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Category → Chevette to Corvette

Chevette to Corvette No. 11: The 1990-91 Detroit Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 50-32
  • Pythagorean record: 50-32
  • Offensive Rating: 108.2 (12th of 27)
  • Defensive Rating: 104.6 (4th of 27)
  • Arena: The Palace of Auburn Hills
  • Head coach: Chuck Daly

Playoffs

  • Lost NBA Eastern Conference Finals (4-0) versus Chicago Bulls
  • Won NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals (4-2) versus Boston Celtics
  • Won NBA Eastern Conference First Round (3-2) versus Atlanta Hawks

Leaders

  • Points per game: Joe Dumars (20.4)
  • Rebounds per game: Dennis Rodman (8.1)
  • Assists per game: Isiah Thomas (9.3)
  • Steals per game: Isiah Thomas (1.6)
  • Blocks per game: John Salley (1.5)

Top player

Isiah Thomas

By now, injuries were starting to catch up with Thomas (he only played in 46 games), but this season still belonged to him. The Pistons were swept out of the Eastern Conference Finals by Michael Jordan’s Bulls, but Thomas, as was his custom, got the last word:

I could watch that incredulous look on MJ’s face all day as Thomas walks by the Chicago bench.

Key transaction

Drafted Lance Blanks with the 26th pick in the 1990 NBA Draft

Finding value while picking late in drafts is tough, so I’m not going to be too hard on the Pistons for missing on Lance Blanks. They needed fresh legs at point guard with Isiah Thomas aging, and Blanks had a standout college career. But unfortunately, the 1990 draft had quite a bit of talent that went after Blanks, including Elden Campbell, who went just one pick later. Other notables who went post-Blanks include Antonio Davis, Cedric Ceballos and Bimbo Coles. None of those four were franchise altering talents, but all became good, solid pros who would’ve helped.

Trend watch

The 50 win mark

The 1990-91 season was the last of five straight 50-win seasons. They wouldn’t win 50 again until 1996-97.

Why this season ranks No. 11

That moment in the Eastern Conference Finals — Thomas leading a walk-off rather than hanging around to shake hands with the Bulls — was a big one in my development as a basketball fan. Here’s what I wrote about it in my book (which would make a totally great Christmas gift, ahem):

I was too young to fully grasp the complexity of who Isiah Thomas was when I watched him play. I was only capable of thing of him on one level: he was a superhero.

What other conclusion could a young basketball fan in Detroit draw, other than Thomas was the toughest, most passionate winner in all of sports? Off the court, Thomas had the smile — Mark Jacobson of New York Magzine referred to it as his ‘Cheshire Cat Smile’ — that could draw anyone in, make them believe in him, believe that he would always assert control. He was a spokesman for Detroit Edison. Without him, I may have never known the dangers of electricity.

That moment, walking off the court, was the first time I witnessed my childhood hero face criticism. His move to walk off was undeniably petty, it opened him up to tsk tsks from many in the national media who were probably waiting for a reason to be critical, and for the first time, I saw pro athletes as human rather than the heroic figures watching them do amazing things on TV sometimes makes them seem like. But petty or not, the walkoff was a result of raw, human emotion. Ultra competitiveness, an unwillingness to humble yourself to a hated rival, those emotions drove Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and a handful of others to walk off the court. Although that moment signaled the end of the Bad Boys as title contenders, for me, that was the easiest time I’ve ever had connecting to a team. Who couldn’t understand the intense feelings those guys were experiencing in that moment?

Previously

Chevette to Corvette No. 12: The 1973-74 Detroit Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 52-30
  • Pythagorean record: 52-30
  • Offensive Rating: 97.6 (1st of 23)
  • Defensive Rating: 93.8 (9th of 17)
  • Arena: Cobo Arena
  • Head coach: Ray Scott

Playoffs

  • Lost in first round to the Chicago Bulls, 4-3

Leaders

  • Points per game: Bob Lanier (22.5)
  • Rebounds per game: Bob Lanier (13.3)
  • Assists per game: Dave Bing (6.9)
  • Steals per game: Chris Ford (1.8)
  • Blocks per game: Bob Lanier (3.0)

Top player

Bob Lanier

Bob Lanier’s basic numbers – 22.5 points and 13.3 rebounds per game – were outstanding as always, but his defense reached a new level. Lanier averaged 3.0 blocks and 1.4 steals per game, both career highs. He finished third in MVP voting.

Key transaction

Traded a first-round pick to the Atlanta Hawks for George Trapp.

