Engine Trouble

The Pistons are sputtering—and muttering—as they try to regain championship form
December 09, 1991

And so it has come to this for the Detroit Pistons' erstwhile Bad Boys: William Bedford, a 7'1" figment of general manager Jack McCloskey's imagination, ambles onto the court as the starting center, while Bill Laimbeer, if not Detroit's heart and soul during its championship seasons, then certainly its guts and gall, stays on the bench. What next? Lance Blanks and Charles Thomas for Joe Dumars and Isiah Thomas? A G.I.-style crew cut instead of razor-cut messages for Dennis Rodman? Off-the-rack suits for coach Chuck Daly?

Everyone knew this year's Pistons would be different without frontcourt scorer James Edwards, beloved bombardier Vinnie Johnson and broad-shouldered benchmates Tree Rollins and Scott Hastings, but no one expected they would be this different. "We thought we'd adjust to the changes better than this," says shooting guard Dumars. "It seems like nothing's clear anymore." Says Dumars's equally fog-shrouded running mate, Isiah Thomas, "Every game's like an experiment." Which is what the Bedford-as-starter stratagem is. The decision to start Bedford, made by Daly on Nov. 22 following three straight losses, was a signal that the Pistons were grasping at straws instead of pushing buttons and that this once-proud franchise, which at week's end had an 8-9 record, was heading down, down, down.

Bear in mind, though, that down is a relative term in this year's frail Eastern Conference. Early indications are that the Chicago Bulls (13-2 through Sunday) will fail to make the NBA Finals only if Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant decide to, say, join a kibbutz or sign on as roadies for Whitesnake, and that virtually everyone else in the conference—well, maybe not the New Jersey Nets—is playing for second place.

Whatever happens, it will be hard to beat the tenants of The Palace of Auburn Hills for palace intrigue this season. Of course, that's nothing new. For in victory and defeat, joy and sorrow, sickness and health, the Pistons have always had a way of making things interesting.

"You know that swing set you assemble in your backyard, the one that almost ends your marriage?" said Daly last week. "When you're done, you always have some pieces left over, pieces that don't fit, square pegs for round holes. That's what we've got here right now." For Daly, the season has become a search for the right rotation, as well as for the right metaphor. On another occasion he rubbed his hands together with a maniacal smile and said, "You know what I feel like? A mad scientist. We've got all these different parts, all this stuff bubbling. The trick is to find a way to put it together."

As Daly peers into his caldron, taking care to keep his $150 silk tie out of the broth, these are some of the boiling questions he sees:

•Will Isiah's play for the Pistons be affected by the hurt and resentment he feels at being excluded (so far) from the Olympic team, of which Daly is the coach? Is Dumars, who as of Sunday was shooting a career-low .388, similarly bothered about not making the Olympic team?

•What is the role of newly hired team broadcaster Ronnie Rothstein, the former Miami Heat coach and a onetime Detroit assistant under Daly? Was he brought in by McCloskey to look over Daly's shoulder? Is he not the most apparent heir apparent in NBA history?

•What offensive tempo can the Pistons come up with to accommodate both the open-court abilities of newcomer Orlando Woolridge and the old grind-it-out style that characterized Detroit in its championship years, 1989 and '90?

•What's the deal with Bedford?

