that April day in 1986 he had a hard time imagining the Pistons could add enough pieces fast enough for his liking to mount a threat to the Celtics of Bird, Parish and McHale.

Much did change that summer, probably more than Isiah could have dared to hope.

There were many individuals and factors responsible for what the Bad Boys would become: the maneuverings of McCloskey and the amazingly even-handed coaching of Chuck Daly; the X-factor incoming rookies John Salley and Dennis Rodman provided and the depth of talent their drafting supplied the Pistons; the low-post scoring Adrian Dantley brought and the toughness at power forward the Pistons had long sought when Rick Mahorn bulled his way into the lineup; the blossoming of Dumars into a full-fledged star and the way the Pistons responded to disappointments that could have crushed men of lesser fiber.

But don’t overlook one other important change: Isiah Thomas.

He went from the crack-the-whip point guard for one of the league’s most explosive offenses to the orchestrator who drew back on the accelerator to allow a team built to grind and punish to play the half-court style that best suited them.

On some level, that had to run counter to his instincts. Perhaps it was his time at Indiana under Knight that taught him the value of sublimating individual strengths so a team could realize its potential. There was no compromise in Knight on that score. He’d never had anyone like Isiah and never would again, but that didn’t mean Knight took to the task of breaking his friskiest colt with any less fervor.

(Aside: In the last True Blue Pistons, we talked about how Knight likely enabled the Pistons to draft Dumars by making him one of the final cuts for the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. Now we’re speculating that Knight’s iron fist might have contributed to Thomas willingly sublimating his individual skills for the betterment of his team. Perhaps the Pistons should send an honorary championship ring to Mr. Knight.)

Isiah Thomas was as dynamic an offensive player for his size (I can see him wince as I write “for his size;” the truth is, he was among the most dynamic offensive players of any size, ever) as anyone who had ever played the game, yet he willingly made the transition to lead a team known foremost for its defense.

And “willingly” doesn’t even really do it justice. Isiah embraced the image the Pistons adopted – the chip-on-the-shoulder bunch that could only have worked by hanging their hats on defense and toughness. I don’t think anyone ever pulled him aside and said, “You know, Isiah, for the good of the team, we need to change our style, and as our best player and leader, that change has to start with you.”

It’s something he came to all by himself. I’m not sure when the process might have begun, but I’m pretty sure I know when he knew it was complete.

In the next True Blue Pistons, we’ll look back at one of the biggest pieces of the transition of the Pistons to champions.