1989 Detroit Pistons: A Long-Sought Championship

Chuck Daly took over a moribund franchise in 1984. The Pistons moved to Detroit in 1958 and had never reached the NBA Finals. They were on a string of seven straight losing seasons. The rebuilding project began immediately with a 49-win season. That built up to crushing heartbreaks in 1987 and 1988 when the team lost gutwrenching Game 7s in Boston and Los Angeles.But in the latter case, they had finally reached the NBA Finals. And the 1989 Detroit Pistons took the final step and won a championship.

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Two things defined this team and it was depth and perceived dirty play, so much so that they were tagged with the nickname “The Bad Boys” and reveled in it. Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn combined to average 17 rebounds a game and were the main culprits or heroes, depending on your point of view.

But alongside the physical play was basketball elegance in the backcourt. Isiah Thomas averaged 18 points/8 assists while running mate Joe Dumas was good for 17 points/6 assists. Vinnie Johnson came off the bench for 14ppg and could heat up so quickly he was named “The Microwave.”

In an NBA world where the Lakers and Celtics had been top-heavy with all-time greats, the Pistons countered by going nine-deep. Dennis Rodman was an outstanding defender and rebounder at forward. John Salley was a rebounder and shotblocker. Adrian Dantley was one of the league’s best scorers and even having to share the ball more in this deep lineup, he still knocked down 18ppg. That’s along with Laimbeer and Mahorn and along with a quality veteran center in James Edwards.

Daly orchestrated it all brilliantly and managed to keep everyone happy—or happy enough. And the one notable exception to that would be fixed before the regular season was over.

Detroit opened the season in Chicago against Michael Jordan and won 107-94. It was the first of eight straight wins to get the year going. They went to Boston and won 116-107 and knocked off Los Angeles at home, 102-99, forcing Magic Johnson into nine turnovers.

By February 15, the Pistons’ record was 32-13 and they were coming off an eight-point win in Los Angeles, albeit where Magic didn’t play. But there were rumblings. Dantley was clashing with Isiah over leadership of the team and not happy with giving up minutes. Rodman needed to play more. Detroit responded by dealing Dantley to Dallas in exchange for Mark Aguirre.

It seemed an odd move looking at it from the outside in. Aguirre, the #1 overall pick in the 1981 NBA draft, was an explosive scorer and great talent. But he’d had problems co-existing in Dallas. It didn’t seem like a Detroit team that was the essence of “team” was a good fit. Aguirre was a childhood friend of Isiah though, it he blended into the team in a way Dantley didn’t.

The other rumbling was coming from Cleveland. The Cavaliers were an up-and-coming team themselves, with Mark Price, Ron Harper and Brad Daugherty as a Big Three. Cleveland won the first three meetings with Detroit. Even when the Pistons finally got off the schneid with a 96-90 over the Cavs on March 3 it came with Price on the bench. Cleveland was widely seen as a legitimate third contender for the title, alongside Detroit and Los Angeles.

A strong finishing kick sent the Pistons into the playoffs on a good note. They won 25 of their final 28 games and their 63-19 record cleared the field by six games. The road to the NBA title would come through the brand-new Palace of Auburn Hills.

The playoffs started against Boston, but this Celtics team had effectively fallen apart. Larry Bird played only six games in 1989. Even though Kevin McHale and Robert Parish were still productive, with Reggie Lewis an up-and-comer, the Celts had finished 42-40 and were not seen as a realistic threat to upset the Pistons.

Boston put up a game fight, as you would expect from a veteran team, but Detroit was a veteran, battle-tested team now too. They held the Celtics to 10 points in the second quarter of Game 1 and won 101-91 behind 25 from Dumars. Boston led Games 2 & 3 narrowly after three quarters, but Detroit’s depth won each in the fourth quarter.

Isiah and Aguirre combined for 47 points in Game 2, while Laimbeer had his second straight game of double-digit rebounds in a 102-95 win. In the third game at the Garden, Vinnie Johnson had his second big game off the bench, knocking down 25 and keying a 100-85 win to close the sweep in what was then a best-of-five first round.

A matchup with Atlanta and the electric Dominique Wilkins, known as “The Human Highlight Film” was expected, but the Hawks had lost a home Game 5 to the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks had been one of the league’s most consistent teams in the 1980s, but always a step behind the league’s elite. They had won 49 games in 1989, but were fighting injuries. In short, they weren’t going to stop the Pistons in a best-of-seven series.

Detroit dominated the glass in the opener, 53-31 with 17 boards from Laimbeer alone. Even though the Pistons were down nine at the half, the rebounding along with some stingy fourth-quarter defense, led to an 85-80 win. They again dominated the fourth quarter in Game 2 thanks to the depth. Off the bench, Salley scored 23, Johnson went for 21 and Rodman grabbed 13 rebounds to key the 112-92 win.

