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Category → Chevette to Corvette

Chevette to Corvette: Summary

Our Chevette to Corvette series, which ranked every season in Pistons history, is complete. Here’s a graphical look:

And our complete rankings:

Chevette to Corvette No. 1: The 1988-89 Detroit Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 63-19
  • Pythagorean record: 56-26
  • Offensive Rating: 110.8 (7th of 25)
  • Defensive Rating: 104.7 (3rd of 25)
  • Arena: The Palace of Auburn Hills
  • Head coach: Chuck Daly

Playoffs

  • Beat the Boston Celtics in first round, 3-0
  • Beat the Milwaukee Bucks in Eastern Conference Semifinals, 4-0
  • Beat the Chicago Bulls in Eastern Conference Finals, 4-2
  • Beat the Los Angeles Lakers in NBA Finals, 4-0

Leaders

  • Points per game: Adrian Dantley (18.4)
  • Rebounds per game: Bill Laimbeer (9.6)
  • Assists per game: Isiah Thomas (8.3)
  • Steals per game: Isiah Thomas (1.7)
  • Blocks per game: Bill Laimbeer (1.2)

Top player

Isiah Thomas

By this season, Isiah Thomas had fully sacrificed his individual numbers to help the Pistons win. Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

Why has the race opened up? For several reasons. The teams with the best records in the NBA, Detroit and the Cleveland Cavaliers, do not have serious MVP candidates. (Perhaps that’s why they have the league’s best records.)

Isiah Thomas won’t win. If any other player had staged the phenomenal 43-point show he put on for the Pistons in Game 6 of last year’s NBA Finals, then returned to play on a severely sprained ankle in Game 7, that man would have been a candidate for canonization. But there is something about Isiah’s style—his seeming lack of interest in games against weaker teams, his occasional carelessness with the ball—that prevents him from being a serious MVP candidate, although he is the leader of the NBA’s best team.

Thomas received one point in MVP voting, equalling Joe Dumars.

Key transaction

Traded Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre

Patrick already wrote a fantastic post on this trade that examines the deal from every angle.

Trend watch

First NBA title

After steadily rising – first round to Eastern Conference Finals to NBA Finals losses the previous three years – the Pistons finally won a championship, the first in franchise history.

Why this season ranks No. 1

Even before the season started, the Pistons locked in an upgrade. They into The Palace of Auburn Hills. Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

The 21,519-seat Palace is situated in Oakland County, one of the richest counties in America. And the Palace reflects that, what with its $2 million TV studio and 180 private boxes, which will generate about $11.2 million annually for Piston owner William Davidson, who owns 80% of the building.

Sports Illustrated predicted before the Pistons would win the championship, and sweeps of the suddenly old and broken-down Boston Celtics and the talented and tough Milwaukee Bucks in the first two rounds of the playoffs reinforced that.

But the Pistons ran into a little trouble with the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals. Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

A few steps from the summit of the NBA’s mountain, the Detroit Pistons suddenly looked down and felt dizzy. The Pistons are a team ideally suited to the role of underdog, and perhaps the pressure of living up to preseason expectations has affected them. They played without interest and lost Game 1 of their Eastern Conference finals to the Chicago Bulls and, even though they won, appeared disorganized in Game 2. Champions are made of sterner stuff.

Despite an 86-80 victory at Chicago Stadium on Monday afternoon, which tied the series at 2-2, the Pistons seemed slightly dazed and confused, fighting to regain the competitive fire and Bad Boy nastiness that stoked them to the NBA Finals and a seven-game loss to the Lakers last season.

The Pistons won the next two games to take the series, their focus tightening as they entered their second straight NBA Finals. Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

True, they stayed out of major fights in postseason play, and they even swore off alcohol as proof of their commitment to winning the title. (Laimbeer has been the lone offender so far, paying a $100 fine recently, after he joined in a family toast celebrating his father-in-law’s successful open-heart surgery.) But they were still the Bad Boys, the jive-talkers, the finger-pointers, the fist-raisers, the elbow-throwers, the fine-payers and, most of all, the defense players.

Injuries hit the Los Angeles Lakers hard in the Finals, and the Pistons swept their third opponent to finish the playoffs with an incredible 11-2 record. Beating their old foe in the final round wasn’t as large a struggle as expected, but that’s no letdown for the best season in Pistons history – one that included their second-most regular-season wins and their first NBA title. Eli Zaret’s “Blue Collar Blueprint”:

Inside the winning locker room, Thomas obsessively kissed the championship trophy. He looked up long enough to say, “It feels like I’m in heaven and I’m floating. Aguirre had tears running down his face and trouble saying. CBS attempted a few post-game interviews amid the screaming and the spraying of champagne as Mahorn and the other players chanted, “Bad Boys, Bad Boys, Bad Boys.”

Previously

Chevette to Corvette No. 2: The 1989-90 Detroit Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 59-23
  • Pythagorean record: 57-25
  • Offensive Rating: 109.9 (11th of 27)
  • Defensive Rating: 103.5 (2nd of 25)
  • Arena: The Palace of Auburn Hills
  • Head coach: Chuck Daly

Playoffs

  • Beat the Indiana Pacers in first round, 3-0
  • Beat the New York Knicks in Eastern Conference Semifinals, 4-1
  • Beat the Chicago Bulls in Eastern Conference Finals, 4-3
  • Beat the Portland Trail Blazers in NBA Finals, 4-1

Leaders

  • Points per game: Isiah Thomas (18.4)
  • Rebounds per game: Dennis Rodman (9.7)
  • Assists per game: Isiah Thomas (9.4)
  • Steals per game: Isiah Thomas (1.7)
  • Blocks per game: John Salley (1.9)

Top player

Isiah Thomas

Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

Isiah Thomas’s studied, mature orchestration of the Detroit Pistons’ NBA championship last week went a long way toward changing his image among basketball purists. Thomas kept the tempo at a controlled, even pace, which disrupted the fast-breaking Portland Trail Blazers. And when he wasn’t doing that, he was creating something from nothing, with long-distance jump shots, body-twisting drives and steals in the open floor. Six other NBA guards, including teammate Joe Dumars, were selected by the media ahead of Thomas on the three All-NBA teams this season. But by the time the Pistons had beaten the Blazers 92-90 in Game 5 to clinch their second straight championship last Thursday night in Portland, there was only one great guard still playing basketball—Isiah Lord Thomas III.

