“The Last Dance” remembers the Detroit Pistons for 7.9 seconds.
You remember Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer walking off the floor after Game 4 of the 1991 Eastern Conference finals. You remember the elbows, cheap fouls and Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen’s long-standing contempt for Thomas and the “Bad Boys.”
With all due respect to the current times, history washes its hands of the Pistons because they didn’t shake hands. Those 7.9 seconds vilified Detroit as the ultimate sore loser bullies.
That takes away from what Detroit really was. They were the dominant two-time NBA champion that gets lost between the Lakers-Celtics rivalry of the 1980s and the Bulls’ run in the 1990s. You didn’t have to like them then. You don’t have to like them now. You can still appreciate how good the “Bad Boys” were.
The “Last Dance” showed again what doesn’t get talked about enough: The back-to-back championship teams were good enough to beat anybody at the time — and not just with their elbows.
Consider the two NBA championship playoff runs. In 1988-89, Detroit went 15-2 in the playoffs while mowing through the Celtics, Bucks, Bulls and Lakers. On the repeat run, the Pistons went 15-5 against the Pacers, Knicks, Bulls and Blazers. Three of those losses were to Chicago. Chicago might have won an NBA championship sooner, given Jordan was in his prime, if not for Detroit.
“With them being more mentally dominant than we were, they knew as soon as we started complaining they had us,” Bulls forward Horace Grant said in the documentary. “And they did.”
How is that a problem? Go watch one of those old-school NBA montages on Facebook. You’ll see Julius Erving and Larry Bird choking each other. You’ll see Kevin McHale clothes-line Kurt Rambis. You’ll see Jordan face-palm Reggie Miller. The Knicks pretty much fought everybody. Not to say everybody was doing it, but yeah, everybody was doing it. Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn just instigated a little more. They were a product of a more physical era that changed the Bulls and changed the game.
“The Last Dance” showed how Chicago got in the weight room explicitly to be tough enough to beat the Pistons. Two of the most dominating players since the Bulls heyday — Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James — are unstoppable in large part because of their physical presence.
Detroit had skill, too. That’s the single-biggest misconception about this team. The 1988-89 championship team had five players who averaged at least 13 points per game in Thomas, Laimbeer, Joe Dumars, Vinnie Johnson and the half-season split between Adrian Dantley, who was traded for Mark Aguire that season.
That’s not including Dennis Rodman, who averaged nine points and 9.8 rebounds. They had a deep bench with role players such as James Edwards and John Salley and coach Chuck Daly, who coached the same Dream Team from which Thomas was left off.
If there’s a point Thomas can make that is right, it’s this: Yes, they had to make the same climb as the Bulls. Detroit lost in the playoffs to the Celtics in 1985 and 1987, and that included Larry Bird’s legendary steal in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals. The defining moment of those Detroit teams is Thomas scoring 25 points in the third quarter on a bad leg of the 1987 NBA Finals to force a Game 7 with Los Angeles. That led to the two NBA Finals runs that followed.
Instead, it’s the “Jordan Rules” and those 7.9 seconds. Thomas tried to justify not shaking hands in “The Last Dance” by drawing comparisons to the Celtics.
“During that period of time,” Thomas said. “That’s not how it was passed.”
Jordan is a meme today with his reaction. He’s right, too. The Pistons should have stayed on the court and shook hands. If they had passed the torch more graciously, then maybe history looks at Thomas, Laimbeer and the “Bad Boys” would be looked at differently.
Be honest. It wouldn’t. They would still be lost in that championship shuffle with the Lakers, Celtics and Bulls. Taking that honesty one step further, Detroit still loves that “Bad Boys” image, too. The 2003-04 Pistons used the same framework to win an NBA championship and were a team LeBron James had to overcome to get to the NBA Finals for the first time.
You want the Pistons to apologize for that more than 30 years later? Why would they? It’s what made their team stand out. There is a defense for their defense, and two championships in that era with all those legends is the proof.
Detroit belongs in those all-time great team hypotheticals, too. Yes, you can throw today’s Warriors in there (depending on the rules). Who gets the first technical between Draymond Green and Rodman? Who wouldn’t watch Steph Curry and Klay Thompson go at it with Thomas and Dumars? Who wouldn’t sign up for that in either era?
We would, and 7.9 seconds doesn’t change what we already know about the “Bad Boys.” The Pistons were a championship team that set up the stage for the greatest dynasty of all time.
That’s how the dance got started in the first place.