The Detroit Pistons’ Best Season: 1989

The Boston Celtics had gone to four straight NBA Finals between 1984 and ’87, winning two, but their reign atop the Eastern Conference had started to show signs of coming to an end as Larry Bird‘s back and Kevin McHale‘s foot conspired to show the age of Boston’s core.

But by 1988, it still took monumental effort to position a team to truly dethrone the reigning kings, and into that void stepped a Detroit Pistons team that put up a 54-28 record in the regular season, then got their revenge in six games in the East finals before falling to Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers for all the marbles.

So Detroit had grounded the Bird and taken their place atop the East hill, but they’d need something special to win a chip before Michael Jordan was at last ready to evolve into his boss-fight form and own the next decade.

That something special was the 1988-89 season, where not only did the Pistons win the first championship in a franchise history that went all the way back to 1948 and the final year of the old Basketball Association of America—twice they’d fallen short in the Finals while playing in Fort Wayne, first to the Syracuse Nationals in 1955 and then to the Philadelphia Warriors in 1956, the last two titles of the NBA Stone Age before Bill Russell was drafted in the ’56 draft—but posted the first 60-win season in franchise history.

The ’89 Pistons were the high-water mark in franchise history, so as they say on Good Mythical Morning, “let’s talk about that.”

The On-Court Record

63-19 is not the greatest regular-season record in Pistons franchise history. The 2006 Pistons went 64-18, but they fell in the East finals to the eventual champion Miami Heat, the first of three straight defeats in the conference finals as they would lose to Cleveland in 2007 and Boston in 2008 before their contending window closed.

But of course, any franchise that has a championship to its name must necessarily define its greatest season as one in which they won it all. Just ask the 2016 Golden State Warriors what a great regular-season is worth in the history of a franchise.

It’s a funny thing about the ’89 team compared to other franchise-best candidates. Relative to league average, it was only their sixth-best offensive season (the ’06 team was first) and eighth-best defensive season (the title team in ’04 was the most dominant defensively.)

In fact, Detroit was only seventh on offense and third on defense in the NBA in ’89. They were fourth in Net Rating at plus-6.0 behind Cleveland, Phoenix, and the Lakers.

But they finished seven games better than their win expectation based on the stats while those Cavaliers, who were projected to go 60-22 based on their net rating, ended up just 57-25.

But then “The Shot” happened, Jordan hitting over Craig Ehlo to shock the Cavs in the first round and set up a conference final with Detroit that was decided by “The Jordan Rules.”

And that’s where we start talking about the Bad Boys in all their rough-and-tumble (or, if you’re a Bulls or Celtics fan, dirty) glory.

The Featured Players

“Yeah, right, he was trying to break his fall. And when I threw the ball, I was just trying to get it to the ref.” – Larry Bird, on Bill Laimbeer trying to take Bird’s legs out from under him with a cheap foul in 1987

Even Michael Jordan called Laimbeer the dirtiest player in the league. But Laimbeer’s 3.4 VORP was the equal of Isiah Thomas for the best such performance on the ’89 team. He was every bit as important to Detroit’s success as Zeke was.

Laimbeer was second in WS/48 (.164) behind Dennis Rodman (.175) among guys who played the whole season on the team—Adrian Dantley and his .191 WS/48 got traded to the Dallas Mavericks for Mark Aguirre midway through the season as the Mavs began to dismantle the core that had gotten them to the ’88 conference finals (see the honorable mentions in Dallas’ entry in this series for more on that.)

A very good argument can be made that Laimbeer, not Thomas, was the best player on that team.

That’s not to say Isiah was a slouch. Averaging 18.2 points per game to lead all non-Dantley (18.4) Pistons in scoring while also racking up 8.3 assists per game was enough to define Thomas as the Pistons’ fiery floor general who, in addition to the passing prowess one expects of a point guard in that era, could put the ball in the hoop as well.

Similarly, Joe Dumars, in his fourth year in the league, blossomed as a scorer in his own right—he would go on to make his first All-Star appearance in 1990, the first of four in a row and six for his career. He could easily have been one in ’89 as well, averaging 17.2 points and even racking up 5.7 assists per game from the shooting guard position.

Rodman was not yet the rebounding beast he would become in the ’90s, when he led the league in that stat for seven straight seasons between 1992 and ’98. He averaged just 9.4 boards per game in ’89 with Laimbeer pulling down 9.6.

Detroit also had a solid supporting cast of guys like Rick Mahorn, Vinnie Johnson, and John Salley, the last of whom posted a 2.1 DBPM and 1.0 VORP in 21.8 minutes per game at the end of Detroit’s eight-man rotation.

And when your eighth man is that good, you’ve got yourself the ingredients for a championship.

The Coach

Chuck Daly holds the distinction of having coached the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team” that went to Barcelona and punked the entire world for a magical summer that ended in a gold medal.

Interestingly, no Pistons were on that ’92 Olympic team because of Thomas’ wonderful ability to make every superstar in the league—though nobody more so than Jordan—hate him, a story for another time (and a million other media outlets; if Pace and Space ever covers that squad it’ll be purely about the stats.)

Daly coached Detroit for nine seasons, never posting a record worse than 46-36 and making the playoffs every year. The only place Daly coached where he didn’t leave with a winning record was, as only the Ted Stepien era could provide, a half a season in Cleveland where he went 9-32 coaching the Cavs, which was better than the 6-35 the other three (!) men to coach the team managed. When Daly was fired with 23 games still left in the season, Bill Musselman took over and went 2-21 the rest of the way.

Musselman, incidentally, is one of the worst coaches in NBA history; his career record in Cleveland and Minnesota ended up at 78-180, while two coaching stints in the ABA led to a 3-8 record with the San Diego Sails (who folded after 11 games) and 4-22 with the Virginia Squires.

Fortunately, Detroit brass saw in Daly someone who got the most out of a garbage fire and gave him the chance to coach them to glory. He did so admirably, with a punishing, slow, brutal style that both fit his personnel to a T and presaged the later rise of the filthy play of the mid-to-late-90s New York Knicks.

Honorable Mentions

Of course the ’04 team deserves a mention, since other than the Bad Boys, no other Detroit squad has summited the mountaintop other than the Ball-Don’t-Lie Pistons of the mid-aughts. I’ve written elsewhere that Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, and Chauncey Billups all belong in the Hall of Fame—Big Ben finally got his due in 2021, now it’s up to the voters to get the other two guys in.

The ’06 team fell short in the East finals, but as mentioned earlier, holds the distinction of the franchise’s best regular-season record.

And the 1955 and ’56 Fort Wayne Pistons were the only other Detroit squad to reach back-to-back Finals (alongside the ’88-90 Bad Boys, who made three in a row, and the ’04 and ’05 teams) in franchise history. Incidentally, go look on Basketball Reference at that logo for those old ’50s Pistons teams. It’s hilarious, like an internal-combustion cousin of the Michelin tire man for anthropomorphic auto parts.

Fred Zollner’s piston factory in Fort Wayne eventually gave pro basketball one of its longest-standing still-active franchises, and 40 years after their founding, they finally got to the promised land.

NEXT: Golden State Warriors. The franchise won the first-ever BAA/NBA championship, they had Wilt Chamberlain on their team, and they won it all in ’75…but do Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant have the last word on all of them? Find out tomorrow. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!

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