Key transaction

Lost Rick Mahorn to Minnesota Timberwolves in expansion draft

Associated Press:

Unfortunately for Rick Mahorn, it was the classic "penthouse-to-outhouse“ day.

Mahorn began the day Thursday celebrating the Detroit Pistons‘ National Basketball Association championship in a victory celebration attended by an estimated crowd of 125,000 in Detroit.

Then the Pistons went to a rally attended by 12.000 fans at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich. Mahorn stood up, led the crowd in a “Bad Boys” cheer and publicly thanked general manager Jack McCloskey for convincing him to lose weight and making him a better player. Before Mahorn sat down, he slapped hands with McCloskey.

Mahorn left the podium. Then, at a locker room meeting, McCloskey told the starting forward that he would be playing next season for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who took him in the expansion draft.

As the Pistons paraded through Detroit, McCloskey had a portable phone with him, hoping to call the expansion teams and try to talk them out of taking Mahorn by making a trade.

“It was lousy timing,” McCloskey said.

Mahorn returned to The Palace for a late-season game that got ugly. Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

with 3:40 left, Thomas took a swing at Mahorn after running into him. The blow grazed Mahorn’s shoulder, but Thomas was ejected.

That was a mere prelim. With 14.8 seconds left and Philly leading 105-95, Mahorn slammed home a dunk that seemed to add unnecessary punctuation to the Sixer win. Piston forward Dennis Rodman fouled Mahorn on the play, after which Mahorn made a semitaunting gesture at Rodman, but both the foul and the gesture were minor. The ugliness started in earnest when Laimbeer, trailing the action, arrived on the scene and shoved the ball in Mahorn’s face.

Mahorn did not move to retaliate, just as he had not gone after Thomas a few minutes earlier. (We do not often find Smilin’ Rick on the high road, do we?) But Barkley charged at Laimbeer and landed a couple of punches, including one to Laimbeer’s left eye.

Both benches then cleared, and soon players were grabbing one another and falling to the floor. Detroit reserve forward Scott Hastings landed what referee Jake O’Donnell later called a "sucker punch" on Barkley’s back as bodies rolled around the floor. Mahorn, meanwhile, stayed on the fringe of the melee, at one point severely testing the elasticity of James Edwards’s Piston jersey when he pulled Edwards away from the pile. Mahorn and Edwards are close friends—Barkley would say later that "Rick hates everybody on that team except Vinnie [Johnson] and Edwards"—but as Edwards’s scowl indicated, he didn’t appreciate Mahorn’s attention.

After order was restored and the game was finished—the 76ers won 107-97—several players called the fight, which lasted about 10 minutes, the worst they had seen in the NBA, though no one was hurt.

Trend watch

Repeat

The Pistons won their second straight championship, following the footsteps of the Los Angeles Lakers the two years prior. Detroit made it a trend, and the next eight years were carried by teams winning consecutive championships.

Why this season ranks No. 2

As defending champions, the Pistons opened the season on a 51-15 tear before finishing on an 8-8 stretch. But once the playoffs hit, they kicked into gear again. The Pistons easily dispatched the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks – two teams a few years from making serious noise – in the first two rounds.

That set up Detroit’s third playoff matchup with the Bulls in the last three years – a 4-1 second-round victory followed by a 4-2 conference finals victory. Chicago was closing the gap, but Detroit employed the Jordan Rules to hold off the Bulls one last time. Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

Against the Pistons, the wide-open spaces through which Jordan normally knifes his body often close up. Getting open without the ball, which Jordan normally does by maneuvering Astaire-like through his teammates’ picks, takes on the frantic character of a prison break when Detroit is the opponent. The Pistons can’t spell "uncontested"—they prefer the technique of knocking Jordan to the floor. "Sometimes I wish I could be my teammates looking at that defense," says Jordan. "It must be nice. But it isn’t nice for me."

Okay, it’s not always artful. The Pistons’ mean streak is a key factor in their success with Jordan. To be blunt, they treat him rudely. Shots that would result in three-point plays against other teams don’t even come close when Jordan takes them against Detroit, because he is usually careeemed, not merely fouled. The Pistons have never claimed that they intimidate Jordan, but they have certainly worn him down and chipped away at his seemingly indomitable will to score.

The Pistons aren’t just ornery, though. They also have talent and commitment. "Other teams could play the same way but wouldn’t get the Pistons’ efficiency, because they don’t have the people," says Jordan.

That appeared to be the toughest series the Pistons would face, and they’d cruise to a title over the Portland Trail Blazers. But the Trail Blazers stole Game 2 at The Palace and, suddenly, things looked dicey. Detroit hadn’t won in Portland in 16 years, suffering 20 straight losses. With three straight home games, the Trail Blazers might not even return to The Palace.

They didn’t.

The Pistons won all three in Portland, capped by Vinnie Johnson’s :00.7 shot to win game 5:

Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

The mantle of NBA Champions has never fit comfortably around the broad shoulders of the Detroit Pistons, as deserving as they are to wear it. Something about them is just so different from other champions of recent vintage, like the Lakers and the Celtics. The Pistons win with balance, not superstars. They win with defense, not skyhooks, fast breaks and three-point shooting. And they win not by playing classic, film-library basketball, but by playing ugly, by grinding down their opponents, then gleefully vacuuming up the pieces.

By winning, the Pistons, who had adopted the slogan of Hammer Time, had shifted the narrative. They were still the Bad Boys, but no longer recognized as cheats. Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

The modus operandi for today’s Pistons is, for the most part, hard but not dirty—the court just seems to shrink when they play their brand of manic defense.