The Pistons had just two players not on the roster the year before: eighth-round pick Ben Kelso, who played just 298 minutes in 46 games during his only NBA season, and George Trapp. Steve Addy’s “The Detroit Pistons: More Than Four Decades of Motor City Memories”:

When George Trapp was playing high school basketball at Highland Park in suburban Detroit, he dreamed of starring for his hometown NBA franchise. But he couldn’t have conceived the circuitous route he would take to reach the Pistons. Rather than stay local, the 6-foot-8 forward traveled to California to play two years at Pasadena Junior College and two at Long Beach State. He starred so prominently at the latter, twice being named the Pacific Coast Conference MVP, that the Atlanta Hawks picked him the first round (fifth overall) in 1971.

Trend watch

Snapped five-season playoff-less streak

Ray Scott was named head coaching during the previous season, and he guided the Pistons to a 38-37 record while he was at the helm, planting the seed for a better 1973-74. Detroit finished the job and made the playoffs for the first time in six years and second time in 10 years, earning Scott the Coach of the Year award.

Why this season ranks No. 12

The Pistons’ 54 wins were a franchise record at the time, and so was their .634 win percentage. Both would stand 1986-87 team tied them and the 1987-88 won 54 games.

Despite all their success, the 1973-74 Pistons played in the NBA’s toughest division. They had the league’s fourth-best record, but finished third in the Midwest. That meant a first-round matchup with the 54-28 Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The series switched cities after each game, and neither team ever held a multi-game lead. The Bulls won Game 7, 96-94 – the fifth game of the series decided by five or fewer points.

Previously

Chevette to Corvette No. 14: The 2001-02 Detroit Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 50-32
  • Pythagorean record: 48-34
  • Offensive Rating: 104.8 (12th of 29)
  • Defensive Rating: 102.4 (8th of 29)
  • Arena: The Palace of Auburn Hills
  • Head coach: Rick Carlisle

Playoffs

  • Beat the Toronto Raptors in first round, 3-2
  • Lost in Eastern Conference semifinals to the Boston Celtics, 4-1

Leaders

  • Points per game: Jerry Stackhouse (21.4)
  • Rebounds per game: Ben Wallace (13.0)
  • Assists per game: Jerry Stackhouse (5.3)
  • Steals per game: Ben Wallace (1.7)
  • Blocks per game: Ben Wallace (3.5)

Top player

Ben Wallace

In 2001-02, Ben Wallace broke out, leading the league in rebounding and blocks. He easily won Defensive Player of the Year, but he wasn’t the only Piston to win an individual award.

Corliss Williamson won Sixth Man of the Year, and Rick Carlisle was Coach of the Year.

Wallace finished second in Most Improved Player voting, and Jerry Stackhouse was fourth. Both also received MVP votes.

Key transaction

Traded Jud Buechler and John Wallace to the Phoenix Suns for Clifford Robinson

The Clifford Robinson trade was merely the best in a long line of subtle, yet effective moves, Joe Dumars made to build this team. Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated:

Like a discriminating buyer at a yard sale, he picked through other teams’ salary-cap liabilities, going after players deemed expendable because of the impending luxury tax. From the Phoenix Suns, Dumars plucked veteran forward-center Cliff Robinson, a proven scorer and savvy defender, for scrubs Jud Buechler and John Wallace. Dumars stole the gritty Barry and a future first-round draft pick from Sacramento, giving the Kings turnover-prone point guard Mateen Cleaves. Finally, by sending their second-round pick in 2002 to the Toronto Raptors, the Pistons got the rights to 29-year-old rookie center Zeljko Rebraca, a 7-foot Yugoslavian with a soft touch, a mean streak and a bad blond dye job.

Dumars’s most important move, however, came last May, when he hired Carlisle, a former NBA guard with a reputation as an excellent offensive strategist.

Almost every player on the roster came to Detroit not because he wanted to but because he was unwanted elsewhere. In fact, the starting lineup is composed of only two first-round draft choices ( Stackhouse and point guard Dana Barros)—one fewer than any other team’s—and a pair of players ( Wallace and forward Michael Curry) who weren’t even drafted.

Trend watch

Won first playoff series in 11 years

The Pistons had an excellent season, but they’d had strong regular seasons in the post-Bad Boys era. For Detroit to truly prove its progress was real, it had to win a playoff series.

The second-seeded Pistons took a 2-0 lead over the Raptors in the best-of-five first round series when, as had become the norm since the Bad Boys broke up, everything went wrong. The Raptors won both their games in Toronto, evening the series at two and seizing momentum.

In the decisive Game 5, Corliss Williamson, acquired for fan favorite Jerome Williams at the trade deadline the previous year in another on Joe Dumars’ shrewd moves, saved the Pistons with a game-high 23 points on 10-of-15 shooting in an 85-82 win.

