One of the first indications appeared early in the season, before the standings began to reflect just how good the Pistons had become. The Cleveland Cavaliers were attempting to run a play against Detroit when Referee Mendy Rudolph blew his whistle, pirouetted from behind the basket toward the scorer's table at Cobo Arena and, making the flamboyant gestures he usually reserves for games he officiates on national TV, laid a warning on the Pistons for using an illegal zone defense. What made Rudolph's action so startling was not the call itself, which is required by NBA rules, but that he needed to make it. By so doing, he became the first man in recent memory to detect the Pistons playing any discernible form of defense, legit or otherwise.
Perhaps because it was so stunned that its secret was out, Detroit lost to Cleveland and again to Houston two nights later. But in the two months since, the Pistons have been the winningest team in the pros this side of Milwaukee. Over that span they have won 21 of 29 games, picking indiscriminately on weak teams, which they have sometimes embarrassed by lopsided scores, and strong ones. Detroit has won 10 of its 15 most recent games against .500-plus clubs, and in one heady burst clobbered the NBA's two most successful clubs, Milwaukee (twice) and Boston. These winning ways continued last week as the Pistons swept three weak opponents at Cobo before losing at Chicago 109-91. That defeat prevented Detroit from moving ahead of the Bulls into second place in the Midwest Division, easily the league's toughest, but hardly tarnished the Pistons' 33-19 record, fourth-best in the NBA.
It is defense in its many forms—trap presses, switching man-to-man and occasionally a thinly disguised zone of the sort used by most good pro teams—that has turned the Detroit Pistons, for 16 seasons one of the NBA's most persistent losers, into insistent winners. Last year Detroit ranked 10th in defense, allowing 110 points per game—and that was a six-point improvement over 1971-72. Now the Pistons have a 98.9 defensive average and are getting better with almost every game; only three of their last 13 opponents have scored as many as 100 points.
Moreover, Detroit has wrought these miracles with, in the main, the same old workers. Former Piston player Ray Scott had barely given a thought to coaching 18 months ago; now he is a cinch for Coach of the Year. Dave Bing had spent seven fine seasons in the Detroit backcourt and come close to blindness; now he is doing better than ever on both offense and defense, even though he must often make plays and shots when his teammates and the basket are out of focus. In his three previous pro years Bob Lanier was accused of having too much gut and not enough guts. Today, he is no worse than the third-best NBA center and may well be named the NBA's Most Valuable Player.
When Scott resigned his front-office job with the ABA Squires and returned to Detroit to assist Coach Earl Lloyd at the beginning of last season, the situation bore a depressing similarity to the one Scott had left in 1967 after a six-year sentence in a Piston uniform. The team was a loser, just as it had been for all but one season dating back to 1956-57, when the Pistons played out of Fort Wayne, and it had not made the playoffs since 1968. Nor did there seem much reason to expect matters to improve when Lloyd was fired less than a month into the season and Scott was named the team's sixth coach in eight years.
"When they asked me to take over the team, I hadn't given coaching much thought," the 6'9" Scott says, "but I wasn't totally unprepared. I hadn't been a dumb player. I had been interested in what was happening on the floor and had come to understand the right way to play. And I knew that the way we had been playing was not right. The Pistons had been the type of team that tried to win by outshooting the other guys, and that almost never works because shooting is the least predictable part of the game. We had to turn it around; to take what the other team offered us on offense, to assert ourselves on defense and only let the other team have what we offered it.
