Around 11 p.m. on Dec. 5, nearly two hours after the Detroit
Pistons had finished off the Seattle Supersonics 95-91, the
arena bar in the belly of The Palace of Auburn Hills was still
packed with staffers and luxury-box types. Amid the crowd stood
Vinnie (the Microwave) Johnson, one of the original Bad Boys
from Detroit's championship teams of 1989 and '90, as fit and
barrel-chested as ever. A glass of red wine in hand, Johnson,
who runs an auto parts business, smiled and shook his head
admiringly when asked about the early-season success of the
Pistons, who were leading the Eastern Conference with a 13-6
record through Sunday. "They're finding a way to win," Johnson
said, "and that's all that matters."
Johnson's endorsement was hardly grandiloquent--Ocean's 11 is
finding a way to entertain!--but it was apt for this blue-collar
Detroit squad. Buoyed by a newly selfless All-Star shooting
guard and anchored by a coif-conscious power forward, the
Pistons have won with defense, hustle and heart, which suggests
that they have inherited their title-winning predecessors'
hard-nosed ways, if not their Hall of Fame talent. For the
Detroit faithful disappointed by teams that have been more
Mediocre Boys than Bad Boys, with one playoff series win in 11
years, this season's heady start--not to mention a return to the
red-and-blue uniforms of the glory days--has stirred pleasant
memories. During the win over Seattle, fans could even be heard
repeating, tentatively at first, the description of the Pistons
intoned by the PA announcer at regular intervals: Best team in
Of course, it is far too early to call the Pistons contenders.
More likely they will turn out to be an overachieving squad
similar to the Orlando Magic of two seasons ago--a scrappy bunch
that fell one win short of the conference's last playoff berth.
Regardless, Detroit has already exceeded preseason expectations,
an easy task considering that there weren't any. "Most
publications picked us from 22nd to 26th in the league," says
Rick Carlisle, 42, the Pistons' sixth coach in the last decade.
"I knew it was going to take unique players to turn it around,
guys who were willing to get down and dirty and give great
effort in front of small crowds. But even I can't say I expected
us to win this quickly."
Who could have? Last season's 32-50 Pistons were a solo act:
Jerry Stackhouse in The Man Who Shoots Too Much. "You'd let
Stack get his 30 and shut everybody else down," says Detroit
guard Jon Barry, acquired from the Sacramento Kings in the
off-season. "They didn't have enough other guys to get it done."
All that changed this summer. After failing to sign free agent
and Detroit native Chris Webber, president of basketball
operations Joe Dumars took a piecemeal approach to remaking the
team. Like a discriminating buyer at a yard sale, he picked
through other teams' salary-cap liabilities, going after players
deemed expendable because of the impending luxury tax. From the
Phoenix Suns, Dumars plucked veteran forward-center Cliff
Robinson, a proven scorer and savvy defender, for scrubs Jud
Buechler and John Wallace. Dumars stole the gritty Barry and a
future first-round draft pick from Sacramento, giving the Kings
turnover-prone point guard Mateen Cleaves. Finally, by sending
their second-round pick in 2002 to the Toronto Raptors, the
Pistons got the rights to 29-year-old rookie center Zeljko
Rebraca, a 7-foot Yugoslavian with a soft touch, a mean streak
and a bad blond dye job.
Dumars's most important move, however, came last May, when he
hired Carlisle, a former NBA guard with a reputation as an
excellent offensive strategist. Carlisle was Dumars's first
choice, though to avoid stepping on any toes he had to interview
several other candidates, including his former Bad Boys teammate
Bill Laimbeer. As an assistant with the Indiana Pacers from
1997-98 to 2000-01, Carlisle developed a reputation as an X's
and O's guy who didn't relate well to players, so he took steps
to be more personable with the Pistons. The day after he was
hired he and Stackhouse discussed at length the direction of the
team, a practice he continued with his star over the summer.
Carlisle also made a point of spending less time designing plays
in the office and more time working with players on their games.
"The team bought into what Coach was doing from the first day,"
says forward Corliss Williamson. "He wants to win, and he knows
what he's doing."
Not surprisingly, the free-flowing offense that Carlisle
installed, which takes advantage of the low-post skills of
Williamson and Rebraca, has paid dividends. At week's end
Detroit was first in the league in field goal shooting (47.5%),
was tied for second in three-point shooting (39.5%) and had
boosted its scoring average by 2.2 points, to 97.8, from last
season. More important, Stackhouse had embraced Carlisle's
pass-first mentality and through Sunday was leading the team in
not only scoring average (22.1 points) but also assists (5.6)
while playing the best ball of his seven-year career. "I've
always been about doing what it takes to win," says Stackhouse,
who averaged 29.8 points last season but at week's end had
reduced his shot attempts to 17.5 per game from 24.1. "This year
I don't need to score so much, because I have better players
Still, it is defense, which Carlisle made a priority from the
first day of training camp, that has carried Detroit. The
essence of that D, which assistant coach Kevin O'Neill has
distilled into 68 red-numbered rules on his office whiteboard,
is aggressive man-to-man. Players always front the post, relying
on help from weakside rotations, and everybody is counted on to
"war" (put a body on) cutters coming through the lane.