All this turmoil began last May, when the Pistons were swept in the Eastern Conference finals, forcing McCloskey to read the handwriting on the wall. (It said: Da Bulls!) McCloskey had three options: 1) Hang on as long as possible with the veteran core—as the Boston Celtics have done; 2) do an extensive housecleaning; or 3) take the middle road, keeping some veterans and discarding others, which is what he ultimately chose to do. And it was McCloskey's choice, no doubt about that. The division of responsibilities has always been clear in Pistonland: McCloskey gets the players and Daly coaches them. Daly did request a backup point guard—"And it was a request, not a demand," he says—and McCloskey obliged him by trading for Darrell Walker, an eight-year veteran respected for his defensive tenacity. But two of McCloskey's other acquisitions were harder to understand. Woolridge, who came from Denver in exchange for Hastings and a second-round draft pick, has changed teams four times (going from the Bulls to the Nets to the Lakers to the Nuggets to the Pistons), and the first three times his new team won fewer games than it had the previous season. Thirteen fewer, on average. For all his natural talent, Woolridge is not a player who demands a defensive double team (as did Johnson and Edwards), nor is he a good defender or a player accustomed to producing in clutch situations. As for the second McCloskey acquisition, Brad Sellers, who signed in August as a free agent, the Pistons had openly derided him for his softness when he played for the Bulls from 1987 to '89. Nothing has changed; during a short stretch in last Saturday afternoon's 103-96 loss to the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, Daly had Mark Aguirre, 6'6" and no defensive demon, guard Patrick Ewing, while the 7-foot Sellers checked 6'8" Brian Quinnett.

So, let's sum up. Woolridge and Walker, plus Sellers, minus Edwards and Johnson equals.... Well, look at it this way: "Last year," says Isiah, "we had six players [himself, Dumars, Laimbeer, Aguirre, Johnson and Edwards] who could score. This year we have four." You do the math.

McCloskey bristles when it is suggested that Rothstein is different from the other former coaches he has hired as commentators, including Kevin Loughery, John MacLeod, Dick Motta, Hubie Brown and Dick Harter. And Rothstein is irritated by the attention he has received. "Let's see, I'm G.M.-in-waiting, coach-in-waiting, owner-in-waiting, next-president-of-the-United-States-in-waiting," he says when asked if he is anything other than a broadcaster. But the facts remain: First, McCloskey had to fire an old friend, Harter, to hire Rothstein; second, Rothstein is getting paid about $100,000, roughly triple Harter's salary as a telecaster last season. Rothstein attends most games, even when he is not broadcasting, and also shows up at most Piston practices. "I'm trying to do this job as well as possible," he says. "I don't know why there should be any problem with that." He adds that he will probably do some "limited scouting" later in the season. The Piston players say they find nothing unusual about Rothstein's presence, and one who desires anonymity suggests, "There's competition for every job, right? Maybe it'll challenge Chuck." Though they will not comment publicly on Rothstein's being around, Daly and his staff find it unnerving to say the least.

But never mind Woolridge, Sellers and Rothstein. If the Pistons are to go anywhere, Isiah, Dumars, Laimbeer, Aguirre and John Salley, mainstays of Detroit's championship teams, have to get in sync. At week's end the Pistons were averaging only 97.8 points per game, third lowest in the league behind the Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves. Daly has at times become so desperate that he assumes what he calls his "genuflecting posture" on the sidelines, pleading for a basket. About the only Piston who is playing up to par is Rodman, who is third in the league in rebounding and still playing his distinctive Krazy Glue defense.

Isiah has had some spectacular games, most notably on Nov. 15, when he torched John Stockton of the Utah Jazz for most of his 44 points in a 123-115 Piston victory at The Palace, but his shooting has been inconsistent. And Isiah has reached double figures in assists only three times, two of them against the Atlanta Hawks, who tend to shrivel up and die whenever they see PISTONS on a jersey. Is the Olympic snub bothering Isiah? Who knows? He has been unwavering in his say-no-evil approach. Did he have extra motivation against Stockton, who occupies the spot on the Olympic roster that might otherwise be Isiah's? "No, not really," he says. Even when Pippen remarked that he would withdraw from the Olympic team if Isiah were added to the roster, Isiah just turned the other cheek. "My comment is only that I wish those guys a lot of luck," Isiah said, "and I hope they bring back the gold medal."

Daly says that Dumars will come around once he "gets more aggressive in looking for his shot." Perhaps. But Dumars uses words like "struggling" and "searching" to describe what he and the Pistons are going through, and he seems genuinely perplexed about where the remedy might lie. There are occasions when Aguirre carries the Detroit offense with his one-on-one abilities, but his shooting percentage, like Dumars's, was at a career low (.459), and at times—too many times—he has been the petulant Aguirre of old. During last week's 100-91 victory over the Hawks at The Palace, for example, Aguirre failed to get a call when he was bumped while coming across the middle looking for a pass. Instead of getting back into the play, he stopped, put his hands on his hips, glared at the officials and then failed to get back on defense when Isiah threw away a pass. Salley, for his part, should feel happy and secure with his new two-year, $4 million contract, but he is grumbling about his uneven playing time, curtailed as it has been by both Bedford's and Woolridge's minutes. Worse, Salley sprained his left knee against the Knicks and will be out a minimum of five games.