Why this season ranks No. 14

This is my favorite Pistons season of all time. Full of underrated, effective veterans, the Pistons clobbered any preconceived notions about them by winning with toughness and hard work. Sports Illustrated predicted the Pistons to finish 14th in the Eastern Conference. Daniel G. Habib:

There’s no question Stackhouse’s one-man hardwood band will provide Pistons fans with some more memorable solo performances this season. If Wallace elevates his game and White lives up to expectations, Detroit, in a year or two, could be singing a playoff tune.

The brief mention of Ben Wallace notwithstanding, that couldn’t have been more wrong. Stackhouse became a team player, and Rodney White was a bust. Instead of relying those two scoring, Rick Carlisle oversaw a stifling man-to-man defense that made opponents miserable.

This season set the foundation of the next six years, and the Pistons did it with less talent they’d have in any of those next half dozen years.

For all their accomplishments, though, the Pistons fizzled in the second round, losing four straight games to the Boston Celtics in a 4-1 series defeat. The Pistons’ offense fell apart in the postseason, especially during losses in all four of their road games, revealing a team that lacked the firepower to beat the NBA’s elite teams deep in the playoffs.

For a team that won 18 more games than the year before, the season was still a resounding success.

Previously

Chevette to Corvette No. 13: The 2002-03 Detroit Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 50-32
  • Pythagorean record: 52-30
  • Offensive Rating: 104.1 (15th of 29)
  • Defensive Rating: 99.9 (4th of 29)
  • Arena: The Palace of Auburn Hills
  • Head coach: Rick Carlisle

Playoffs

  • Beat the Orlando Magic in first round, 4-3
  • Beat the Philadelphia 76ers in Eastern Conference semifinals, 4-2
  • Lost in Eastern Conference finals to the New Jersey Nets, 4-0

Leaders

Top player

Ben Wallace

By 2002-03, Wallace had become a cult hero in Detroit for his hard work, toughness, defense and afro. Even the national media began praising him at extreme, and accurate, levels. L. Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated:

Rebound Row, they call it. Whenever Pistons forward Ben Wallace grabs a rebound at home games in Detroit, a club employee presents a fan in a designated section with a T-shirt adorned with an R. Suffice it to say the team orders these shirts in bulk. A player drawn to errant shots like a divining rod to water, Wallace, through Sunday, was responsible for outfitting 307 fans this season. "There are only 16 seats in a row, so with Ben, Rebound Row can become Rebound Rows," says Dan Hauser, the team’s executive vice president. "Come to a game, and you see an awful lot of R T-shirts."

Here are three more letters one might soon associate with Wallace: M, V and P. A first-time All-Star, Wallace is, quite simply, the league’s most dominating player—at least at one end of the floor. Last year the 6’9", 240-pound obelisk joined the fast (and decidedly taller) company of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players ever to lead the league in rebounds and blocks in the same season. This season Wallace is averaging a league-best 14.5 boards and is second in rejections (2.9).For good measure he averages 1.43 steals, proof that he excels on the x-axis as well as on the y-axis. Did we mention that his hands are so disproportionately small that he can barely palm the ball? "For Ben to be doing what he’s doing at his height is unheard of," says Detroit coach Rick Carlisle. "I think, absolutely, he’s an MVP candidate."

Key transaction

New backcourt

The Pistons had gone from 32 wins to 50 wins the year before in large part because their backcourt surpassed all expectations, not necessarily in terms of gross output, but in savvy. Jerry Stackhouse did everything Rick Carlisle asked him, becoming a more willing passer and defender than ever. Chucky Atkins averaged 12.1 points per game, raised his field-goal and 3-point percentages and deftly directed Detroit’s offense.

Their reward? Getting shipped out of town or sent to the bench.

The Pistons traded Stackhouse to the Wizards for Richard Hamilton* and signed Chauncey Billups to the full mid-level exception, essentially anointing both players as starters from the moment they were acquired.

*In a deal that also involved Ratko Varda and Brian Cardinal going to Washington and Hubert Davis and Bobby Simmons coming to Detroit. Who knew, two years later, Cardinal would sign a  six-year, $34 million contract with the Grizzlies, and Simmons would receive a five-year, $47 million contract from the Bucks three years later? For a couple benchwarmers tacked onto a star-for-star deal, they didn’t do half bad, even if they had left Washington and Detroit before playing their way into those deals.

Which acquisition was bigger? Take your pick. Signing Billups made a bigger difference for the franchise in the long and short terms, but trading for Hamilton came with much more risk.