Previously

Chevette to Corvette No. 3: The 2003-04 Detroit Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 54-28
  • Pythagorean record: 59-23
  • Offensive Rating: 102.0 (18th of 29)
  • Defensive Rating: 95.4 (2nd of 29)
  • Arena: Palace of Auburn Hills
  • Head coach: Larry Brown

Playoffs

  • Beat the Milwaukee Bucks in first round, 4-1
  • Beat the New Jersey Nets in Eastern Conference Semifinals, 4-3
  • Beat the Indiana Pacers in Eastern Conference Finals, 4-2
  • Beat the Los Angeles Lakers in NBA Finals, 4-1

Leaders

Top player

Ben Wallace

Wallace was voted into the All-Star Game as a starter and won his second straight Defensive Player of the Year award in 2004. Wallace shot the ball poorly (42 percent), but new Pistons coach Larry Brown began to actually involve Wallace in the offense more. Wallace averaged a then-career high 9.5 points per game. He would best that the following season under Brown as well.

Wallace’s touches didn’t always result in great possessions for the Pistons, but involving Wallace on offense often had an impact on the game. In 2006 under Flip Saunders, Saunders’ offense frequently ignored Wallace, causing Wallace to feel left out and sometimes affecting the energy level he played with. Brown’s reasoning seemed to be that even a bad offensive possession from Wallace was a good result if it caused Wallace’s intensity level to remain constant at both ends of the court.

Key transaction

Traded Zeljko Rebraca, Bob Sura and a first round pick to Atlanta for Rasheed Wallace; Traded Chucky Atkins and Lindsey Hunter to Boston for Mike James

The rebuilding Hawks only wanted veteran Rasheed Wallace, who they acquired from Portland, because of his expiring contract, so they gladly shipped him to Detroit for the Sura/Rebraca expiring deals and a first round pick. Wallace was Joe Dumars’ second high risk/high reward move to pay off just before winning the 2004 title. He parted ways with successful coach Rick Carlisle and replaced him with the talented but unstable Larry Brown and then just before the trading deadline, he added the talented but unstable Rasheed Wallace.

Wallace and Brown, both UNC alums, got along together great and Brown still might be the only coach Wallace ever had in the NBA who understood what buttons to push with ‘Sheed and when to push them. Wallace gave brown the best defensive frontcourt in basketball as he and Ben Wallace combined to swallow up anyone who got near the basket (they combined to average 5 blocks per game after the trade). And Detroit gave ‘Sheed a stable, veteran environment with no pressure on him to be the face of the team.

Much like the Lakers trade of Kwame Brown and the draft rights to Marc Gasol for Pau Gasol, this is a trade that looks slightly better with age. Both deals at the time were incredibly uneven, but Marc Gasol turned into a stud and the Hawks used the late first round pick acquired from the Pistons to take Josh Smith, who has developed into an All-Star. But making this move gave the Pistons the defense, depth and momentum needed to win a championship, so it was a win even if it would’ve been nice to have the chance to take Smith in the draft.

Trend watch

Unreal defense

Beginning March 4, 2004, the Pistons played one of the best stretches of defensive basketball in recent NBA history. The team held eight straight opponents under 80 points. The first four opponents in that stretch failed to score 70 points. The Pistons were simply suffocating. Their wing players were physical and adept and funneling their men into the lane at poor angles to get shots off over the Wallaces. Defensive subs like Lindsey Hunter and Mike James relentlessly pressured the ball when they came in. Larry Brown loved using energy guys like Darvin Ham and Tremaine Fowlkes as situational perimeter defenders as well. And big men like Elden Campbell and Mehmet Okur, while not as solid defensively as the starters, could still hold position, rebound and play with toughness on D. This season’s Pistons were the most complete defensive unit we’ve seen in the last decade or so of NBA basketball.

Why this season ranks No. 3

This championship came out of nowhere. The Pistons had successfully built themselves into a contending team with shrewd moves. Joe Dumars had great success finding players who were undervalued elsewhere who excelled when their roles were expanded in Detroit. Larry Brown was exactly the right coach to mold this already good defensive team into a great defensive team and to teach Chauncey Billups to be a full-time, halfcourt point guard. Most fans probably expected the build into a championship contender to continue. But I don’t think anyone would honestly say they expected everything to come together as quickly as it did for the Pistons. What made this season truly amazing was the slow but steady realization that this team had everything needed to win a title. There are numerous iconic moments from 2004 that are worth remembering, but after the two plays below, it felt like a foregone conclusion that Detroit would win.

The Pistons didn’t even win the playoff game vs. New Jersey when Billups sunk a halfcourt shot to force overtime, but that play still made the team seem invincible:

Losing a three overtime game at home to fall behind 3-2 in the series after hitting a shot like that should’ve been devastating. Instead, the Pistons just went out and won the next two games against a team that had been to two straight NBA Finals.

And in the Eastern Conference Finals, Tayshaun Prince provided the moment of his career by catching Reggie Miller:



(Doc Rivers’ commentary on that play is seriously fantastic too)

That block — Prince completely selling out to make a play — is the lasting symbol of the 2004 team. Subsequent teams were good, but none could quite match the level of passion, work, talent, toughness and commitment to a singular cause that we saw in the title run.

