Trying to Hang On

Whether or not they survive their playoff against the Bulls, some Pistons may bite the dust
May 26, 1991

Even if the detroit pistons crawl out of the playoff hole they dug for themselves Sunday after noon with a 94-83 loss to the Bulls in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final at Chicago Stadium, the suspicion around the NBA is that general manager Jack McCloskey can't wait to pick up his sledgehammer and start breaking things up. The Pistons, who are the two-time defending NBA champs, are heading for Splitsville, goes the thinking, just as surely as Norm Peterson is heading for the corner stool at Cheers.

"Just where does that opinion come from?" said McCloskey last Friday night before Detroit eliminated the Boston Celtics with a 117-113 overtime victory in a stirring Game 6 of their conference semifinal series. "You tell me, because I don't know."

Trader Jack was being somewhat disingenuous, of course—there is indeed much logic to the notion that the Pistons as currently constituted have gone as far as they can go. Nine of their 12 players are 30 or over. Two of their key frontcourtmen, scoring specialist James Edwards and defensive specialist John Salley, are unhappy with their salaries, and backcourt reserve Vinnie Johnson is frequently unhappy about playing time and the number of shots he gets—or doesn't get-in the balanced Piston offense. Center Bill Laimbeer strongly considered retirement even before this season, which was physically and mentally as grueling as any in his 11-year career. The longer mercurial forward Mark Aguirre stays, the more likely he is to alienate coaches and teammates, and he has now been in Detroit for 2½ seasons. And if McCloskey is really looking to rebuild, he has three starters with extremely high trade value—guards Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars and two-time Defensive Player of the Year Dennis Rodman.

Looming above all the other questions, of course, is the possibility that coach Chuck Daly, who has more balls in the air than a circus juggler, will quit the Pistons. Daly is wrestling with this dilemma: Can he better prepare for his 1992 Olympic coaching assignment by leading Detroit for another season or by working as a network commentator and seeing the whole picture more objectively? "Good question, isn't it?" says Daly, who claims—and whose closest friends confirm—that he has not decided which way to go.

And neither has McCloskey.

"Every year I ask myself the same question, and that is, Can this team win a championship?" said McCloskey last week. "That's the only thing that matters. My answer after last season, obviously, was yes, and we kept the team basically intact. I'll ask myself the same question this year, and if the answer is no, then there will be some changes. But it's too early to tell right now."

Well, do these Pistons have a three-peat in them? They didn't play like champions in Sunday's game, but that wasn't surprising considering the expenditure of emotion that was necessary to turn back the Celtics two nights earlier. The subplots of 1) breaking up and 2) grand old warriors ran strongly through that series. After the final buzzer on Friday night, Thomas threaded his way through a mob of jubilant teammates and fans and caught up to Boston's Kevin McHale as he headed to the locker room. "I wanted to let him know what a pleasure it was to compete against players like him," said Thomas. "I couldn't get to Larry [Bird], but I told Kevin to tell him the same thing. They make me feel proud to be an athlete." Later, Thomas reacted strongly when asked if he had the sense it was the last time he would see the old Celtics—meaning Bird, McHale and Robert Parish—together on the court. "I heard the same thing last year," said Thomas. "When will people realize that players like these are special, and that you can't replace them?"

No, you can't. But after the enervating Game 6 loss, Boston's Golden Oldie trio could have been wearing red crosses just as easily as Celtic shamrocks. Bird, 34, played 45 largely ineffective minutes with the most famous aching back in America. At week's end, Boston announced that he would be having surgery sometime this week. Parish, the NBA's oldest player at 37, looked great during Game 6, but he happened to be in a suit and tie at the time—he sprained his left ankle in Game 5 and had been hobbling on a gimpy right one before that. And McHale, who had squirmed and twisted his way to a game-high 34 points, faced the possibility of off-season foot surgery.