Early in the season Laimbeer talked about how he had regained some of the intensity he lost last season, and Daly went out of his way to praise the leadership that his veteran center was providing. But Laimbeer's later play has not reflected a renewed intensity, and two weeks ago he suggested to Daly that he might be more effective coming off the bench for Bedford. "It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do, but nothing was going right offensively," says Daly. "Billy said it didn't bother him, but that first night. when they announced Bedford's name instead of his, I could tell he was hurting." Substituting a younger player for an older one when things aren't going well is not a revolutionary concept, but what makes this move so uncomfortable is the lack of respect the veteran Pistons show for the 28-year-old Bedford, who seldom fails to earn their disdain. After Daly replaced Bedford with Laimbeer during the third period of last week's game against the Hawks, a Piston official at courtside said, "Watch now. Bedford will bitch at Chuck." Sure enough, as Bedford strolled off the floor, he looked over at Daly, shouted something and gestured angrily. Daly folded his arms and glared Bedford into his seat at the end of the bench. During the third period of the game in New York last Saturday, Isiah took the matter into his own hands. After the Pistons got off to a slow start, he looked toward the bench and stuck up four fingers of his right hand and made a fist of his left to indicate 40, Laimbeer's number. Translation: Get Laimbeer into the game and get Bedford the hell out of it. Seconds later Laimbeer shucked his sweats and checked in; Bedford did not appear again. (Isiah's gesture was more diplomatic than Laimbeer's "suggestion" that Daly remove Woolridge from an early-season game. "Get him out of here!" Laimbeer shouted.)

One of Laimbeer's reasons for requesting the change in the starting lineup was that with Johnson gone and Aguirre now a starter in Edwards's old spot, the Pistons lacked a player with mental toughness to come off the bench. True enough. But Laimbeer, the master of the mind game, also admitted that he needed a "mental change" from the burden of starting. "I had wound my world too tight," he said. "As a starter I was worried about tempo, about getting everyone involved. Now I'm just coming off the bench and playing." He smiled widely. "Hey, I'm the white Vinnie Johnson."

Well, all the news isn't bad. Isiah became the team's alltime leading scorer on Sunday, passing Bob Lanier, and he was the grand marshal of the Thanksgiving Day parade in Detroit. Bill Laimbeer's Combat Basketball Game, from Nintendo, is in the stores and is expected to sell briskly for Christmas. Dumars has spent a lot of nights tossing and turning, but he's still able to enjoy those endless Tom Clancy novels. And the absence of a conference power other than the hated Bulls, who routed the Pistons 110-93 in Chicago on Nov. 12, has given Detroit cause for hope. "As badly as we're playing, we're not out of it," says Dumars. "We look at the rest of the league, and it's all still there for us." But this much is certain: The Pistons will not challenge unless Dumars is confident and aggressive with his shot, unless Isiah is unselfish with the ball, unless Laimbeer is unsparing with his mind games and unless Daly is looking straight ahead, not over his shoulder.

"I said earlier that this team would be a challenge to coach," says Daly. "I was way off. It goes far beyond challenge."

PHOTOMANNY MILLANDumars says he feels lost at times, and he clearly took a wrong turn against the Knicks. PHOTOSCOTT CUNNINGHAMNo longer the intimidator he once was, Laimbeer has been socking it to himself lately. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOLike every other team that has acquired Woolridge, Detroit figures to win fewer games. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERIsiah won't confess that he's upset that he won't be playing for Daly in the Olympics... PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO...and Daly won't admit to being bothered by the presence of Rothstein (with notes).

Eagle (-2)
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