The original NBL has a giant smorgasbord of failed small-town teams and big city squads which just didn't catch on. It's no wonder so few of them still exist in the league today. Teams failed constantly in Akron, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit, and pretty much the entire Rust Belt. That makes that fact that some of them are still around today - albeit not in their original homes - truly remarkable. The NBL began as a league catering to the smaller, more ruffian areas of what is now the Rust Belt. Look at Indiana - famously obsessed with basketball, having one of the really great teams that never won a proper NBA title and one of the powerhouse college basketball programs. Fort Wayne used to have a professional team, too. They started up when basketball was just a young industrial league sport, when the only thing competitors wanted was bragging rights over other other factories. This is how the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons came into being in 1941.
The Zollner Pistons hit the ground running, playing in the NBL Finals in their first two seasons before finally taking titles of their own in 1944 and 1945, defeating the Sheboygan Redskins both years. They were, by every account, one of the most successful teams in the league, racking up a record of 166-71 over nine seasons. The industrial system which berthed the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, however, was so done that it was time to stick a fork in it, and Fred Zollner knew it. That caused him to take action and place himself among the head honchos trying to stamp out a merger between the NBL and a younger, upstart league called the BAA, for Basketball Association of America. In transition, the Zollner Pistons spent one final year in the BAA, going 22-38 before entering the newly-formed NBA in 1949.
The merger increased the quality of competition, so the Zollner Pistons had a difficult go of it for their first five seasons. Also, it was suggested on numerous occasions that the 1954 and 1955 Zollner Pistons were in cahoots with some of society's nastier gamblers, and that they frequently conspired to shave points and throw games during those years. It didn't keep them out of the Finals in the 1955 season, though, and so there are accusations lingering that the Zollner Pistons may have thrown the 1955 Finals to the Syracuse Nationals. No such accusations exist for the 1956 season for some reason, though. Their coach, Charlie Eckman, managed to get them back to the Finals, apparently clean or something. It didn't help them very much, though, because Fort Wayne still lost.
Coming off two straight Finals appearances, the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons had a strong local following. They also had a decided disadvantage in having Fort Wayne for their home. Fort Wayne was small, and that made it very difficult for them to earn a whole lot of money and sustain themselves. Fred Zollner turned his eyes to the nearby city of Detroit, which would give his team a much bigger fanbase and a glamor name. He wasn't deterred by the fact that a bunch of professional basketball teams had already failed in the Motor City; The Detroit Vagabond Kings were a failure. The Detroit Eagles were also a failure. The Detroit Falcons, yeah, you know the story. The Detroit Gems were a failure, but only in Detroit; they're actually still around today, but they had to be bought after folding and dispersal and moved to Minneapolis before they finally became the Los Angeles Lakers. Fred Zollner believed in Detroit, though, and he believed in his team, so in 1957, he took his team to Detroit. Since the city had such a strong automotive base, Zollner - who was a piston manufacturer back in Fort Wayne - decided to keep the team name, except he dropped his last name from it. Hence, the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons were now the Detroit Pistons.
The early Detroit Pistons were terrible. We're talking Detroit Lions levels of bad here. They were characterized by a series of great players and shitty teams. Dave DeBusschere, Dave Bing, and Bob Lanier (who is a native of Buffalo, my hometown) played for the Pistons, and at one point DeBusschere was activated as the youngest player/coach in NBA history. He was also born and bred locally, which really pissed off the few fans the Pistons had back then when he was the cornerstone of a very ill-timed 1968 trade which sent him to the New York Knicks for Howard Komives and Walt Bellamy. Komives and Bellamy were both nearing the ends of their careers. DeBusschere, on the other hand, had a lot of life left in him, something he demonstrated as he led the Knickerbockers to two NBA Titles. Bing and Lanier continued to play well, but while they sometimes did manage to shoulder the team, they also has the misfortune of playing in the same division as the Milwaukee Bucks - who fielded Lew Alcindor, known today as Kareem Abdul-Jabber - and the Chicago Bulls, a hard-fighting defensive team with strong players who punished anyone who committed the crime of stepping onto the hardwood with them.