Previously

Chevette to Corvette No. 4: The 2004-05 Detroit Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 54-28
  • Pythagorean record: 53-29
  • Offensive Rating: 105.6 (17th of 30)
  • Defensive Rating: 101.2 (3rd of 30)
  • Arena: Palace of Auburn Hills
  • Head coach: Larry Brown

Playoffs

  • Beat the Philadelphia 76ers in first round, 4-1
  • Beat the Indiana Pacers in Eastern Conference Semifinals, 4-2
  • Beat the Miami Heat in Eastern Conference Finals, 4-3
  • Lost in NBA Finals to the San Antonio Spurs, 4-3

Leaders

Top player

Ben Wallace

The Goin’ to Work era Pistons branded themselves on not having a superstar. But by the 2004-05 season, I think Wallace was pretty close. On the court, he had another fine season, making his third straight All-Star appearance and winning his third straight Defensive Player of the Year Award. He also made the cover of the Sports Illustrated NBA Preview issue and made the SI cover once again in the playoffs. He got to explain his tattoo to SI:

The defensive wiz says his tat was inspired by his 10th-grade history teacher at Central High in Hayneville, Ala., Mr. Calhoun. “We were all doing reports, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Wallace says. “He told me I should check out Big Ben, the tower in England.” Wallace got the stylized lettering first, as a junior at Virginia Union. “I draw all my own tattoos, and I hadn’t come up with a sketch of the tower,” says Wallace, who had the building added in a 2 1/2-hour session a year later. Wallace had the clock set at 10 because in craps “Big Ben” is slang for a roll of 10, and that, says Wallace, “pays the best.”

He got to make fun of the Pistons’ teal uniforms:

What was your most embarrassing moment?

“[In 2000], my first year in Detroit, when we had to wear those teal uniforms and play in front of crowds of about 1,000.”

In a SI player poll, 18 percent of NBA players called Wallace the best defensive player in the game. In another player poll, Wallace was one of only nine players to receive a vote (the others were Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James and Jason Kidd) when NBA players were asked who they would most like to play with on the same team.

Wallace was never a traditional superstar, but by 2005, he had cemented himself as one of the game’s elite franchise players.

Key transaction

Signed Antonio McDyess as a free agent

It’s hard to find any transaction Joe Dumars has made and not be inundated by supporters who want to extoll the genius virtues of said move and detractors who have countless arguments as to what it was lucky/overrated/whatever. I would venture a guess, though, that Dumars’ signing of McDyess might be the most popular move among fans he’s ever made.

After winning the title in 2004, Dumars had to trade scoring sixth man Corliss Williamson to have enough money to re-sign Rasheed Wallace, attempt to re-sign Mehmet Okur and have money for raises that would be due to Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace and Rip Hamilton in coming seasons. The team couldn’t match Utah’s offer to Okur, both in terms of money and an opportunity to start, so losing him and Williamson from the bench would’ve been a huge blow if not for McDyess signing in Detroit to pursue a championship. Here is what McDyess told SI’s Ian Thomsen after signing:

“I was at the lowest point of my life. Basketball is what I live for, and when I kept getting injured, I felt like it was over. But now I’m here, I’m happy and I don’t feel like I have a limit to what I can do.”

McDyess later showed even more loyalty when he agreed to re-sign with the Pistons after they included him in the Chauncey Billups-Allen Iverson trade. McDyess undoubtedly would’ve had his pick of contending teams to sign with, but he came back to a going nowhere Pistons team to finish the season before signing with the Spurs in the offseason. McDyess recently retired, and despite not getting that ring, he seemed like a great teammate and it was truly remarkable watching him reinvent himself in Detroit after suffering devastating knee injuries that sapped him of his unreal athleticism.

Trend watch

Two and out

After the season, Larry Brown became the second straight Pistons coach to win 50 or more games in back to back seasons. He also became the second straight coach to get fired. Rick Carlisle was let go to pursue Brown, who Dumars believed was the coach needed to turn the Pistons from a good team into a title team. That hunch ended up being a good one.

Brown and the Pistons parted ways under more complicated circumstances, though. Brown was getting his trademark itch — he had reportedly talked to Cleveland about a position in the front office and had pined about coaching his hometown Knicks. This did not please Bill Davidson, how paid Brown a lot of money and handed him a championship roster.

The move ended up being not so great for both parties. Brown’s replacement, Flip Saunders, never successfully got the team to play with the postseason discipline and thoughness they showed under Brown. Brown had two unsuccessful coaching stints, first with the Knicks and then with Charlotte, before being reduced to begging for any job that opens up.

Why this season ranks No. 4

The Pistons finished 2004-05 with an identical record as the title-winning team the previous season and actually finished as the East’s top team in the standings as opposed to the second best team the previous regular season, but things always felt just a bit off in 2004-05. The team was still great, don’t get me wrong. But Brown’s health problems caused him to miss some games. In games when he was on the sidelines, he often had to sit in some Mr. Burns-style chair because of his ailing hip.

The team had to adjust to a few new faces, Rasheed Wallace didn’t start the season in the greatest physical condition and the Pistons were just a bit sluggish early. Then, in November, a Ben Wallace-Ron Artest fight led to an idiot fan interjecting himself into the game and touched off one of the ugliest scenes in modern sports (but if you tell me you didn’t laugh a little when Jermaine O’Neal punched Turtle from Entourage, I won’t believe you).

The brawl led to the dismantling of the Pistons’ biggest rival at the time as the Pacers were ruined by suspensions. Miami had thrown together the trial version of its mercenary squad of stars trying to buy a championship, and although the Pistons beat the Heat in seven games in the ECF, it was pretty clear that the O’Neal-Wade combo would break through at some point. And then, in game five of the NBA Finals, Robert Horry capped one of the most ridiculous performances in NBA Finals history with a 3-pointer that resulted on a rare mental lapse on defense by the Pistons, best summed up by Hubie Brown saying ‘Oh No!’ right as Horry was catching the ball to release a game-winning open three.

The season was great, and in some ways, as rewarding as the championship season simply because the Pistons had to go through many obstacles (some self-created) to even get in position to win another title. But it is hard not to look back on the season as a missed opportunity.