Billups’ six-year, $35 million deal wouldn’t have handcuffed the Pistons if he flopped, which appeared unlikely given his experience in the league. Hamilton, on the other hand, was the second scorer on a 37-win team and was traded for the leading scorer on a 50-win team. That deal had had potential to destroy the Pistons.

In the end, both players worked out marvelously Detroit, became close friends and formed one of the, if not the, best backcourts in the NBA.

Trend watch

Reached Eastern Conference Finals for first time in 12 years

Not only were the Pistons reaching relatively new peaks, they were headed in the right direction after losing in the second round the year before. For the first time in 15 years, they reached the conference finals and advanced further than the previous season.

Why this season ranks No. 13

The 2002-03 Pistons were everything the 2001-02 Pistons were, just better.

Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton were better than Chucky Atkins and Jerry Stackhouse. 52 Pythagorean wins were better than 48. And most importantly, reaching the conference finals was better than losing in the second round.

When rookie Tayshaun Prince came off the bench to shut down Tracy McGrady with the Pistons facing a 3-1 deficit to the Orlando Magic in the first round, it became clear this team had even more potential than it appeared.

The Pistons were rising, but getting swept by the New Jersey Nets in the conference finals proved they still weren’t ready yet.

Previously

Chevette to Corvette No. 15: The 1996-97 Detroit Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 54-28
  • Pythagorean record: 57-25
  • Offensive Rating: 110.6 (5th of 29)
  • Defensive Rating: 104.4 (11th of 29)
  • Arena: Palace of Auburn Hills
  • Head coach: Doug Collins

Playoffs

  • Lost (3-2) in the first round to the Atlanta Hawks

Leaders

  • Points per game: Grant Hill (21.4)
  • Rebounds per game: Grant Hill (9.0)
  • Assists per game: Grant Hill (7.3)
  • Steals per game: Grant Hill (1.8)
  • Blocks per game: Theo Ratliff (1.5)

Top player

Grant Hill

Grant Hill was Detroit’s best player by a wide gulf every year he was on the team. It’s kind of pointless to keep reiterating, Dan and I, along with Hill’s stats, have said just about all there is to say about the Grant Hill era. He did everything he could to help the Pistons become relevant again. He was a legitimate national star, he started All-Star games, he got endorsement deals, he was a fantastic teammate and he even wined and dined the likes of Chris Dudley trying to convince someone, anyone, to sign with the Pistons and provide some help.

This wasn’t Hill’s best scoring season, but it might’ve been his best all-around. He had career-highs in assists and steals, he averaged more than 9 rebounds per game for the second straight season and he began to become more of the vocal leader Doug Collins had been insisting he become. The effort paid off, as the Pistons won 54 games, their best season of Hill’s Pistons career.

Key transaction

Traded two first round picks and two second round picks to the Atlanta Hawks for Stacey Augmon and Grant Long

This season’s transactions were notable because none made much of a contribution. Augmon was traded for to take over for departed Allan Houston. Plastic Man was a great athlete and a fantastic defender, but Houston was such a fit with the Pistons because he was the team’s one true long distance threat and he helped spread the floor for Hill to attack and slash. Augmon was a terrible perimeter shooter and he and Hill never developed much chemistry. Long, an Eastern Michigan product and cousin of then-Piston Terry Mills, had a few OK seasons as a role player. Thankfully, none of the draft picks given up in this trade amounted to anything for the Hawks.

The team also busted on signing free agent point guard Kenny Smith. Smith won two titles with Houston and was expected to make up for some of the shooting they lost when Houston left. Smith was released in just two months after he couldn’t crack the rotation.

Trend watch

First round and out

The Pistons turned into an exciting up and coming team in the regular season, but playoff success never accompanied Hill despite the many successes he had in Detroit. The Pistons lost in the second round to the Hawks, a team they were pretty evenly matched with in the regular season. It was the second straight year they’d lose a first round series. They’d lose in the first round four times in the Hill era.

Why this season ranks No. 16

In two seasons, Collins won 46 and then 54 games with the Pistons. They’d re-established themselves as a solid defensive unit, had one of the most bankable young stars in the league and most assumed after a successful 96-97 campaign that they’d emerge an East contender whenever Jerry Krause decided to go with his plan of blowing up the Bulls.

The fact is, 96-97 could’ve been miserable. The team lost Allan Houston to free agency. Houston was expected to be the long-time complementary star Hill would need and suddenly, the Pistons had to replace his shooting and scoring. Lindsey Hunter improved, Joe Dumars had a stellar season despite his advanced age and Hill once again effectively controlled the offense. People were starting to believe in the Pistons again. Hill even made the cover of the Sports Illustrated NBA Preview the following season. But unfortunately, this would be the best team of the Hill era.