The Pistons were still godawful when the 1980 season rolled around. They went 16-66 that year, losing their final 14 games in a row and then, coupling that with a seven-loss streak to begin their 1981 season, set a then-record of 21 straight losses which has since been broken. Coincidentally, 21 was also the number of games the Pistons managed to win in the 1981 season. At least 1981 actually has silver lining. Silver lining wasn't actually named Silver Lining, of course; he was actually named Isiah Thomas, and he was a product of Indiana University. He would go on to become the greatest player in the history of the Detroit Pistons. In 1982, Bill Laimbeer was acquired via trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Vinnie Johnson was acquired the same way, except from the Seattle Supersonics. The three of them stayed together for the next decade, forming the core of the greatest Pistons teams. By 1984, the Pistons had reached the playoffs, only to be ejected in the first round by New York. In the 1985 season, they made the playoffs again and won their first round matchup before falling to the Boston Celtics in the second round. Although Boston won in six games, Detroit had surprised everyone with their performance. They actually had talent now, and the first of many, MANY Pistons rivalries of the era began.
Rick Mahorn was a 1985 pickup in a trade with the Washington Bullets during the offseason. In the 1986 season, Detroit made the playoffs again, losing to the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, but after that series, Isiah Thomas and Pistons coach Chuck Daly realized something: They HAD the talent to do big things. What they needed to succeed was aggression. Physicality. They needed to play awesome fundamentals, and also punish the other teams physically and wear them down. During the 1986 offseason, the Pistons picked up John Salley and Dennis Rodman in the draft, and got Adrian Dantley (I've been writing about this guy a lot lately) in a trade with the Utah Jazz. They adopted a new, defense-oriented physical style of play to go with their new players. In the 1987, the Bad Boys emerged, and for the next several years, they become the most physically intimidating team in the league. They pissed everyone off and didn't care. Everyone - EVERYONE - hated them.
Part of the hatred toward the Bad Boys came because their style was so successful. In the 1987 season, the Pistons reached the Eastern Conference Finals, where they pushed the Celtics to a 2-2 series tie. In game five, the Pistons were on the verge of winning when Larry Bird pulled off a miracle by stealing an inbound pass and tossing it to Dennis Johnson, who made a layup that won the game. The Pistons rallied for a win in game six before losing a tough seventh game in Boston. That loss only served as motivation, and in 1988 the Pistons returned to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they finally beat the Bird/McHale/Parish Celtics and went to the Finals for the first time since Fort Wayne. Playing against one of the great teams in NBA history, the 1988 Showtime Los Angeles Lakers, the Pistons actually managed to take a 3-2 series lead to Detroit for the sixth game. Isiah Thomas managed to score 25 points in the third quarter on a badly sprained ankle. But Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won the game on a pair of last-minute free throws after a controversial foul by Bill Laimbeer, which is still referred to by Pistons fans as the Phantom Foul. Isiah Thomas couldn't play at full strength in the next game, and that great, classic 1988 Showtime Lakers team won game seven and the Championship. Just barely.
In 1989 the Pistons were angrier than ever. So close, so far, and on a nonexistent foul too! It was time to teach the NBA a fucking lesson! The 1989 Pistons won 63 games, their best record ever, torpedoed through the playoffs, and got that rematch with the Lakers they probably wanted. This time, they proved themselves, sweeping the Lakers and winning their first Championship since joining the NBA. Joe Dumars was the Finals MVP. The next season, they won 59 games and blew through two playoff rounds before they met the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bulls, featuring Michael Jordan, had been stymied in the playoffs the previous two years by the Pistons. The pissed-off Bulls gave Detroit a fight, but Detroit prevailed in seven games before going to the Finals to match up against the Portland Trail Blazers. They hadn't won any games at all in Portland since 1974, but in the Finals, they swept the three middle games in Portland. Upon returning to Detroit with a 3-1 series lead, the Pistons clinched.
Came the 1991 season, the Pistons returned to the Eastern Conference Finals. Isiah Thomas sustained a nasty wrist injury just before the playoffs began, so he wasn't at full strength for the Chicago Bulls to sweep them en route to beginning their great 90's dynasty. It was the final hurrah of the Bad Boys era, and the series is mostly remembered for the defeated, humiliated Pistons storming past the Bulls in the aftermath of game four, refusing to shake their hands. It summed up everything about the Pistons' image during the Bad Boys era, as well as their feelings toward their Chicago archrivals. After that, the Pistons took a fast downward dip with many of the Bad Boy players retired or were traded to different teams. By the 1994 season, they had bottomed out once again, finishing 20-62.