"A great team will find ways to win, and that's what the Pistons did," said McHale, who sounded as weary as he looked. "We have to get back to that here...whichever of us is here."

Several Pistons are wondering which of them will be around, too. But no one should start packing yet. Sunday's game, imperfect as it was, showed Detroit in all its formidable unpredictability. Yes, the Pistons lost, but the Bulls couldn't blow them out, despite coming in with four days rest. Detroit—and here's a recurring NBA story, if there ever was one—contained and sometimes downright frustrated league MVP Michael Jordan, who scored just 22 points on 6-of-15 shooting from the field. "I guess I had that headache today," said Jordan, referring to the migraine that all but incapacitated teammate Scottie Pippen in Game 7 of last year's conference final, which the Pistons won. Detroit got listless and uneven performances from several old reliables—Laimbeer, for example, celebrated his 34th birthday with an abysmal four-point, three-rebound effort, which he described as "horrible"—yet hung around for most of the game, largely because of the contributions of Aguirre (9 of 16 for 25 points) and Johnson (10 of 19 for 21 points). "All I know is that I wasn't tired," said Johnson afterward. "I played great, and I felt great."

Indeed, there was the curious sense in the Piston locker room after the game that Detroit had come out on top. It had looked the Bulls dead in the eye and had seen those old familiar doubts and fears, and had thus become curiously revitalized. Fatigue prevented the Pistons from pouncing in Game 1, but there is a long way to go. One Detroit player, who desired anonymity, said flatly, "I think we won the series today. As badly as we played, they couldn't get rid of us. And I think they know it, too." That might not sound completely logical, but the Pistons have won two championships by adding two plus two and getting five.

It is that kind of mental toughness, that feeling of group invincibility, that McCloskey most fears losing if he breaks up his team. Still, it might be necessary. Here's a look at who will probably stay and who is likely to go.

THE UNTOUCHABLES

THOMAS: "Trade talk doesn't bother me," he said last week. "A while back I heard my name mentioned in connection with four first-rounders. That's flattering."

But that's all it is—talk. For one thing, Thomas has a no-trade clause in his contract and a close relationship with Piston owner William Davidson. And even if he wanted to be traded, Detroit is unlikely to part with him in the immediate future. Thomas's uncanny ability to produce in the clutch is not a commodity easily found, not in a dozen first-rounders. Some of those close to Thomas say he has grown weary of leading this difficult and diverse team. But does anyone really think that at this stage of his career he would rather be leading the Miami Heat? Get serious.

DUMARS: He's capable of scoring 25 points in a half, as he did in Game 6 of the series against the Celtics. Even when he's off his offensive game, as he was on Sunday, when he had but nine points and two assists, he can contain Jordan. He's honest, diligent, tough and clean-living, and he helps his wife change the diapers of their two-month-old son, who happens to be named Jordan. Joe just turned 28. So what's to trade?

RODMAN: The Worm turned in a classic stat line in Game 4 of the Boston series—1-1, 3-8, 5-13-18. That's one basket on one field goal attempt, three free throws on eight attempts and 18 rebounds, five offensive, 13 defensive. What franchise would not want a player whose goal in life, as he stated it last week, is to "guard every position by myself, with no help, playing everybody one-on-one"? Rodman is irreplaceable. Daly did not assign the Worm to Jordan in Game 1, but their paths crossed on at least one notable occasion in the first half when shoves and words were exchanged. The Jordan-Rodman matchup will happen sometime during the series, and it will produce some electric moments.

THE UNTRADEABLES

LAIMBEER: Big Bad Bill has a good reason for not even considering retirement. "The money," he said. "It's a lot." He stands to earn about $2 million next season. Pencil him in. Laimbeer has let the Pistons know, however, that he will retire if they trade him, thus rendering any dealing fruitless. Anyway, trading Laimbeer is not in Detroit's game plan. The most effective weapon in Daly's offense is the pick-and-roll, and it is Laimbeer's ability to set a strong pick and then slide off it and hit the open jump shot that makes the Piston guards so effective.