Previously

Chevette to Corvette No. 16: The 1949-50 Fort Wayne Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 40-28
  • Pythagorean record: 38-30
  • Points Per Game: 79.3 (11th of 17)
  • Points Allowed Per Game: 77.9 (8th of 17)
  • Arena: North Side High School Gym
  • Head coach: Murray Mendenhall

Playoffs

  • Lost NBA Central Division Finals (2-0) versus Minneapolis Lakers
  • Won NBA Central Division Semifinals (2-0) versus Rochester Royals

Leaders

  • Points per game: Fred Schaus (14.3)
  • Assists per game: Curly Armstrong (2.7)

Top player

Fred Schaus

Schaus’s numbers — 14.3 points per game on 35 percent shooting — hardly seem impressive by today’s standards, but in the 1949-50 season, he accounted for nearly 20 percent of the team’s offense. He was also a solid defensive player who helped Fort Wayne improve by 18 wins over the previous season. Schaus didn’t have a long playing career, but had quite a memorable coaching career, including coaching Jerry West in college at West Virginia. He was also the first coach of the Lakers in Los Angeles after they moved from Minneapolis in 1960. West considered Schaus a mentor. From the Los Angeles Times:

“He was the first coach to show interest in me,” West said.

Key transaction

Selected Fred Schaus in the third round of the BAA Draft

In their first season in existence, the Fort Wayne Pistons had no player average in double figures. They had only one player who appeared in more than two games shoot better than 35 percent from the field. The team was last in the league in scoring. Schaus, an All-American at West Virginia and the first Mountaineer to score 1,000 points in his career, immediately helped turn the fortunes of the team around.

Trend watch

Playoff mainstays

The 1949-50 season would mark the first of 14 straight playoff appearances for the Pistons, the longest playoff streak in franchise history.

Why this season ranks No. 16

Curly Armstrong, an Indiana legend after starring locally at the high school level in Fort Wayne and then collegiately at Indiana, helped the Pistons to their first 40 win season with his presence at the point guard position. Armstrong certainly wasn’t a great shooter (28 percent), but his winning mentality was an important component for the team’s early success. Armstrong led his high school and college teams to championships and he even won three world championships as a softball player.???

Previously

Chevette to Corvette No. 17: The 1984-85 Detroit Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 46-36
  • Pythagorean record: 47-35
  • Offensive Rating: 109.6 (9th of 23)
  • Defensive Rating: 107.2 (9th of 23)
  • Arena: Pontiac Silverdome
  • Head coach: Chuck Daly

Playoffs

  • Won in first round vs. New Jersey Nets, 3-0
  • Lost in second round vs. Boston Celtics, 4-2

Leaders

  • Points per game: Isiah Thomas (21.2)
  • Rebounds per game: Bill Laimbeer (12.4)
  • Assists per game: Isiah Thomas (13.9)
  • Steals per game: Isiah Thomas (2.3)
  • Blocks per game: Terry Tyler (1.1)

Top player

Isiah Thomas

In 1983-84, Thomas finished fifth in the MVP voting. In 1984-85, Thomas improved his free throw shooting from 73 to 80 percent, averaged three more assists per game (a league-leading 13.9 per game) than the previous season, maintained his scoring average and improved his assist-to-turnover ratio. But the Pistons fell from 49 to 46 wins, and Thomas slid to ninth in that season’s MVP voting.

Still, Thomas was in the midst of his most dominant individual stretch of his career. It was the second of four straight times he’d finish in the top 10 in MVP voting and the second of three straight All-NBA First Team appearances. Thomas also had another brilliant All-Star performance with 22 points and 5 assists, although he didn’t capture the game MVP like he did the previous season. But his performance wasn’t what was notable about that All-Star performance — 1985 was allegedly the year that Thomas orchestrated the famous All-Star Game Freeze Out of Michael Jordan. From Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum:

Was Michael Jordan frozen out? Did the Beatles really fake McCartney’s death just for the hell of it? Who knows?

In my opinion, there was a freeze-out. Maybe not for the entire game but for major parts of it.

Jordan, flush with rookie success, Nike endorsements and unprecedented crossover appeal, came to his first All-Star Game ready to shine. He wore Swoosh paraphernalia, ignoring an unwritten rule that you wore All-Star stuff to the All-Star Game. Some of the All-Stars, particularly Eastern teammate Isiah Thomas and Western foe Magic Johnson, supposedly took umbrage at this. Or maybe they were just sick of Jordan’s popularity. Or maybe they didn’t care one way or the other, which is their story.