"The players knew most of the techniques for doing this; the problem was getting them to execute. Because I hadn't seriously thought about coaching, I had never bothered to cook up an act to use on players. I was forced to be myself and I think it's worked out advantageously. I generally try to be honest and direct with people and I've been the same with the players. There have been times I've done things you can point to. Last year I benched guys immediately when they didn't do what I wanted, and that included Lanier a half-dozen times. But that's only a minor part of motivating people. The rest of it is very elusive. I do a thing a certain way because that's the way I am. I'm just groping. If something happens to work, I'm never quite sure why. There's no real structure to it. When we solve one problem, we go on to the next. There aren't any books to look in and I don't call up Red Auerbach after we reach each stage of improvement and ask, 'What do we do next?' "
Whatever Scott has that his predecessors lacked, it began to take hold midway through last season. Detroit won 20 of its final 31 games a year ago, a streak that was viewed with some skepticism because of the team's past record and the feeling that many of the wins came against clubs coasting until the playoffs. This season the Pistons should be the ones coasting into the playoffs, and once there they should be full-fledged title contenders.
One man who says he needed only a nudge from Scott is Bing, a former NBA scoring champ whose average this season (19) is his lowest ever. Instead of concentrating on shooting and using his rare quickness to penetrate, Bing has worked harder on defense and floor leadership. "It's a change I might not have accepted as a young player because I might not have understood how we'd benefit by me scoring fewer points," he admits. "But I've gone all these years scoring all these points and we never won. Obviously, it was time to adjust."
That is an adjustment that must seem minor to Bing after the accommodations he has had to make because of his limited vision. As a child he stuck a nail through his left pupil, leaving him with 20/50 vision in that eye. Then in an exhibition in 1971 the retina was torn in Bing's right eye. After playing one more game and scoring 24 points before the injury was correctly diagnosed, he entered the University of Michigan Hospital, where a team of surgeons sewed his eye back together with silicone thread and debated whether he should ever play again. Bing gave them their answer less than three months later when he returned to the lineup and appeared in the final 44 games of the season.
"It took me more than a year to adjust," says Bing, who cannot discern the features of a person six feet away without his glasses, but wears a contact lens only in his right eye when playing. "TV games really bother me because the lights tend to cause glare on the lens. I've lost depth perception and most of my peripheral vision. The only way I can tell who's on my team from the other end of the floor is by the color of the uniforms. Otherwise everybody looks like a hazy blob." Worse still, Bing cannot clearly focus on the basket as he moves quickly about the court, a severe handicap for a player whose biggest offensive asset is his ability to shoot on the run. But Bing still takes—and makes—that kind of shot. He judges the range by his position on the floor.
Lanier had a handicap to overcome, too. According to Scott, it was his center's unwillingness to assert—or exert—himself fully in any aspect of the game except shooting. According to Lanier, it has only been in the last year that he has overcome the physical and psychological effects of the knee injury that ended his college career in 1970 when he was playing in the NCAA regionals for St. Bonaventure and fell over Villanova's (now, ironically, the Pistons') Chris Ford. Whatever the reason, there is no question that in his first 2½ seasons in Detroit the 6'11" Lanier was usually overweight—often at 275 pounds and more—too prone to wander far outside for long jump shots and frequently absent without leave on defense.
Since Scott's arrival, the benchings, the threat of a fine if Lanier reported weighing more than 265 and Lanier's revived enthusiasm have changed all that. The most versatile shooter among pro centers, Lanier is grinding down opponents with his inside game and wearing them out with his defense. He averages 23.9 points and 14 rebounds per game, but impressive as those numbers are, his best statistic is the Pistons' defensive average, for which he is most responsible.
Lanier is not only clogging the middle with his immense frame, but is using his unexpected quickness to move away from the basket and help Detroit's switching defense in much the same manner that last year's MVP, Dave Cowens, does for the Celtics. Twice in the Pistons' 93-89 win over Houston last week, Lanier switched onto Rocket Calvin Murphy, the smallest (5'9") and perhaps the fastest man in the league. Both times Murphy attempted to drive past Lanier, only to end up passing off in frustration when he could not get by. The next night Lanier put together one of the tidiest performances of the season as Detroit beat Seattle 94-83. He scored 27 points, grabbed 19 rebounds, had five assists, stole the ball three times and blocked seven shots. He said of that night's work: "I've had quite a few games like this so far this year, and I expect I'm going to have even more of them in the future." Which suggests how good the Detroit Pistons might get.