Grant Hill was drafted in 1994. He had oodles of promise, but all that promise was nullified by some very bad management decisions. They lost Allan Houston to the Knicks in free agency. They signed a bunch of washouts as free agents, including Christian Laettner. They hired and fired five different head coaches in eight years, including the smart, resourceful Doug Collins, who was the only coach during that span to have any success at the helm: He won 54 games in the 1997 season. Pistons fans refer to those down years with a name more unique than terms employed to bad eras by fans of most other teams. Pistons fans call the late 90's the Teal Era, due mainly to the fact that Detroit's traditional colors of red, white, and blue were changed to an ugly, misfitting mix of burgundy, teal, gold, and black.
By 2001, teal was out. Joe Dumars was in! He had retired after 1999, but was hired as the team President in the 2000 offseason. He faced his first major crisis right off, with Grant Hill deciding the Pistons were too horrid a team to offer anything from a shot at winning to a decent city to live in. (I'm just kidding, Detroiters. I'm from Buffalo, which is similar to your city in many ways. I know what it's like for people to make quick judgements on classic, historical Rust Belt cities which are going through bad times. That was more of an I-feel-you wink than a real knock.) Hill left for the Orlando Magic, but Dumars managed to work a miracle when he turned it into a sign-and-trade arrangement which brought Chucky Atkins and Ben Wallace to Detroit for Hill. Both were put into Detroit's starting lieup, and Wallace emerged as an All-Star and one of the finest defensive players in the NBA. After another bad year, Rick Carlisle was hired to coach, and he guided the Pistons to their first 50-win season since 1997 and first playoff series victory since 1991. It probably looked like an aberration at first, but the Pistons posted a short string of 50-win seasons and went to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2003. They were swept by the New Jersey Nets.
Carlisle was fired in the 2003 offseason for a handful of speculated reasons: He refused to play the younger players, and didn't get along with a handful of other players, including Ben Wallace. His offense was too conservative. But the real catalysts probably have just a wee bit more to do with the fact that Carlisle was rumored to be more interested in coaching the Indiana Pacers, and had made the mistake of taking an interest in that position while Larry Brown was available. Carlisle out, Brown in, and during the 2004 season, the Pistons reeled in Rasheed Wallace. The Pistons went 54-28 in the 2004 season. In the playoffs, they cruised through the Milwauke Bucks in five games before facing the defending Eastern Conference Champion Nets in the second round. During that series, they came back from a 3-2 deficit to win the series in seven games. In he Eastern Conference Finals, they faced the Rick Carlisle-coached Pacers, beating them in six tough games. Now, you've been on this gauntlet of a playoff run, and you're now in the Finals with the Los Angeles Lakers facing you. The Lakers have won three of the last four Championships. They're fielding the lethal Shaquille O'Neal/Kobe Bryant duo, as well as Gary Payton and Karl Malone, two experienced all-time greats on their final tours through the league who have never won the Championship and joined the Lakers specifically to do that. What happens? Climactic fight to the finish between all-star team and pesky upstarts or one-sided stomp? Well, NBA watchers were voting strictly in the one-sided stomp direction, and it's difficult to blame them for it. Few people expected Detroit to win even a single game, which is why it was surprising they came out on top of game one. Perhaps that wasn't the surprise so much as it was the twelve-point difference in the 87-75 Detroit victory. Oh well, that's just a steal from a Lakers team that thought they could underprepare for the Finals on account of a pathetic opponent. Right? Hey, game two proved it when the Lakers won 99-91. It seemed a little odd that the Lakers were kept under 100 for some reason, but hey, the natural order of the NBA would now be returning. At least that's what people told themselves until the Pistons mopped the floor with the Lakers 88-68 in game three. That was domination, and speculators and bookies now began second-guessing themselves. Detroit took game four too. Then game five, and thus the Finals for their third Championship. It was as if they suddenly decided the most talented team in the league in paper wouldn't be a sweat after what they had endured against the Nets and Pacers. In 2005, the Pistons returned to the Finals, but lost a hard-fought series against the equally defensive San Antonio Spurs which went the distance.
