As the curtain came down on the 1987-88 NBA season, the images that remained were those from the locker room of the deliriously happy Los Angeles Lakers, the team that had done what a year earlier coach Pat Riley had said it would do—repeat as champion.
This is an article from the July 4, 1988 issue
Over there was finals MVP James Worthy—his Game 7 triple double of 36 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists enabled the Lakers to beat the Detroit Pistons 108-105—asking his wife, Angela, to spin around so he could admire her orange dress. There was sixth man Michael Cooper anxiously searching the wild crowd for his wife, Wanda, just as he had sought her out in the stands after making an important three-point shot late in the third quarter of the June 21 clincher. There was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playfully stuffing a towel into Riley's mouth after the coach was asked if he was going to predict a third title.
And there was the champagne-soaked prognosticator himself, old Repeat Riley, laughing, hugging, shaking hands, kissing and being kissed and resting his case, all at the same time.
The verdict is in, and you win, Pat. This Laker team belongs with the great ones.
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.
The Lakers, on their way to becoming the first NBA team to win back-to-back titles since the Boston Celtics of 1968 and '69, careened rather than cruised through the postseason. Both Utah and Dallas took L.A. to the limit, and then the Lakers became the first champions to have to play a third seven-game series. To some observers this marathon struggle somehow reduced the Lakers' effort to a murmur rather than a roar. Such reasoning was foolish.
The basketball world cannot, on one hand, proclaim the NBA stronger and more balanced than ever, as it most certainly is, and then, on the other hand, denigrate its champion. How good were the 1987-88 Lakers? Good enough.
Of course, Riley insisted that these Lakers be judged by another yardstick. They played this season—and more self-consciously than most other great teams—for a niche in history. That was the whip that Riley used all year long. If the Lakers won, he insisted, they would belong not only among the greatest NBA teams of all time, but also among the greatest dynasties in all of sports.
"We made a very strong defense," said Riley. "Now it's up to you, the prosecutors, to judge us, to give us our place in history."
It was convenient for the Lakers that Magic Johnson came along with the dawning of the '80s (his rookie season was 1979-80), giving the team the opportunity to put its stamp on its very own decade. And so the Lakers have, winning five titles ('80, '82, '85, '87 and '88) and losing twice in the finals ('83 and '84).
Of the many other dynasties in sports, only the NBA's Boston Celtics (nine championships in the '60s), the NHL's Montreal Canadiens (five in the '50s, five more in the '60s and six in the 70s) and baseball's New York Yankees (five World Series victories in the '30s and six in the '50s) have won five or more titles in a single decade. Not bad company, Pat, not bad at all.
This season's championship game had been over for an hour, but Detroit's Thomas was still in uniform, his bum ankle draped with an ice bag, his fingers wrapped around a bottle of bubbly. "We deserve to drink champagne as much as they do," said Thomas.
Next year, Thomas could be savoring his drink in a winning locker room. But while Detroit has the right ingredients to become a champion, the team must still learn to combine the elements in the right proportions. And the Pistons are, to be sure, a volatile mix, the kind that can blow up in the kitchen.
For one thing, Thomas is not happy with his $700,000-a-year contract, especially since that figure would put him below the $800,000 earned by the Pistons' William Bedford...should the seldom-used, second-year center make it back from drug rehabilitation for the '88-89 season. The Pistons are expected to renegotiate with Thomas, but sometimes these matters do not go smoothly.
Adrian Dantley, the Pistons' "proud warrior," in the words of assistant coach Dick Versace, has never been a particularly happy camper. Even when things were going well this season, Dantley would work virtually every conversation around to how he was not getting enough shots in the Piston offense. He and Thomas have successfully walked a tightrope for the last two seasons, each subordinating a little of his own game for the sake of the other's. They deserve credit for that. But the tightrope is still strung and must still be walked.
And at times during the season, reserve guard Vinnie Johnson got the blues over his lack of playing time; it showed particularly in his regular-season performance. Furthermore, by the start of next season, power forward Rick Mahorn will either be recovering from off-season back surgery or again trying to be effective while playing through the pain. And it will be interesting to see if John Salley and Dennis Rodman, having tasted success in '87-88, will make off-season commitments to improve on offense. They should not emulate center Bill Laimbeer, who in spite of being as tough a competitor as there is during the season, has never taken the time during the summer to improve his post-up game. That is a sore point between Laimbeer and Piston general manager Jack McCloskey.
