|Detroit Pistons: 1980 - 1990|
It is often said that building championships takes time. For the Pistons, it had been 30 years, when William Davidson handed the reigns of the franchise to Jack McCloskey in December 1979. The team would hit rock bottom during the 1979-80 season, with a franchise worst 16-66 record. The season culminated with the Pistons trading the franchise’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder, Bob Lanier to Milwaukee for Kent Benson and a first round draft pick.
Though the road would be long, McCloskey began laying a foundation for success. After being turned down by Sixers assistant coach Chuck Daly, the team hired Scotty Robertson as head coach. The season was marred by injuries to Bob McAdoo, John Long and Kent Benson. The team finished the season with a record of 21-61, but the most important outcome of the season was the Pistons number two pick in the 1981 NBA Draft.
In a span of nine months, “Trader Jack” would change the future of the franchise. He drafted All-American Isiah Thomas from Indiana and Kelly Tripucka out of Notre Dame. He also traded for two players underutilized on their rosters, Bill Laimbeer and Vinnie Johnson. The team would finish with a record of 39-43, two more wins than the previous two years combined. Attendance set a new record of 406,317 fans and Thomas and Tripucka would highlight their rookie seasons with trips to the All-Star Game.
The Pistons now had the offensive firepower to become a contender, but the 1982-83 season showed that even in the NBA, you have to play defense. The Pistons gave up an average of 113.1 points per game, sealing the fate of coach Scotty Robertson. The team finished with a record of 37-45, but optimism filled the locker room.
The 1983-84 Pistons would turn another corner on their championship drive. McCloskey hired a relatively inexperienced head coach from Cleveland named Chuck Daly. The Pistons followed the lead of All-Star MVP and first team All-NBA Isiah Thomas to a 49-33 record, one game behind Central Division champion Milwaukee. The New York Knicks, behind 42.6 points per game from Bernard King, would defeat the Pistons in a hard fought five game first round series. All this despite a brilliant performance by Thomas, who scored 16 points in the final 65 seconds of regulation to send Game Five to overtime.
The Pistons continued to progress during the 1984-85 season, finishing with a 46-36 record. Heavy snowfall caused millions of dollars in damages to the Silverdome, forcing the Pistons to move to Joe Louis Arena for the conclusion of the season, where they won 11 of their 15 games, including two playoff games. The Pistons swept the New Jersey Nets 3-0, winning their first playoff series since 1976. Though the Pistons would lose to the Boston Celtics 4-2 in the conference semifinals, the series gave the fans a taste of the future.
As the individual accolades continued to mount for Thomas and Laimbeer, the 1985-86 Pistons could only repeat the 46 wins of the previous year. The additions of rookie Joe Dumars, the 18th pick out of McNeese State, and inside muscle Rick Mahorn solidified the team’s nucleus. Exiting the playoffs in the first round was a huge surprise and exposed Detroit’s defensive weaknesses. Changes needed to be made to make the Pistons a more tough, defensive-minded team.
The Pistons would begin the 1986-87 season with four new players: John Salley, a 6’11” center from Georgia tech, Dennis Rodman, a 6’8” forward from tiny Southeast Oklahoma State, two-time NBA scoring champion Adrian Dantley, and rebounder Sidney Green. Though the roster would take time to develop, the team would finish the regular season 52-30, equaling the best record in franchise history. They would win seven of their first eight playoff games, defeat Washington and Atlanta, to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics. If not for one incredible play by Celtics forward Larry Bird in Game Five, the Pistons would have earned their first berth in the NBA Finals. Though the Pistons would win Game Six, Game Seven proved too much for the Pistons. The Pistons learned that to get to the Finals, they would have to overcome the leprechauns of the Boston Celtics.
If the 1986-87 postseason taught the Pistons the importance of every second, the 1987-88 postseason would give them the opportunity to put into practice what they had learned. The Pistons won their first Central Division crown with a 54-28 record. They would dispose of Washington and Chicago before, again, advancing to the Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics. The Pistons learned well and advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time with a 4-2 series win, including a 104-96 victory in Game One to break the team’s 21-game losing skid in the Boston Garden. With a three games to two lead in the 1988 NBA Finals, the lesson of every second counting would have to be re-learned by the Pistons. After a “phantom foul” on Bill Laimbeer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hit two free throws for a 103-102 lead with eight seconds left and the Lakers would hold on to win Game Six. Isiah Thomas scored a Finals record 25 points in the third quarter and finished with another Finals record six steals, all on a severely sprained ankle. Though they battled until the end, the Pistons came up three points short in Game Seven 108-105, playing the final 10:22 without Thomas.
The Pistons began the 1988-89 season with a new home and a new determination. November 5, 1988 would mark the first time since moving to the Motor City 30 years earlier that the Pistons had a home of their own. The Palace of Auburn Hills would become the crown jewel of NBA arenas. Located 30 miles north of Detroit, The Palace became an $80 million show place; a new standard for sports and entertainment venues. The Pistons finished the regular season with an NBA-best record of 63-19. GM Jack McCloskey, whose roster moves were the stuff of legend, made one more to solidify the championship run. Late in the season, he traded Adrian Dantley to Dallas for Mark Aguirre. The Pistons breezed through the playoffs with a 16-2 postseason record, eventually dethroning the two-time defending champion LA Lakers. Thomas, Vinnie Johnson, and Finals MVP Joe Dumars, took advantage of a Lakers team missing Magic Johnson and Byron Scott, both lost early in the Finals to injuries. The ghosts of futility, apathetic attendance, and recent playoff heartbreak were all washed away in a sea of flowing champagne. The Pistons were finally World Champions.
For those who said that the Pistons lucked into the 1989 championship against an injured Lakers team, the 1990 NBA Finals silenced everyone. The team overcame the loss of starting power forward Rick Mahorn to the expansion draft and won their third consecutive Central Division championship with a 59-23 record. This run would not be as smooth as the previous one, but the results would be the same. A Vinnie Johnson jumper from the deep right wing in the closing seconds of Game Five at Portland gave the Pistons the crown, making them the second repeat NBA Champion since 1969 and the first team to sweep the three road games in the Finals.