The series went to Milwaukee, but any hopes the Bucks had of getting back into it faded in the first minute when their talented young forward, Larry Krystowiak, blew out his knee. The Pistons controlled the game throughout, getting 26 from Isiah and ten assists from Dumars to lead the 110-90 win that all but salted the series away.

Another sweep was formalized in a sloppy 96-94 escape in Game 4. Detroit fell behind by 13 early and turned it over seventeen times. But their continued rebounding advantage was keyed by an unlikely hero—the diminutive Isiah, who got ten boards as a part of a triple-double. For the third straight year, the Pistons were in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Some big things were happening on the opposite end of the Eastern bracket. The anticipated showdown with Cleveland didn’t materialize. The Cavs were upset in the first round by Chicago on a last-second Game 5 jumper by Jordan. The Bulls then upset the 2-seed New York Knicks. Chicago might be the 6-seed, they might have had a pedestrian 47-35 regular season record. But they had the rising force of the 25-year-old Jordan.

Jordan averaged 33ppg during the regular season, although there were questions about his supporting cast. Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant were solid, but still only 23-years-old. Bill Cartwright was a decent center, but hardly one to inspire fear. Chicago was the ultimate one-man show. Detroit was the ultimate team.

But the ultimate team did not play well in Game 1. They only shot 39 percent, with Isiah’s 3-for-18 performance the primary culprit. A 94-88 loss ceded homecourt advantage right out of the chute. Thomas bounced back with a stellar 33-point game to lead a 100-91 win in Game 2, but Jordan put on a dynamic Game 3 display back in Chicago. He poured in 46 points and against a Detroit team renowned for owning the final quarter, rallied the Bulls from eleven points down to a 99-97 win. The Pistons now faced a Game 4 on the road that was close to a must-win.

Championship teams can do what they have to do and they can win ugly. That’s what Detroit did in Game 4. They only shot 36%, but they played defense and they hit the glass hard. Jordan was forced into 5-for-15 shooting. Rodman’s 18 rebounds keyed a 56-40 edge on the boards. Isiah scored 27 and got ten rebounds of his own. With the 86-80 win, the Pistons reclaimed control of the series.

The defense again kept Jordan in check at home in Game 5, limiting him to 18 points. Detroit trailed by four at the half, but the bench provided 22 points from The Microwave and 19 more from Aguirre in a 94-85 win. With the momentum back in their favor, the Pistons finished the job back in old Chicago Stadium. Laimbeer and Rodman combined to get 25 rebounds. Even though Jordan went off for 32, Isiah answered with 33 and the 103-94 win sent the Pistons back to the NBA Finals.

Los Angeles was waiting. The Lakers had blown through the Western Conference playoffs with an 11-0 record. Magic Johnson had won his second MVP award in three years, averaging 23 points/8 rebounds/12 assists through the regular season. James Worthy and Byron Scott were each 20ppg scorers. A.C. Green and Mychal Thompson were reliable frontcourt players. And even though 41-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was on his final legs—his retirement at the end of the year was already known—the Captain was still good for inspiration.

But the Lakers weren’t healthy. Scott was already ruled out for the Finals. Michael Cooper was an able sub, but he was also one of the NBA’s best sixth men. An already thin Los Angeles bench was now non-existent.

The Detroit backcourt was ready to exploit their advantage. Isiah scored 24 in the opener, while Dumars added 22 and Johnson popped in 19. The Pistons won 109-97. Game 2 was shaping up as a classic battle. Magic had scored 18 points and dished nine assists in a tight game in the third quarter. Then he pulled up lame. His hamstring was shot and the look of complete disgust was all over his face as he had to leave the game. And the 1989 NBA Finals were effectively over.

There was nothing to stop the Piston guards from running rampant. Dumars poured in 33 points, with Isiah and Vinnie combining for 39 more. Detroit survived this game 108-105 and traveled west to face a decimated opponent.

Like the Celtics in the first round, these Lakers were a team of proud veterans. Magic tried to go in Game 3, but after five minutes had to leave. Dumars again lit up the Laker backup guards, this time with 31, while Isiah and Vinnie combined for 43. The final was 114-110.

Worthy did everything he could to extend the series in Game 4, going off for 40 points. But there was n help. In a perfect ending for this Pistons team, they had six players score between 13-23 points. The balanced attack led the way to a 105-97 win. The celebration could begin.

Dumars was named Finals MVP, averaging 27ppg in the four games and shooting 58 percent. Isiah scored 21ppg, while Johnson had shot 60 percent from the floor in scoring 17ppg. Rodman added ten rebounds a night.

The ending was anticlimactic because of the injuries to Scott and Magic. It has to be remembered though, that Detroit had still been the league’s best team throughout the season. And as Laker coach Pat Riley himself pointed out in the aftermath, championships are about depth. Detroit had it in spades and that’s why they won a championship. And they were coming back for more.