Looking Back at the Bad Boys

The tendency is to believe it is the offensive superstars that lead a championship team. Showtime was led by Magic and Kareem (mostly Magic, as detailed yesterday). Larry Bird took the Celtics to three titles in the 1980s. The Bulls were supposedly just Michael Jordan and the Jordanaires. The Rockets had Hakeeem “The Dream” Olajuwon. Shaq and Kobe revived the Lakers. And finally, Tim Duncan is clearly the star of the Spurs. When we look at scoring we see these players led the way. And when we turn to Wins Produced, the same story is told. The “stars” of these teams truly were the stars.

And then we have the Bad Boys. The 1980s were dominated by Showtime and the Celtics. From 1980 to 1988 the Lakers took five titles and the Celtics took three. And then along came the Detroit Pistons.

I grew up in Detroit and the Pistons have always been the team I have followed. So before I review the Wins Produced of the Bad Boys, let me review the history of this moment in Pistons history. At least, the history that I remember.

The Birth of the Bad Boys

The leading scorer on the Pistons in the 1980s was Isiah Thomas. As a Pistons fan, I can still remember when Isiah came to Detroit. In 1980-81 the Pistons won 21 games. The next season, with Isiah apparently leading the way, the Pistons improved to 39 wins. But although the Pistons surpassed the 0.500 mark in 1983-84, 1984-85, 1985-86, Detroit could not keep pace with the dominant teams of the mid-1980s.

In the 1980s the team appeared to make two changes. The first of these was with respect to Isiah’s sidekick. In 1981 the Pistons drafted both Isiah and Kelly Tripucka. Tripucka was an All-Star in both 1982 and 1984. But Thomas and Tripucka could never get this team to 50 wins or past the second round of the playoffs. So in 1986 Tripucka and Kent Benson were sent to the Utah Jazz for Adrian Dantley.

With Dantley on board the Pistons got past the 50 win mark and in 1988 made it to the NBA Finals. But in the midst of the 1988-89 season the Pistons traded Dantley for Mark Aguirre. This move apparently gave the Pistons the last piece of the championship puzzle. With Aguirre the Pistons took the NBA title in 1989 and 1990.

So one memory I have from this era is that the changes made at the small forward spot were key to the Pistons growth. The other key issue was the focus of the team. In 1985-86 the Pistons allowed 113 points per contest. In 86-87 the opponent’s scoring fell to 107.8 points per game. Now about two-thirds of this decline can be traced to the Pistons playing a slower tempo. Still, the Pistons clearly began to increasingly focus on defense. And by the end of the decade the Pistons were one of the top teams in defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession).

The Early Results

In 1985-86 the Pistons won 46 games. The next season, with Dantley at small forward, the team won 52 games. In the second round of the playoffs the team faced the Atlanta Hawks. In terms of efficiency differential, the Hawks were the favorites. The Hawks boasted a differential of 7.2, while the Pistons only had a mark of 3.3. Plus, the previous season the Hawks eliminated the Pistons in the first round. Despite this history, the underdog Piston dispatched the Hawks in five games (and I can still remember how this was covered in Sports Illustrated).

In the conference finals the Pistons faced the heavily favored Celtics (the Celtics differential stood at 6.5). After dropping the first two games in Boston, the Pistons took Games Three and Four in Detroit. And then, in Game Five we got to hear the infamous “And there’s a steal by Bird.” Isiah Thomas committed one of the game’s historic turnovers and the Pistons went down to defeat. Although Detroit took Game Six, in the deciding Game Seven the Celtics prevailed.

The 1988 Finals

The next season the Piston’s efficiency differential improved to 5.1 and the team won 54 games. In the conference finals the opponent was again the Boston Celtics, who won 57 contests and boasted a 5.9 differential. Despite the Pistons underdog status, Detroit prevailed in six games.

In the 1988 Finals the Pistons were not given much of a chance. I still remember Dick Stockton in Game One telling us that the Lakers were trying to win their second straight title while the Pistons were “just trying to survive” (I swear that is an exact quote). At the time the Pistons were actually winning the game, a contest they would go on to win handily.