At any rate, Jordan got only nine shots and seven points and, after the game, a source close to Thomas and Johnson whispered that the two superstars, bosom buds at the time, had conspired to keep the ball from the tongue-wagging Bulls star. When confronted, they denied it. But Jordan always believed it. Thus began a bitter rivalry between the two players, one that Jordan didn’t get the best of until his Bulls swept Thomas’ Pistons in the 1991 Eastern finals and later, when he spoke out against including Thomas on the first Dream Team at the ’92 Olympics.

Key transaction

Traded Antoine Carr, Cliff Levingston and two second round picks to Atlanta for Dan Roundfield

* Note: I was so tempted to put ‘drafting Flint legend Eric Turner in the second round’ in this space, but since Turner never actually made the team, I’ll resist my Flint bias. But trust me, people in Flint still insist that Turner was the greatest player the city ever produced — better than NBA veterans like Glen Rice, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell.

Under Jack McCloskey, the Pistons made a lot of trades. McCloskey — ‘Trader Jack’ — deservedly gets credit for landing vital players like Bill Laimbeer, Vinnie Johnson and James Edwards in trades. But it’s important to note that McCloskey didn’t always make great trades. His brilliance was also in his ability to make up for bad ones. Carr and Levingston for Roundfield was a bad one. Carr, who was dealt after the Pistons drafted him in the first round of the 1983 draft, and Levingston both became solid rotation players for several years in their careers. Roundfield, who had averaged between 17 and 19 points per game for four straight seasons and made three All-Star appearances for the Hawks, immediately saw his average fall to 10 points per game and he only lasted one season in Detroit.

But, as McCloskey so often did, he corrected the mistake. In the following offseason, Roundfield brought back Rick Mahorn in a trade with Washington.

Trend watch

The defense starts to catch up

With Thomas, Kelly Tripucka, Laimbeer, Johnson and John Long, among others, the Pistons in the mid 1980s were among the best offensive teams in the league. In 1984-85, the defense started to catch up. The team still scored points and played at a fast pace, but the Pistons improved from 18th to 9th in defensive rating. It would still be a couple seasons before they started to look like the hard-nosed Bad Boys, but by 1984-85, it was clear the team was focusing more of its efforts on both ends of the floor.

Why this season ranks No. 17

After ending a six year playoff drought in 1983-84, the Pistons won a playoff series for the first time since 1976 in 1984-85. The team swept New Jersey in the first round and started what would become perhaps their fiercest rivalry by forcing the Celtics to six games in the second round.

The Pistons looked seriously over-matched, losing game one by 34 points. But after falling behind 0-2, the Pistons won both games at home and put up a fight in the final two games of the series. Boston would eliminate the Pistons in the playoffs one more time before the Pistons broke through.

Previously

Chevette to Corvette No. 18: The 1983-84 Detroit Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 49-33
  • Pythagorean record: 50-32
  • Offensive Rating: 111.5 (1st of 23)
  • Defensive Rating: 108.1 (16th of 23)
  • Arena: Pontiac Silverdome
  • Head coach: Chuck Daly

Playoffs

  • Lost in first round to the New York Knicks, 3-2

Leaders

  • Points per game: Isiah Thomas (21.3)
  • Rebounds per game: Bill Laimbeer (12.2)
  • Assists per game: Isiah Thomas (11.1)
  • Steals per game: Isiah Thomas (2.5)
  • Blocks per game: Bill Laimbeer (1.0)

Top player

Isiah Thomas

In the rookie year for both Isiah Thomas and Kelly Tripucka, Tripucka was Detroit’s best player. The next year, Thomas took a slight edge.

By 1983-84, Thomas had taken complete control of the team, at least relative to Tripucka. In addition to his excellent play with the Pistons – especially in the playoffs – Thomas won the All-Star Game MVP with 21 points, 15 assists and four steals.

Thomas finished fifth in MVP voting, too. He was a rising superstar.

Tripucka appeared headed in the opposite direction. Anthony Cotton of Sports Illustrated:

Although he’s the Pistons’ leading scorer with an average of 22.3 points a game, Tripucka has lately been criticized by some of his teammates. "Our white superstar sometimes doesn’t show up for games," said one, his way of saying he thought Tripucka was sulking over a slump.

Key transaction

Hired Chuck Daly

Daly made a huge impact right away in Detroit, but his legacy stretched well beyond this season. Simply, he was the best coach in franchise history.

Trend watch

Made playoffs for first time in seven years

With 49 wins (including one in the highest-scoring game in NBA history), their best record in 10 years, the Pistons snapped a lengthy postseason drought.

