Down and Out?

Even if the Pistons squeak into the playoffs, the Bad Boys era appears to be drawing to a close
April 25, 1993

The team's head coach is the lamest duck in the NBA, so lame he should limp to the bench during the remainder of his tenure, which can probably be measured in days. Vaya con Dios, Ron Rothstein.

The team's heart and soul is averaging near career lows in points, assists, steals and field goal and free throw percentages and also seems to be getting dissed by the zebras, having been ejected on three occasions earlier this season for making fairly innocuous remarks to an opponent and again last Saturday night following a scramble against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Perhaps you should flash your two championship rings, Isiah Thomas.

The team's leading scorer is having a career season, but he's breaking down late in the race. A strained right knee kept him out of three of the team's last five games, through Sunday, while ulcers—three of them!—have kept him away from his beloved Cajun food. Eat your baked fish, drink your milk, Joe Dumars, and try a stress-management course.

The team's spiritual leader, whom Boston Celtic executive Jan Volk once described as "the consummate provocateur," can still be provocative—just ask rookies Alonzo Mourning of the Charlotte Hornets and Shaquille O'Neal of the Orlando Magic, both of whom have fallen prey to his charms and been drawn into confrontations with him. But his skills, after 13 rough-and-tumble seasons, have diminished to the point that his good buddy Thomas now calls him a backup center. Can it be, Bill Laimbeer? "Oh, definitely," says the gentle Lamb.

Finally, the team's leading rebounder and best defender skips many practices, pointedly ignores the coach's instructions during timeout huddles, frequently removes his sneakers when he comes out of the game (thus requiring additional bench time to put them back on when asked to return to action) and generally talks to the crowd, studies his tattoos (he has six) or stares into space while some other guy is shooting free throws. Do the scientific community a favor, Dennis Rodman, deliver your brain to them for off-season study.

All in all the prognosis, both immediate and long-range, is not good for that soap opera of a team known as the Detroit Pistons. Should they make it to the postseason—a proposition that seemed increasingly unlikely after consecutive road losses to the Charlotte Hornets, 127-93 last Friday, and the Knicks, 95-85 last Saturday, which left them two games behind the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot—Rothstein's ragtag crew, just three seasons removed from a second consecutive NBA championship, would seem to be a candidate for first-round broomdom. But regardless of whether the Pistons qualify for the playoffs, they still look like a candidate for next season's scrap heap, right there with the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics, two other plummeting former glory franchises. Right?

Well, not exactly.

"In a short playoff series, they could be soooo dangerous," says Michael Jordan, who, in any court in the land, qualifies as an expert witness when the subject is the Pistons.

O.K., so maybe they don't shrivel up and die right away, but will there still be a heartbeat in 1993-94?

"Are you kidding?" asks Thomas. "I'm extremely optimistic." So is Laimbeer, who provides an analysis with characteristic bluntness: "I look at the Eastern Conference and don't see squat. Of course we can get back to the top."

So, as always, the Pistons deserve a second look.

It is necessary, first, to trace how Detroit has fallen so far, so fast—the Pistons were 122-42 during the 1988-89 and 1989-90 championship campaigns but were 38-40 as of Sunday. Bad personnel moves had much to do with it, and most of those were made by former general manager Jack McCloskey, who now calls the shots for the Minnesota Timberwolves. McCloskey built the erstwhile Bad Boys, so he must also take the blame for hastening their decline.

Forward Rick Mahorn, the baddest of the Bad, was left unprotected in the 1989 expansion draft; Detroit has yet to replace his maturity and muscle. Guard Vinnie Johnson was waived after the 1990-91 season, and the Pistons haven't replaced his boilerplate offense. Center James Edwards was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers following the same season, and Detroit has yet to replace his dependable scoring in the low post.

Before last season McCloskey hired Rothstein, nominally as Detroit's broadcast color man but, in reality, as the head-coach-in-waiting. The presence of Rothstein, who had been fired by the Miami Heat following the 1990-91 season, undermined Daly and, ultimately, forced his resignation. That, in turn, angered Rodman, which in turn unleashed Rodman's unpredictable twin, which....

You get the point. In short, the Pistons went from monsters to hamsters. Which raises the point: Why is Jordan worried about them?

"Because our personality is still to rise to the occasion," said Thomas before an 87-84 home victory over the Atlanta Hawks on April 14. Thomas is particularly adept at rising to occasions. Witness his performance in a 106-98 loss to the Jazz in Salt Lake City on March 3, when he lit up John Stockton for 40 points. (Stockton, you might recall, was selected ahead of Thomas for the 1992 Olympic team.)

None of the Pistons lit up anything on Saturday against the Knicks. They were playing without Dumars and for the final 13 minutes without Thomas, who was tossed for kicking New York guard Doc Rivers in the head while Rivers was on the floor. (Thomas said his kick was only in reaction to Rivers's grabbing him by the right ankle.) But Detroit has trounced the Knicks twice this season, by 16 points on Nov. 29 and by 28 points on Feb. 26. Similarly, it has played the Bulls tough in three meetings, losing two games by a total of just five points and winning once, 101-99.