Previously

Chevette to Corvette No. 5: The 1987-88 Detroit Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 54-28
  • Pythagorean record: 54-28
  • Offensive Rating: 110.5 (6th of 23)
  • Defensive Rating: 105.3 (2nd of 23)
  • Arena: Pontiac Silverdome
  • Head coach: Chuck Daly

Playoffs

  • Beat the Washington Bullets in first round, 3-2
  • Beat the Chicago Bulls in Eastern Conference Semifinals, 4-1
  • Beat the Boston Celtics in Eastern Conference Finals, 4-2
  • Lost in NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers, 4-3

Leaders

  • Points per game: Adrian Dantley (20.0)
  • Rebounds per game: Bill Laimbeer (10.1)
  • Assists per game: Isiah Thomas (8.4)
  • Steals per game: Isiah Thomas (1.7)
  • Blocks per game: John Salley (1.7)

Top player

Isiah Thomas

ESPN’s John Hollinger ranked Thomas’ performance in Game 6 of the Finals as the seventh-best Finals performance ever:

This was the best Finals game ever by a player whose team lost. Nobody who saw this game will ever forget Thomas’ sheer determination in rattling off 25 of his 43 points in the third quarter despite spraining his ankle midway through the quarter when he landed on Michael Cooper’s foot. Thomas had just scored 14 straight points, but limped to the sideline.

Not for long, however. With the Pistons one win away from a first-ever championship, he re-entered the game after half a minute and bravely hopped along … and kept scoring.

I can’t embed the video, but watch highlights of the quarter. It’s incredible.

Key transaction

Traded Ron Moore and a second-round pick to the Phoenix Suns for James Edwards

Keith Langlois of Pistons.com:

Still fully capable of logging starter’s minutes, content to come off the bench and possessed of both an amiable personality that was a fit in their locker room and a low-post scoring presence that suited their needs, Edwards not only was ideally suited for the Pistons but came at preposterously little cost.

All it took for McCloskey to get the Suns to bite on his request for Edwards was a little-used, little-known 7-foot project, Ron Moore, and a 1991 No. 2 pick. Acquired by McCloskey the previous June from the Knicks, who’d drafted him, for Sidney Green, Moore wouldn’t play in the NBA after that rookie season and wound up with nearly as many personal fouls (34) as career points (38).

“That, to me, was a no-brainer,” McCloskey says today of the Edwards trade. “When I was an assistant coach with the Lakers, we drafted (Edwards) and Kareem was hurt in the early part of the season. You could see, boy, he could score. And he had a great personality – terrific personality, just the nicest guy. So I grabbed him.”

Edwards had a fairly limited role his first half season with Detroit, serving as fourth big man behind Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn and John Salley (and sometimes Dennis Rodman, who was playing more small forward then). After playing off the bench again in 1988-89, Edwards became a starter the following two years. In either role, he was a key piece of the Bad Boys.

Thankfully, this was the only trade the Pistons made with the Suns at that time. Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

McCloskey also considered giving Phoenix two of his better young players, guard Joe Dumars and forward-center John Salley, for either point guard Jay Humphries or point guard Jeff Hornacek and standout forward Larry Nance.

Trend watch

First NBA Finals in 31 years

For the first time in 31 years – and first time in Detroit – the Pistons made the NBA Finals. After reaching the Eastern Conference Finals the year before and the second round two years before that, the Pistons’ Finals berth was the next step on a clear upward progression.

Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

Reserve center Chuck Nevitt, who was a member of the 1984-85 Lakers, was the only Detroit player who had ever been in a championship series, yet none of the Pistons seemed nervous. Before the game, starting guards Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars admitted to each other that neither felt as if he were about to play anything except a regular-season game. "I said to Isiah, ‘I wonder how you’re supposed to feel,’ " said Dumars later. "Maybe it was good that we didn’t know."

Why this season ranks No. 5

Before the season, Sports Illustrated predicted the Pistons would lose in the Finals to the Lakers, which ultimately happened. The Pistons were excellent and getting better, and everyone knew it.

They also had fully developed their distinct style by this point. Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

But Detroit’s physical game is effective only if it also works on the minds of its opponents—there’s a method to the Pistons’ badness—and that’s exactly what happened in the early moments of Game 3 on Saturday when the direction of the weekend was established.

Detroit center Bill Laimbeer was whistled for an offensive foul when he set a hard, Piston-style pick on Jordan. But Jordan thought that Laimbeer continued with the pick after the whistle, so he gave Laimbeer an elbow in the gut as they headed upcourt. Laimbeer shoved Jordan and, lo and behold, Jordan came back swinging, landing two blows before he was separated from Laimbeer. Jordan, who was charged with a technical, later said that it was the first time he ever threw a punch on a basketball court.

Less than a minute later Detroit power forward Rick Mahorn, a fellow who would win an NBA popularity contest only if he were running against Laimbeer, took a swing at Chicago forward Charles Oakley as they wrestled for a rebound. Mahorn drew the T this time. The early fireworks, minor though they were by Piston standards, threw the Bulls off their game. "It got me out of sync," is the way Jordan put it.

After beating the Washington Bullets and Chicago Bulls, the Pistons moved to the conference finals to face the Boston Celtics, an old rival that had beaten the Pistons in all three playoff series between the teams. Keith Langlois of Pistons.com:

When their Eastern Conference finals series opened on May 25 at the Garden, the Pistons’ losing streak there sat at 21 games. Their last win had come on Dec. 19, 1982. Scotty Robertson was their coach. Only Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and Vinnie Johnson remained from the team that would finally snap the losing streak.

It happened fast – in Game 1 of the conference finals. Chuck Daly had been 0-20 as Pistons coach at the Garden before that moment. Isiah was brilliant that night, scoring 35 and passing for 12 assists.

The Pistons won the series in six games and took a 3-2 NBA Finals lead over the favored Lakers. Holding a one-point lead in the closing seconds of Game 6 – see the “Top player” section above for how they got it – the Pistons appeared poised to win their first title a year ahead of schedule.

But Bill Laimbeer was whistled for what has become known as a “phantom foul.” Bill Davidson:

Well, the worst loss was out in L.A. (in 1988) when I was in the room with David Stern getting ready to accept the trophy, and they call a foul on Bill Laimbeer against Kareem. Bill pulled down a clean rebound, and Hugh Evans calls a foul. You know that he was set up, and you know … I don’t say he had a bet on the game, but that was … that was unconscionable! And that cost us a championship, which we should have had. Which we had.