Why this season ranks No. 18

The Pistons had the misfortune of facing red-hot Bernard King and the New York Knicks in the first-round of the playoffs. How good was King? In Game 2, he scored a playoff-record 23 points in the first quarter. In Game 3, he scored 46 points to break his own single-game Madison Square Garden record and already break Elgin Baylor’s record for points in a five-game series. In the end, King averaged 42.6 points per game in the series.

And Isiah Thomas nearly eliminated him.

Most famously, Thomas scored 16 points in the final 94 seconds of regulation in Game 5, played at Joe Louis Arena because a motocross event booked the Silverdome. Knicks guard Rory Sparrow, via Bruce Newman of Sports Illustrated:

"God placed his hand on Isiah and said, ‘You shall play basketball, and you shall play it great,’ " said Sparrow later.

Isiah Thomas, via Eli Zaret’s “Blue Collar Blueprint”:

I must say that it was a wild scene. Coleman Young called me up and said, ‘Welcome to the city.’ Everybody in the hood was like, ‘Zeke, you’re coming to put on a show tonight.’ And being a city guy, it was almost like you were going home.

When I got into Joe Louis, the atmosphere was so electric, it was awesome. You can’t describe it—it made you want to get off. I just felt like I could do anything. The fans were screaming and every move you made, people were oohing and aahing—it was sweet. I’m not a Baptist; I was raised Catholic. But sometimes I’d go to a Baptist church and you’ll see what they call the Holy Ghost, where the spirit will take over their body and it moves them.

During that game I got the Holy Ghost—I just got the spirit into my body and I was doing stuff and making moves—I felt I was above the court looking at everybody and I could just do anything. It was great!

As well as Thomas played, the Pistons lost in overtime of that deciding game. Thomas drove home to Chicago in his jersey immediately after the game, according to Zaret.

All in all, the season presented tremendous promise for the Pistons and their superstar point guard. Anthony Cotton of Sports Illustrated:

Under Daly, Thomas. says he has felt "an incredible surge of freedom," indeed so much so that he has talked about signing a lifetime contract with the Pistons. "I really decided that I wanted to stay here over last summer," Thomas says. "I have a chance to be on Detroit’s first division winner, maybe its first championship team ever. I like being the first to do things."

Previously

Chevette to Corvette No. 19: The 1985-86 Detroit Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 46-36
  • Pythagorean record: 44-38
  • Offensive Rating: 109.0 (7th of 23)
  • Defensive Rating: 107.9 (15th of 23)
  • Arena: Pontiac Silverdome
  • Head coach: Chuck Daly

Playoffs

  • Lost in first round to the Atlanta Hawks, 3-1

Leaders

  • Points per game: Isiah Thomas (20.9)
  • Rebounds per game: Bill Laimbeer (13.1)
  • Assists per game: Isiah Thomas (10.8)
  • Steals per game: Isiah Thomas (2.2)
  • Blocks per game: Bill Laimbeer (0.8)

Top player

Isiah Thomas

Thomas finished ninth in MVP voting and had 30 points, 10 assists and five steals to win his second All-Star Game MVP. Critics would use Thomas’ All-Star MVPs to criticize his  style of play, saying he could only excel in a freewheeling scheme that wasn’t conducive to winning in the playoffs. Unfortunately, this season would give them more evidence.

Key transaction

Drafted Joe Dumars with No. 18 pick

Pistons general manager Jack McCloskey coveted Joe Dumars entering the draft but never figured he’d land the McNeese State guard. Keith Langlois of Pistons.com:

Pistons owner Bill Davidson and minority partner Oscar Feldman, not so long removed from his own duties as general manager, would sit in the draft room with McCloskey and his trusted scouts, Will Robinson and Stan Novak. McCloskey would brief Davidson and Feldman in the days leading to the draft on the handful of players he figured would be in his range.

“The owners would come in and they’d always want to know who were the potential people we would pick,” McCloskey recalled. “I gave them names. Now the draft starts off and we get down to Dallas, which had two picks in front of us. And I’m saying to myself, ‘Do we really have a chance to get this guy?’

“Sure enough, Dallas takes two big guys” – the Mavs picked 7-footers Bill Wennington of St. John’s and Uwe Blab of Indiana – “and I grab the phone right away and say to the NBA, ‘the Pistons take Joe Dumars.’ And both owners jumped off their seats and said, ‘Who the hell is Joe Dumars? You never told us about him!’ ”

Dumars went on to have a Hall of Fame career, all of it with Detroit, and still ranks first in Pistons history in games and 3-pointers.