"Basically, it all comes down to trusting that your teammates
will have your back," says Barry. "Well, that and Ben."
That would be Ben Wallace, the Pistons' 6'9", 240-pound power
forward and human bottle of Wite-Out. At week's end he was the
only player in the league to rank in the top 20 in blocks
(second, with 3.26 per game), rebounds (eighth, with 10.7) and
steals (tied for 17th, with 1.68). A sixth-year pro out of
Virginia Union who came from Orlando in the Grant Hill trade of
August 2000, Wallace is "a power-forward version of Jason Kidd,"
as Magic coach Doc Rivers describes him, "a guy who can dominate
without scoring." So deep is Wallace's commitment to team D that
he considers blocks, usually catnip for big men, almost
distasteful. "Only if there's a defensive breakdown should I be
blocking a shot," Wallace explained last week while showing off
the collection of game tapes he keeps at his house, the better
to study his defensive efforts. "If we make our rotations, I
shouldn't have to try to make an athletic play to save a basket."
As the embodiment of Detroit's hard-hat image, the 27-year-old
Wallace has become the face (and, it turns out, hair) of the
team. Pregame intros at the Palace begin with a JumboTron video
of a goggles-wearing Wallace holding a jackhammer in his mighty
mitts and demolishing the opposing team's logo. More often than
not, the crowd contains at least one group of young fans in
Number 3 jerseys and giant black wigs, in homage to Wallace's
unruly wedge of an Afro, an explosion of curls that looks like a
Rogaine experiment gone horribly awry. Though often the object
of ridicule--upon seeing a photo of Wallace's do recently, TNT
analyst Charles Barkley demanded, "Now what the hell is
that?"--Wallace is proud of his hair, which he wears in dreads,
in cornrows and unbridled. Styling changes take place on Monday
and Thursday nights because, as Wallace says in his Alabama
drawl, "that's when rassling is on, and that's the only show
that'll keep me sitting still for two hours so my wife can braid
On the court Wallace's all-out style of play sets the tone on a
team that attacks every game with near-playoff intensity--or, as
O'Neill puts it, "like a bunch of guys with something to prove."
Which, it turns out, is what they are. Almost every player on
the roster came to Detroit not because he wanted to but because
he was unwanted elsewhere. In fact, the starting lineup is
composed of only two first-round draft choices (Stackhouse and
point guard Dana Barros)--one fewer than any other team's--and a
pair of players (Wallace and forward Michael Curry) who weren't
Perhaps because of their common outsider status, the Pistons
have bonded. Curry, Wallace and Williamson all live in the same
suburban development and spend their off days racing dune
buggies up and down the streets. ("The neighbors love it,"
Wallace claims unconvincingly.) Last Friday's practice
momentarily dissolved in giggles when a portly woman in tight
leather clothes and a mask walked in the door, cracked a whip
and asked, "Which one's Cliff Robinson?" Although shooed away
before she could break into song in honor of Robinson's
impending 35th birthday, she provided plenty of joke fodder for
the rest of the afternoon.
Whether the Pistons can maintain their enthusiasm after some
rough West Coast road trips remains to be seen. Already there
are red flags. Despite the presence of Wallace, Detroit has had
trouble rebounding--against the Charlotte Hornets on Nov. 28,
the Pistons set the NBA record for fewest rebounds in a game,
with 18--and the team's field goal percentage is bound to drop.
(Unless you believe Atkins will remain a 53.3% shooter. Thought
not.) Of late, the Pistons have even lost sight of their guiding
principles. "We've been shooting so well that we've gotten away
from our defense," says a concerned Wallace. "We've got to get
back to banging guys and beating them up. We have to make
Detroit a place teams don't want to come to."
That must be enough to make an original Bad Boy downright
nostalgic. Somewhere, no doubt, Dennis Rodman is getting warm
fuzzies just thinking about it.
At week's end Detroit ranked last in the NBA in rebounds per
game (37.6), and Wallace was the only Piston among the league's
top 90 in that category. The following players have accounted
for the largest percentage of their team's rebounds this season.
REBOUNDS LEAGUE PERCENT OF
PER GAME RANK TEAM'S REBOUNDS
Tim Duncan, Spurs 12.8 1st 29.7
Ben Wallace, Pistons 10.7 8th 28.6
Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves 12.6 3rd 28.1
Dikembe Mutombo, 76ers 12.4 4th 27.4
Danny Fortson, Warriors 12.7 2nd 26.5
but because he was unwanted elsewhere.