Abdul-Jabbar made both free throws, and the Lakers won Game 7. Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated:

As for the Pistons, their defeat seemed more a coronation than a wake. With a few more favorable calls, a few more wise decisions in the clutch and a few more minutes of playing time from Isiah Thomas (whose severely sprained right ankle limited him to 28 minutes in Game 7), the Pistons could have won their first NBA title ever. At the very least, Detroit is next season’s early favorite in the clubhouse.

Previously

Chevette to Corvette No. 6: The 2005-06 Detroit Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 64-18
  • Pythagorean record: 60-22
  • Offensive rating: 110.8 (4th of 30)
  • Defensive rating: 103.1 (5th of 30)
  • Arena: The Palace of Auburn Hills
  • Head coach: Flip Saunders

Playoffs

  • Beat the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round, 4-1
  • Beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round, 4-31
  • Lost to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, 4-2

Leaders

Top player

Chauncey Billups

The Pistons were the NBA’s best team in the regular season and Chauncey Billups turned himself into an MVP candidate, finishing fifth in the voting.

Billups’ mastery of Flip Saunders’ offense was amazing to watch. His 8.6 assists per game is still a career-best, as is the 43 percent 3-point shooting he finished the season with. He averaged 18.5 points per game, his best mark as a Piston and the second best scoring average of his career.

Key transaction

Traded Carlos Arroyo and Darko Milicic to Orlando for Kelvin Cato and a first round pick

As Dan pointed out in the last Chevette to Corvette, the Pistons used the draft pick on Rodney Stuckey. They also used the money Cato’s expiring contract created after the season to afford Tayshaun Prince‘s raise the next season after his contract was extended.

But the trade was more important for symbolic reasons. The team was cutting ties with Milicic, one of the all-time worst draft busts in NBA history. It became clear early in the season in spot minutes that Milicic would never earn the trust of the coaching staff despite them paying lip service to playing him more before the season started. Milicic quickly found himself at the end of the bench again and the team finally decided it was time to move on.

Trend watch

Winning streaks

The Pistons had winning streaks of 11, 9 and 8 games in the first three months of the season. They started the season 37-5 and even started some buzz that the team could threaten the 70-win mark.

Why this season ranks No. 6

This had the potential to be the Pistons’ greatest season of all time. They cruised through the regular season, maintaining their identity as a top five defensive team. Impressively though, Flip Saunders had a huge impact on the offense. The Pistons went from a walk-it-up, sometimes stagnant offensive unit under Larry Brown to a team that was top five in the league in offensive rating under Saunders. The Pistons had four All-Stars and Saunders coached the East in the game, putting all four players — Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Billups and Rip Hamilton — into the game at the same time, definitely one of the cooler moments in recent Pistons history.

In the playoffs, though, things fell apart. The Pistons struggled in a second round series against a weaker Cleveland team. In a bit of foreshadowing to a future disappointment, the Cavs extended the Pistons to seven games. Then in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pistons had a flat performance against Miami, losing in six games.

Previously

Chevette to Corvette No. 7: The 2007-08 Detroit Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 59-23
  • Pythagorean record: 62-20
  • Offensive rating: 111.4 (6th of 30)
  • Defensive rating: 102.9 (4th of 30)
  • Arena: The Palace of Auburn Hills
  • Head coach: Flip Saunders

Playoffs

  • Beat the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round, 4-2
  • Beat the Orlando Magic in the second round, 4-1
  • Lost to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, 4-2

Leaders

  • Points per game: Richard Hamilton (17.3)
  • Rebounds per game: Antonio McDyess (8.5)
  • Assists per game: Chauncey Billups (6.8)
  • Steals per game: Chauncey Billups (1.3)
  • Blocks per game: Rasheed Wallace (1.7)

Top player

Chauncey Billups

For what it’s worth, Rasheed Wallace received an MVP vote, and Richard Hamilton improved his already-impressive true shooting percentage from the regular season to the playoffs, 55.2 to 55.9, against some very strong defenses.

Although Billups became much less effective in the postseason, shooting poorly and assisting less, his regular season was strong enough to establish himself as the team’s top player. His .257 Win Shares per 48 minutes were a career high and his 13.5 win shares were second only to 2005-06, when he finished fifth in MVP voting.

Key transaction

Drafted Rodney Stuckey with No. 15 pick

Rodney Stuckey’s long-term impact in Detroit is far from determined, but he immediately established himself as a rookie during a second-round playoff series against the Orlando Magic.

After scoring 19 points off the bench in a Game 3 loss, Stuckey started the final two games of the series for an injured Chauncey Billups. In Game 5, he had 15 points (on 5-of-10 shooting) and six assists. In his starts, both Detroit wins, Stuckey didn’t turn the ball over at all.

Needless to say, people were excited. Michael Rosenberg of the Detroit Free Press, via Detroit Bad Boys:

The key to the 2009 season – and really, the 10 seasons after that — is Rodney Stuckey. I don’t think people fully understand how good he can be, and how soon.

"The sky is the limit for that kid," Pistons guard Lindsey Hunter said. "Once he gets his feet planted fully, there’s not many people who can do what this kid can do. He has such incredible upside. Physically, you look at Deron Williams and those types of guys, and he possesses some things that those guys don’t possess."

Utah’s Williams, of course, is one of the best point guards in the NBA. He and New Orleans star Chris Paul are expected to define the lead-guard play for the next 10 years. University of Memphis star Derrick Rose should be that kind of player, too.

Several people in the Pistons organization, from the front office to the players, think Stuckey can be in that group.

Do you understand what this means?

In his second year, Williams was dominating playoff games. In his second year, Paul was already an elite player.

Rodney Stuckey can be the best player on the team — next year. He can be an All-Star –- next year.

Trend watch

Reached sixth straight conference finals

That was the most since the Lakers made eight in row between 1982 and 1989 and tied for the fourth-longest streak of all time, behind another Laker run of eight (1948-55) and the Celtics’ 13 in a row from 1957-69.

Why this season ranks No. 7

The 2007-08 season was the Pistons’ last stand. Their 59 wins were the second-most during their run of six straight conference finals, and their 62 Pythagorean wins were a franchise record.