SALLEY: Without prompting, Salley will recite a long list of players he considers less talented than he who make more money than his $575,000. Talk about seeing the glass as half-empty: By playing in a system that values his shot-blocking and rebounding rather than calling on him to score, Salley has two more championship rings than any of those players and a chance at a third. "Look, I realize that," says the Spider. "I said I'm underpaid, not unhappy." At any rate, five-year man Salley becomes a restricted free agent at the end of the season, so McCloskey couldn't trade him even if he wanted to. What he can do after the season ends, however, is match any offer Salley gets and then make a deal. That's a possibility—the Pistons need Salley's contributions, particularly in the postseason, but they worry about the kind of inconsistency he showed on Sunday against the Bulls when he logged zero points, one rebound and three turnovers in 16 minutes.

THE TRADEABLES

JOHNSON: The Microwave is one of the few unguardable players in the league. He might be hot or he might be cold, but the defense played against him is almost immaterial. That is sometimes a great advantage for a coach who goes with the hot hand, as Daly does, but sometimes a great burden, too. Johnson wants his shots, expects his shots, even when he's not hitting. But his $1.4 million salary is not out of line for a sixth man who at times can be as productive offensively as anyone in the league, Jordan included.

AGUIRRE: He is even more of a bargain at about $1.1 million a year. But, then, many would say that Aguirre is no bargain at any price. His body language, facial contortions and general theatrical demeanor are potential distractions to the Pistons anytime he steps on the court. On the other hand, his ability to score both inside and outside against Boston—he averaged 19.2 points in Games 2 through 6 of the conference semis—was perhaps the key factor in the Detroit victory. As infuriated as his coaches and teammates sometimes get with Aguirre, no one forgets that nonscorer Rodman is a luxury the Pistons can't always afford in their lineup. Aguirre must not only be guarded but sometimes double-teamed.

EDWARDS: Buddha complains that his sometimes prolific scoring is worth more than his approximately $833,000 salary, but he should also remember that his role is quite a specialized one and ideal for a 35-year-old player with an aching back. His job is to jump-start the Pistons in the first period, when they frequently go to him, and occasionally supply scoring down the stretch when his defender is in foul trouble. Edwards would not be nearly as effective on another team.

THE WILD CARD

DALY: He bristles at the charge that he spent valuable Piston time concentrating on Olympic matters this season. "I went to exactly one meeting—so I don't buy that," says Daly. On the other hand, he is going to be traveling extensively in Europe this summer to scout the 1992 opposition. One Piston insider sets the odds of Daly's returning as head coach at 60-40 in favor of his coming back, primarily because of the money. It's a lot, as Laimbeer would say. Network television might be a relentlessly ardent suitor, but Daly stands to make as much as $1.2 million in salary, bonuses, endorsements and local radio and TV income if he stays with the Pistons. That's roughly three times the money he could get from NBC or TNT. Postseason priority numero uno for McCloskey is to get Daly into place. Then and only then will McCloskey turn his thoughts to his playing personnel.

Almost certainly, one or two of the core group will be gone. The past few seasons have taken their emotional toll, and nothing less than a third straight championship could keep the Pistons all together. And that, of course, is out of the question.

Or is it?

PHOTOBILL SMITHUntouchables Thomas and Rodman treated Jordan to a hands-on double-team, while untradeable Laimbeer swapped shoves with Bill Cartwright. PHOTOMANNY MILLAN[See caption above.] PHOTONATHANIEL BUTLER/NBA PHOTOSThe Pistons made Bird's Celtics throw in the towel... PHOTONATHANIEL BUTLER/NBA PHOTOS...but they couldn't get the jump on Pippen and the Bulls. PHOTOMANNY MILLANAs prone Pippen looked on, Jordan rejected Aguirre, something Detroit may soon do, too.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)