Despite the Pistons' feistiness one still must have serious doubts about their viability in the postseason, considering the fragile health of Dumars (who is now eating what he calls "the blandest food in America"), the erratic play of Thomas (who through Sunday was shooting just .418 from the floor and .724 from the free throw line), the lack of playoff experience of low-post go-to-guy Terry Mills (four postseason games), the death-bed status of Rothstein and the distinct possibility that Rodman could at any time simply not show up at all.

The real question may be this: Do the Pistons really want to make the final 16? One theory is that Detroit management would rather miss the playoffs and thus qualify for the NBA draft lottery. The Pistons have not only their own first-round pick but also Miami's (provided it is not in the top five). With two lottery selections, Detroit would have an excellent start on rebuilding. Any suggestion that the Pistons may be tanking is particularly tough on Dumars, whose heart just won't let him give less than 100%. But his knee, which was injured against the Boston Celtics on April 8, is aching, and his ulcers prevent him from taking the anti-inflammatory drug Indocin that would help relieve the pain. "My stomach's closer to my heart than my knee is," says Dumars, "so I don't take the medicine." He may smile when he says that, but his dilemma is no laughing matter. Dumars would not comment on reports that some Piston front-office types have gone out of their way to suggest that continued rest for him might be the best course of action.

Should the Pistons qualify for the playoffs and should Dumars be anywhere near peak condition, they could no doubt aggravate either the Bulls or the Knicks and produce a blood-and-guts five-game series that would cost commissioner David Stern hours of sleep. But could they actually beat either team? Jordan's comment notwithstanding, that is a real long shot.

And will Rothstein's successor, widely believed to be his assistant Don Chancy, be able to coax anything more out of the aging Pistons in 1993-94? After all, by the end of next season Thomas will be a battle-scarred 33, Dumars a weary 30 and Laimbeer, who recently said that he will be provocative for perhaps only one more season, a slug-slow 36. For the answer to that question it's best to turn to Isiah Lord Thomas, whose close relationship with Piston owner William Davidson—and his consequent influence on personnel matters—have been a long-running subplot in Detroit. And Thomas professes to be bullish on the future, based on these factors: He and Dumars still constitute an All-Star backcourt that few teams can match; Laimbeer will be as good a backup as any center in the league; in Mills and hungry-heart Alvin Robertson, Detroit has added two prototypical Pistons; one or two good young players will arrive from the draft; salary-cap room will be cleared (bye-bye, Mark Aguirre) to obtain a solid veteran, either via trade (Thomas mentioned the unhappy Bull, Horace Grant) or free-agent signing (Phoenix Sun Cedric Ceballos, who will be restricted at the end of the playoffs, is a candidate); and should Rodman be traded, he will command one or two quality players, if not more.

Thomas claims that Rodman could still be a Piston next season, particularly if the draft yields some talent. "Then we could overcome his unpredictable side," reasons Thomas.

In all likelihood, though, Rodman won't be in Detroit.

Asked after his 14-point, 19-rebound night against the Knicks whether there is any scenario in which he sees himself playing for Detroit next season, Rodman said, "You tell me." Then he expanded on the subject. "I don't see how it could work out. It's just not going to happen that we suddenly become a great team again, just like that," he said, snapping his fingers. "We've got too many older players who carry too much of the load." He shook his head. "I just don't think it can work."

The truly amazing thing about Rodman is that, in his lucid moments, he really does come across as intelligent. But personal problems (specifically, a messy and public divorce) and displeasure with many of the team's personnel decisions (the departure of Daly, whom he calls his mentor, having been the worst) have caused Rodman to act out. That may not excuse his erratic behavior, but it does explain it.

Rodman is not the only hole in Thomas's optimistic scenario. Who will make the final personnel decisions—team president Tom Wilson, director of player personnel Billy McKinney, the next coach or Thomas? Who, exactly, will Laimbeer back up? (Mills has a multitude of low-post offensive skills, but he's not a true center: plus, he looks uncannily like George Foreman and also has the heavyweight's cream-puff body.) Will another team take a chance on Rodman? If the Worm is in Detroit, is there any way a championship-caliber team could emerge amid the atmosphere of unpredictability that he engenders? ("The answer to that is no." says Rothstein.)

Finally, do Thomas and Dumars have the energy to boost the Pistons back to contender status, even if the requisite personnel is added? The odds are against it. And if Detroit is not alive and kicking in either the postseason or next season, let this comment from Dumars serve as their epitaph: "Like us or hate us," he says, "we sure do make things interesting."

PHOTOMANNY MILLANThomas (on floor) and Laimbeer have fallen far from the form that made them champs. PHOTOMANNY MILLANRobertson and Mills, newcomers this season, are prototypically aggressive Pistons. PHOTOMANNY MILLANDuring a season of personal and professional woes, Rodman has been known to disappear. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERSeparated at girth? Mills and Foreman are similarly waisted. PHOTOMANNY MILLAN[See caption above.]

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)