Had Danny Ainge not possessed the vision – I hate complimenting that guy – to build the first Big Three of the era, the Pistons very well could have won their fourth title. Detroit had already beaten the East’s only other team with more than 45 wins, the Magic. In the Finals against the Lakers, the Pistons, with homecourt advantage, would have been about even money.

Alas, Ainge did add Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to Boston mainstay Paul Pierce, and the Celtics, who didn’t win a road game in the first two rounds, hit their stride in the Conference Finals against the Pistons, winning 4-2.

The old guard – Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace – played well one last time, reminding everyone how much the group had accomplished. With 21-year-old Rodney Stuckey and 24-year-old Jason Maxiell, who tied for ninth in Most Improved Player voting, the Pistons’ future seemed bright, too.

The Pistons fired Flip Saunders after the season and replaced him with one-year assistant Michael Curry. Maybe the short-term outlook was a little murkier, but coming off such an incredible run and possessing such promising young players, nearly every team in the league wished they were in the Pistons’ shoes.

As far as crossroad years go, the 2007-08 Detroit Pistons had one of the best ever.

Previously

Chevette to Corvette No. 9: The 1954-55 Fort Wayne Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 43-29
  • Pythagorean record: 43-29
  • Points scored per game: 92.4 (5th of 8)
  • Points allowed per game: 90.0 (2nd of 8)
  • Arena: War Memorial Coliseum
  • Head coach: Charles Eckman

Playoffs

  • Beat the Minneapolis Lakers in Western Division Finals, 3-1
  • Lost in NBA Finals to the Syracuse Nationals, 4-3

Leaders

  • Points per game: George Yardley (17.3)
  • Rebounds per game: Larry Foust (10.0)
  • Assists per game: Andy Phillip (7.7)

Top player

Larry Foust

Foust made the All-NBA first team for averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds per game.

Key transaction

Hired Charles Eckman as head coach

Hiring a former referee, like Eckman was, has never been a unconventional method for finding a new head coach, but the Pistons pursued him at full speed, anyway. Rodger Nelson’s “The Zollner Piston Story”:

Within three weeks, non-gambler Fred Zollner rolled the dice and named Charley Eckman, veteran college and NBA referee, as head coach and turned the basketball program over to him.

The announcement of a three-year contract stunned the Fort Wayne community and startled the basketball world. It had been Zollner’s best-kept secret. Eckman’s name had never entered any speculation. Carl Bennett was probably the most surprised. He had been Zollner’s number one liaison with sports for fourteen years, but had no inkling of these plans.

Fred Zollner derived great enjoyment from doing the unexpected, pulling a big surprise, keeping a dark secret. His secret of hiring Eckman was probably the biggest of his sports life.

It was another Zollner surprise for Eckman when he was offered the job. Charley recalled it for a story by Alan Goldstein for the Balti- more Sun in June, 1990.

"I’m sitting at home in Baltimore," said Eckman, "when the operator said she was putting through a call from Golden Beach, FL, where all the millionaires went for a sun tan. It was ol’ man Zollner. He wanted me to come down for a job interview. He said his was looking for a coach.

"It sounded crazy at first, but then I figured I had nothing to lose. I had $38 to my name after spending all winter running around the country officiating high school, college and pro games. I also had a wife and three kids with big appetites. Why not take a shot at it? "

So I borrowed $20 from the corner grocer and hopped a plane for Fort Lauderdale. By the time I got there, I was down to $12. But there is a chauffeur-driven Cadillac waiting for me at the airport. He drives me to a fancy beach-front hotel. I ordered a fifth of Canadian Club from room service. When I got hungry, I had the chauffeur drive me to Wolfie’s for a hot dog. Then I went to bed.

"At 10 a.m. the next morning, Mr. Zollner is knocking on my door. He says, ‘Charlie , can you coach my team?’ I say, ‘Absolutely. I can win a title with your guys.’ And he says, ‘I think you can, too.’

Trend watch

Upward

The Pistons had gone from 29 to 36 to 40 to 43 wins, steadily building a championship-caliber team by 1954-55.

Why this season ranks No. 9

The Pistons’ 43 wins and .597 winning percentage were both best in franchise history. The former would remain so until the team won 45 games in 1970-71, the latter until the team won 52 in 1973-74. Their 1954-55 finish earned them the best record in the Western Division, tied with the Syracuse Nationals for the NBA’s best record, and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Unfortunately, they couldn’t capitalize on their homecourt advantage. Rodger Nelson’s “The Zollner Piston Story”:

A problem for the Pistons was the fact that they did not have a home court to play on. The American Bowling Congress moved into the Coliseum in early March to build 38 bowling alleys for the annual national tournament, which would attract thousands of tourists to Fort Wayne for a two-month period. The Pistons played their final Coliseum date on March 4 and clinched the title two days later.

The Zollners still faced the problem of not having their home court to play on. The NBA turned down a request to return to their original home, the North Side High School gym, because the floor was not large enough for NBA specifications.

The Pistons played their first home game of the playoffs in Elkhart, Ind., and the rest in Indianapolis. They beat the Lakers and played a tight series against the Nationals, who had a 7-2 regular-season record against Fort Wayne. The Pistons took a 3-2 series lead into Game 6, when:

A brawl erupted when Houbregs and Syracuse’s Wally Osterkorn scrambled over a loose ball. Police had to break up the melee and technicals were given to both benches, but there were no player ejections.

The Pistons lost that game and then fell in Game 7 by only one point. The Pistons first NBA championship would wait 34 years.