Trend watch

Step back

Entering 1985-86, the Pistons had spent half a decade mostly rising – 16 wins, 21 wins, 39 wins, 37 wins, making the playoffs, reaching the second round. But this season’s first-round loss to the Hawks represented a significant step back.

Why this season ranks No. 19

After an 11-5 start, the Pistons lost 15 of 19. Sitting 16-21 midway through January, the Pistons rallied to finish 46-36, secure the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference and earn a first-round matchup with the Atlanta Hawks.

The Hawks hadn’t won a playoff series in six years and had just one starter (Tree Rollins) and one other rotation player (Eddie Johnson) left from that 1979-80 team. Led by Dominique Wilkins, Atlanta had joined the Pistons as one of the East’s rising teams looking to join the Celtics, 76ers and Bucks on the top level.

The Hawks won the first two games of the series by 18 and 12, and although the Pistons won Game 3, Atlanta stole Game 4 in double overtime, 114-113.

The Pistons were no longer next in the East, ceding the role of premier upstart to the Hawks. Keith Langlois of Pistons.com:

“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.”

Previously

Chevette to Corvette No. 20: The 1955-56 Fort Wayne Pistons

Facts

  • Actual record: 37-35
  • Pythagorean record: 38-34
  • Points scored per game: 94.4 (8th of 8)
  • Points allowed per game: 93.7 (1st of 8)
  • Arena: War Memorial Coliseum
  • Head coach: Charles Eckman

Playoffs

  • Beat the St. Louis Hawks in Western Division Finals, 3-2
  • Lost in NBA Finals to the Philadelphia Warriors, 4-1

Leaders

  • Points per game: George Yardley (17.4)
  • Rebounds per game: Larry Foust (9.7)
  • Assists per game: Andy Phillip (5.9)

Top player

George Yardley

Larry Foust (16.2 points and 9.0 rebounds per game) was slightly better than Yardley (17.4 points and 9.7 rebounds per game) in the regular season, but Yardley outperformed Foust in the playoffs. Yardley averaged 23.0 points, 13.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists in the playoffs and bested his regular-season field-goal and free-throw percentages.

Key transaction

Drafted Jesse Arnelle with No. 7 pick in second round

Rodger Nelson’s “The Zollner Piston Story”:

Almost unnoticed, a milestone was passed when the Zollners signed Jesse Arnelle, the first black ever to ink a Fort Wayne contract. Although he had not signed after being their number two draft choice, the European tour of the Globetrotters was over and the Penn State six-foot-five star wanted to take a crack at the NBA.

Arnelle broke his nose and barely played the rest of the season, the first and last of his NBA career. But he had a distinguished law career and now serves on the Penn State Board of Trustees.

Trend watch

Back-to-back Finals

The Pistons made the National Basketball League finals every year between 1942 and 1945, winning the league title in 1944 and 1945. NBA success hadn’t come quite as easily, but with their second straight Finals appearance, the Pistons were in reach of matching their NBL level of play.

Why this season ranks No. 20

Before the season, a big storyline began to form. Rodger Nelson’s “The Zollner Piston Story”:

The Piston Civil Action Committee would up its season ticket sales campaign and fell slightly short of the 2,500 goal; public figures were never disclosed. But selling more than 2,000 season tickets was still a hallmark figure in the NBA. Rumors persisted about moving the Fort Wayne franchise to a larger city but Zollner’s pat answer remained, "If the fans prove they want us we have no plans to move."

The Pistons started the season 1-6 before winning a Thanksgiving Day game over the Rochester Royals. Even with their poor record, that game pushed the Pistons’ attendance pace 35 percent ahead of the previous year, according to Nelson.

Fort Wayne recovered from its poor start to win the Western Division at 37-35, the division’s only winning record. That earned a first-round bye in the six-team playoffs and a Western Division Finals matchup with the St. Louis Hawks, who had beaten the Minneapolis Lakers.

St. Louis won the series’ first two games, but Fort Wayne became the first NBA team to overcome that deficit.

The Pistons weren’t so fortunate in the NBA Finals, where the Paul Arizin-led Philadelphia Warriors earned a 4-1 victory and their second championship.

Rodger Nelson’s “The Zollner Piston Story”:

The Zollner monthly employee magazine, The Rocket, wrapped up the season with an eight paragraph story headlined "The Big One Got Away Again." "The big one got away again, but the Pistons already are formulating plans to see that it doesn’t happen a third time… A summing up for the 1955-56 season can only be a pleasant one. The Z’s attendance increased sharply and tremendous interest in the playoff games (more than 24,000 saw the last three games at home) pointed toward another increase next season."

Previously