The next season, the team bought out Larry Brown's contract because they were a little miffed at the fact that he was busy peering out and sticking his feelers into other coaching jobs. (He tends to do that.) He left to coach the New York Knicks, and Flip Saunders was hired to replace him. Saunders took Detroit to 64 wins, the best record in the league and in team history. In the second round of the playoffs, they struggled against the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing seven games to knock them off before losing the Eastern Conference Finals to the eventual Champion Miami Heat. The next year, they lost Ben Wallace to the Bulls, but they got revenge on him in the playoffs. In the second round of the 2007 playoffs, the Pistons raced to a 3-0 series lead against the Bulls, but the Bulls won the next two, and even though the Pistons won in six games, the Bulls looked like they might pull off the big comeback for a hot minute. The Pistons might be the most underrated team of the millennium. They went to the Conference Finals for six years in a row, winning them twice and the NBA Championship once.
The era was effectively done once Detroit traded two of its key players - Antonio McDyess and Chauncy Billups - for Allen Iverson. After struggling for the final playoff seed that year and getting swept in the first round by Cleveland, the Pistons have been in regression ever since. They're a draft team now, trying to rebuild, but it's too early in their rebuilding to judge the effects of it.
The long history of the Detroit Pistons can be reflected in their sizable list of Hall of Famers. Walt Bellamy, Dave Bing, Dave DeBusschere, Joe Dumars, Bob Lanier, Dennis Rodman, and Isiah Thomas are among their Hall of Famers, even though only Thomas and Rodman are among their transcendents. Larry Brown and Chuck Daly are also in the Hall as coaches, while William Davidson and Fred Zollner are in the Hall for everything they did for the team and league as owners. Thomas, Rodman, Dumars, Lanier, and Bing are also honored among Vinnie Johnson, Bill Laimbeer, Davidson, Jack McCloskey, and Daly with retired numbers and rafter banners. The team's individual honors are way too numerous for me to even begin to try to write out.
The image of the Detroit Pistons is summed up almost entirely by the Bad Boys era. Everyone hated their guts because they were very physical and punishing, and they were willing to take intentionally hard fouls in order to strike fear into their opponents. The gritty imagery of Detroit and the infamous Malice in the Palace brawl in 2004. A fight broke out on the floor, and a drink was tossed at Metta World Peace (then Ron Artest) while he was laying on the scorer's table. He charged into the stands to attack the guy he thought threw the drink and grabbed him, although he didn't strike. A big mess erupted, suspensions were made, and the season of Detroit's opponent that night - Indiana - was pretty much ruined. The team imagery is also summed up in the way they walked out on the Bulls in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals, refusing to shake their hands. Some of the players from that team have matured. Bill Laimbeer, however, still defends the team for doing that.
Also lending credence to the Pistons' hard image is the fact that their rivalries seem more defined and hostile than the rivalries between any two other teams in the league. The Bad Boys had bad blood with the Bulls, and those two teams beat the hell out of each other in the playoffs and took media potshots at each other when they weren't doing that. The Pistons also used a bit of light psychological warfare by employing The Jordan Rules. The Jordan Rules were eventually exposed as a set of simple funnel defense which kept Michael Jordan out of the paint, but the fact that the Pistons employed such a term effectively tricked the rest of the league - including the Bulls - into thinking they were a nuclear missile that only the Pistons had the launch code to. They also developed heavily defined rivalries with the Lakers, opponents they've faced three times in the Finals and beaten twice. The Celtics are also a rivalry, and the Pacers are nearby rivals whose big moment with the Pistons includes a lot of fierce playoff series and the Malice in the Palace.
If you're able to look past such inexcusable sportsmanship, though, you'll see a great redeeming quality for the Pistons: Unity. Although Isiah Thomas is widely viewed as the greatest Piston, there's no one player who completely dominates as the designated team record holder. Part of the reason the Bad Boys won was because they genuinely didn't care who was the big star and who wasn't. They made the Finals and won through a bunch of players, none of whom reached a 20 point per game average. Their records and achievements and individual accolades are fairly well-spread through every year of the team's history. In this case, the fact that the Pistons have never had a league MVP is a positive, because it gives credibility to the Pistons as a team and not just one or two players followed by formless faces.
I have to shave a few points off the final score of the Detroit Pistons for their unsportsmanlike conduct. There's showing off and then there's just bullying, and the Pistons have been bullies sometimes. But otherwise, if a new NBA fan doesn't mind being seen as a thug, he could do a lot worse than the Detroit Pistons.
PS: I've decided to stop linking my reviews of other teams for now. It's a time-consuming process, and Lunch has more difficulty than usual loading.