There is a degree of uncertainty about the Detroit coaching staff too. As of Sunday, both head coach Chuck Daly and assistant Ronnie Rothstein were candidates for the head coaching position with the Miami Heat, one of the two expansion teams joining the NBA next season (the Charlotte Hornets are the other). With both a keen wit and a firm hand, Daly, whom the Pistons call Daddy Rich for his slick appearance, did an amazing job of keeping this unpredictable team together. And Rothstein, who came from Atlanta before the 1986-87 season, deserves most of the credit for introducing to the Pistons a seven-letter word: defense. Even if Daly stays, who knows what ill feelings may linger, and possibly fester, over the Pistons' inability to sign him to a long-term contract before his old one expired on May 31, one week before he led the franchise into the finals. The $185,000 Daly earned in 1987-88 is positively paltry in light of both the Pistons' success and the five-year, $3.5 million deal given new San Antonio Spurs coach Larry Brown.
There is something else that could derail Detroit. The real strength of the Lakers came—and still comes, in spite of Worthy's great playoff performance—from Magic Johnson. He runs the show, just as Larry Bird runs it in Boston. The Pistons do not have that kind of leader. Thomas has the potential to become that player, but he's not there yet.
Despite such questions, Detroit, the product of solid draft choices (Thomas, Joe Dumars, Salley, Rodman) as well as crafty acquisitions by McCloskey (Dantley, Vinnie Johnson, James Edwards), is clearly a model team for the '90s—for these reasons:
•The Pistons emphasize defense. Double-teaming defense, combative one-on-one defense, hellacious off-the-ball defense—the Pistons do it all. Rodman, about whom Riley said, "There's no better defensive player in the league," gave the NBA something to think about by harassing Magic as no defender has before. Of course, not everyone is a Rodman, who at 6'8" is tall enough to obstruct some of the 6'9" Magic's passing angles and quick enough to skirt around picks and take away the Laker guard's proficiency on the pick-and-roll.
•The Pistons have a post-up player. That player no longer has to be the center, as in the past, but he must be potent enough to draw double-team attention and smart enough to swing the ball to his teammates when he does get doubled. Detroit's man is the 6'5" Dantley. The Lakers, who have Worthy, Abdul-Jabbar and Magic to post up low, have known the importance of this position for some time, as has Boston, which boasts the formidable, though aging, trio of Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. And note that each of next season's would-be contenders has such a post man—Dominique Wilkins for Atlanta. Mark Aguirre for Dallas and Karl Malone for Utah.
•The Pistons have a bench. "And not just any bench," says Laker assistant Randy Pfund. "The perfect bench. Two scorers, Vinnie Johnson and Edwards, and two defensive players, Salley and Rodman." Yes, the days of dominant Fab Fives appear to be over. Boston's five barely got past Atlanta and could not get past Detroit. And the Lakers might well have lost to the Pistons in Game 7 had Cooper not come out of his series-long stupor to hit two key three-point baskets in the second half. For a team to play the hard-nosed defense it takes to win in the NBA these days, reserve strength is an absolute necessity.
Detroit is not alone in having a deep bench, however. The Atlanta Hawks already have the numbers, the Cleveland Cavaliers are building a deep roster, and perhaps the Celtics, under their new head coach, Jimmy Rodgers, will eventually develop better production from the pine. Look for those three teams to challenge Detroit in the Eastern Conference next season.
It will also be interesting to assess the impact on the Pistons of the three-referee system, which goes into effect next season. Detroit's bruising physicality, a style that led the team into more than its share of fights this season, was a major reason why commissioner David Stern, with the backing of the NBA's Competition Committee, added the third pair of eyes.
Perhaps the third ref can do something about standardizing what is and what isn't permitted when a player posts up near the basket. To watch, say, McHale and Mahorn "battle for position" is to watch a form of near mayhem that has nothing to do with the game of basketball. And perhaps the third man can also resurrect the moribund moving-pick violation. These days, helpless defenders routinely scurry into the first row of seats to avoid the painful prospect of...well, let's say a Laimbeer-Mahorn double screen down on the baseline.
Yes, the men from the Motor City left their imprint on the NBA this season, both physically and psychologically. "I think other teams picked up from us the idea that 'O.K., we can win the championship,' " said Laimbeer. "Because of what we did, you're going to see any number of teams going for it all next season."