Still, it was a fantastic year on the court. There was just one problem, one that would come to a head in a couple years. Rodger Nelson’s “The Zollner Piston Story”

Jim Costin wrote in the News-Sentinel the Z’s were exciting "all NBA cities but Fort Wayne." He continued, "Of the eight cities participating in the National Basketball Association, seven are excited about the ‘new look’ Zollner Pistons. "The eighth, Fort Wayne, can’t seem to get too enthused about pro basketball, despite its quality

Previously

Chevette to Corvette No. 10: The 2006-07 Detroit Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 53-29
  • Pythagorean record: 53-29
  • Offensive Rating: 108.9 (6th of 30)
  • Defensive Rating: 104.2 (7th of 30)
  • Arena: The Palace of Auburn Hills
  • Head coach: Flip Saunders

Playoffs

  • Lost NBA Eastern Conference Finals (4-2) versus Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Won NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals (4-2) versus Chicago Bulls
  • Won NBA Eastern Conference First Round (4-0) versus Orlando Magic

Leaders

  • Points per game: Rip Hamilton (19.8)
  • Rebounds per game: Rasheed Wallace (7.2)
  • Assists per game: Chauncey Billups (7.2)
  • Steals per game: Chauncey Billups (1.2)
  • Blocks per game: Rasheed Wallace/Amir Johnson (1.6)

Top player

Chauncey Billups

Three straight years of heavy minutes leading teams deep into the playoffs caught up with Billups a bit this season. He missed 12 games and his 3-point shooting fell from 43 percent the previous two seasons to 35 percent. Still though, he was unquestionably the team’s franchise player since Ben Wallace had departed for Chicago in the offseason.

Key transaction

Signed Chris Webber as a free agent

After Ben Wallace left for Chicago in the offseason, the Pistons scrambled to replace him with Nazr Mohammed. The only problem? Mohammed was not very good. So when the Philadelphia 76ers decided to cut ties and buy out Webber, the Pistons gave him the opportunity to come back home.

Sure, Webber had no more athleticism as a result of crippling knee injuries, he looked goofy in that No. 84 jersey and he was terrible defensively because of his poor mobility. But his passing ability was a nice addition to Flip Saunders’ offense and he fit in well in the veteran locker room.

Trend watch

The drama

The Pistons were a good team under Flip Saunders. The defense didn’t slip all that much under him and the offense became much, much better. But his easygoing personality didn’t fit well with a team that was its most motivated with Larry Brown nitpicking everything, and the team started to show more and more disharmony, something that would continue. Former ESPN writer Chris Sheridan:

And before we get to a dissection of Webber’s game, including the flat arc on his jumper, his slow feet on defense and the absence of anything remotely resembling a sprint from a pair of legs that had been resting for nearly a month, we’re going to change the subject to what appears to be a growing note of discord and disharmony — aw, heck, let’s just call it hate — between Rasheed Wallace and coach Flip Saunders.

At one point late in the third quarter during a timeout, nearly everyone on the Pistons’ bench turned and stared at Sheed as he prematurely broke from the huddle and walked to the scorers’ table to await the resumption of play.

Now Wallace has been doing this for years, but on this occasion, judging from the looks on the Pistons’ faces, there was more to it. Webber even walked over and said something to Wallace, who replied with a shake of the head and the type of disgusted look you get from someone who doesn’t want to be told to calm down or to make peace.

Wallace did not take kindly to that piece by Sheridan. From Sheridan again:

Rasheed Wallace was thrusting a bottle of orange soda straight at my chin after he came over to me this morning at the Pistons’ practice facility for some civilized discourse regarding this morning’s Daily Dime lead.

Of course, what constitutes civilized discourse is not the same to everyone.

So as I explained to Sheed that pointing a soda and screaming obscenities at me was not my preferred way to conduct an adult discussion, he kept yelling, “Did you ever hear the word ‘hate’ come out of my mouth?”

That was actually the second discussion I’d had on the subject in the course of a half-hour, the first coming when coach Flip Saunders patted me on the back and said he wished I had chosen a different word than “hate” to describe his less-than-ideal relationship with Wallace.

This incident actually highlights quite perfectly the differences between Brown and Saunders and why there may have been friction between ‘Sheed and Flip. Brown frequently went out of his way to publicly defend Wallace. Sometimes that meant getting a technical defending ‘Sheed in a game (even when ‘Sheed was clearly out of line), sometimes that meant effusively praising Wallace for no particular reason — I for some reason always remember Brown bringing ‘Sheed up in completely unrelated conversations and just pointing out how knowledgeable he was about the game — and sometimes that meant sticking up for him to reporters on the record. Saunders, obviously, stuck up for Wallace in this instance where an article portrayed ‘Sheed negatively. But Saunders did it privately and didn’t make a big public show about it.

I love Rasheed Wallace and am forever grateful he became a Piston. But it was very clear that ‘Sheed was a bit of a tortured artist, he was someone who needed a coach to be on his side, he needed some occasional praise or support, and Saunders just didn’t have the personality that Brown did to provide that. And during the Saunders Era, as ‘Sheed grew more undisciplined, the rest of the team began to follow suit.

Why this season ranks No. 10

In a recap of this season for Detroit Bad Boys, my good friend Pardeep Toor summed it up thusly:

In many ways, this is the most disappointing Pistons team of the decade. They won the conference by winning a mere 53 games – everybody in the conference was awful. There was really no reason for them not to make a finals appearance.

After the Cavaliers series, I remember how badly I wanted things to change. There was questions about how much or if Dumars should pay Billups in the off-season, whether or not Saunders should come back and just overall sour potatoes.

Nothing changed in the off-season, which wasn’t an awful decision but everyone just a got a year older and Flip once again failed to establish anything resembling a regular rotation with his younger players. The worst thing that happened this year: the team lost its swag. They were no longer the nobody can beat us bad boys sequel but rather the team that had already peaked in years prior.

Losing to a Cleveland team that was essentially LeBron James and a few spot-up shooters was humiliating. They were clearly inferior to Detroit talent-wise, other than James. But Cleveland succeeded the way the Detroit teams early in the decade did: playing with effort, playing physical defense and playing intelligently helped make up for the talent gap, and James’ endless parade of dunks took care of the rest.

The season was not a complete waste, however. It gave us one of ‘Sheed’s best YouTube clips ever. Poor Will Blalock.

 

Previously