The Lakers did have an efficiency differential of 5.7 that season, so in fact Showtime should have been slight favorites. In Game Two, Showtime did prevail. And the same story was told in Game Three. But in Games Four and Five the Pistons were victorious. Now the Pistons only had to take one of two games in LA to win their first title. In Game Six Isiah was tremendous, but unfortunately also injured. Although Isiah played on, the Pistons went down to defeat in both Games Six and Seven.

Back-to-Back Titles

The next season the Bad Boys were back. The Pistons won 63 games that season, but with an efficiency differential of 5.9, were not much better than what they were the previous season. After breezing through the Eastern Conference playoffs (dispatching Jordan and the Bulls in six games in the Finals), the Pistons again faced the Lakers. The LA’s differential stood at 6.9. Although Kareem had aged considerably, Magic was still amazing. Unfortunately for the Lakers, Magic got hurt in the Finals. And the move from Magic to David Rivers doomed Showtime and allowed my family and I to be very happy (for at least a few minutes or so).

In 1989-90 the Pistons differential was 6.2, the best mark ever posted by the Bad Boys. The team won 59 contests and again defeated the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals (although it took seven agonizing games). In the Finals the Pistons faced the Blazers. Portland was making its first appearance in the Finals since the 1977 team led by Bill Walton. The Blazers also won 59 games that season, but the team’s differential was only 5.9. So the Pistons were slight favorites to repeat.

The Blazers lost the first game but took Game Two in overtime. And as I recall, Portland promised not to return to Detroit. Although this promise turned out to be true, it did not turn out the way Portland hoped. Detroit went to Portland and took three straight games. Although my family lived in Lincoln, Nebraska at the time, my father and I had driven to Michigan on vacation that summer. And when the Pistons won we were actually in a hotel in Detroit. After a few moments of celebration in the hotel room, though, I was told by the desk to shut-up as people were trying to get some sleep (okay, it was cheap hotel).

The Wins Produced Story

Okay, let me summarize my memories. The Pistons were led by Isiah Thomas and a sidekick at small forward. Initially this sidekick was Tripucka. The team then went to Dantley before settling on Aguirre. The acquisition of Acquire, coupled with an increased focus on defense, allowed the Pistons to capture back-to-back titles.

Last night I went back and calculated Wins Produced for the Pistons from 1985-86 to 1989-90. Over these five seasons we see that my memory is not entirely consistent with the data.

Table One: Wins Produced in the Bad Boys Era

Let’s start in 1985-86. This team was led by Bill Laimbeer (17.0 wins) and Isiah Thomas (13.8). In terms of Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48], Tripucka and Benson were the only other above average performers.

As noted, Tripucka and Benson were sent to Utah after this season for Dantley. In 1986-87, the Pistons were again led by Laimbeer (16.1 wins) and Isiah (10.1 wins). The team also received above average performances from Sidney Green (acquired from Chicago for Earl Cureton), Dantley, and a little known second round pick from Southeastern Oklahoma State University, Dennis Rodman.

The next season Rodman’s minutes went from 1,155 to 2,147. His wins production also increased to 15.2. In addition to Rodman, the Pistons also received 12.3 wins from Laimbeer and another 9.0 from Thomas. Rodman, though, with a scoring average of only 11.6 points per game (the only time in his career he averaged in double figures), was the most productive Bad Boy.

In 1988-89 the productivity of Rodman increased again. His production of 17.1 wins led the team. Again, Laimbeer and Thomas were above average, producing 12.6 and 8.3 wins respectively. Vinnie Johnson, Rick Mahorn, and Dantly were also above average. Interestingly, the trade of Dantley for Aguirre – by itself – seemed to set the team back. What made the trade work, though, was that Rodman probably ended up with more minutes.

Mahorn was lost in the expansion draft of 1989. But the Bad Boys continued. In 1989-90, Rodman produced 19.0 wins. Again, Laimbeer and Thomas were very productive. And the Pistons also received slightly above average performances from Joe Dumars and John Salley.

Lessons Learned

After reviewing these five seasons we see that the changes made at small forward were not crucial to this team’s success. The move from Tripucka, to Dantley, and to Aguirre did not appear to help much.

What is interesting is that the two most productive players on these championship teams were not scorers. Unlike the Lakers, Celtics, Bulls, Rockets, and Spurs, the Bad Boys were led by Dennis Rodman and Bill Laimbeer. And what is even more interesting is that this same story played out fifteen years later when the Pistons won their next title. But that story will have to wait for another day.

– DJ

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