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Thursday, June 3, 2004
Bad Boys? Try bad shooting

By Peter May
Special to ESPN.com

You are going to hear the phrase "Bad Boys" tossed around a lot in the next few days. It will be unrelenting. The temptation is to take these Detroit Pistons and try to liken them to those Detroit Pistons.

Chauncey Billups
Chauncey Billups and the Pistons have had problems putting the ball in the basket.
Only one of those teams was the Bad Boys.

That would be the twin champs of 1988-89 and 1989-90. Truth be told, they should have had a third, in 1987-1988, but Hugh Evans made a cheesy call on Bill Laimbeer (imagine that!) that gave the Lakers two game-winning free throws in Game 6.

These Pistons are like those Pistons in name and name only. If you want to call these Pistons the Bad Boys, feel free. Just make sure that you note that the "bad" in this case stands for their unrefined and artless offensive ways.

Yes, Joe Dumars, one of the Bad Boys himself, built this team. He wanted a team with the same kind of habit of mind that the champion Bad Boys had -- a grittiness, an edge, a workingman's mentality reflective of the city (Detroit) they rarely see. He's succeeded to a certain extent; but no one has to tell Joe that this Pistons team is nowhere near the offensive powerhouse of 15 years ago.

Yes, that's right. The 1988-90 Pistons, the Pistons who went to three straight NBA Finals and won two of them, could score. They did score. Yes, you could argue that those teams, with their defensive tenacity and mindset, started the trend which now makes defense all-consuming. But to categorize the Pistons' teams of the late 1980s as a defensive-minded, dirty, thug-like, take-no-prisoners bunch would be, well, only half right. (Any team which features Laimbeer is, by definition, dirty.)

The world champion Pistons of 1988-89, which swept an injury ravaged Lakers team in the NBA Finals, shot 49.4 percent from the field and averaged 106.6 points a game. No team in this day and age comes close to that field-goal percentage number and only Sacramento or Dallas could dream about averaging 106.6 points. The league average was 107 points so the Pistons were right in the middle. How badly did they lock down the opponent? They allowed 100.8 points a game which, in 1988-89, represented the second fewest points allowed in the league. Opponents shot 44.7 percent against them; that's almost unthinkable now for a good defensive team.

The following season, when the Pistons took care of the Trail Blazers in five games, Detroit averaged 104.3 points a game and shot 47.8 percent from the field. They held opponents to 98.3 points a game, fewest in the league.

Both Pistons teams had a three-man backcourt full of scorers. Not shooters -- scorers. Isiah Thomas still holds the record for most points in a quarter in Game 6 of the 1988 Finals, when he scored, um, 25. This Pistons team played 24 quarters against Indiana and scored 25 or more points in five of them. Both Dumars and Thomas each has scored 24 points in a quarter; Thomas did it three times in his Pistons career. Need we even mention the Microwave himself, Vinnie Johnson? That nickname (courtesy of Danny Ainge) was right on the money. Laimbeer could score. Mark Aguirre? Ever see him guard anyone?

Yet the popular conception is that those two Pistons teams started the trend which has seen coaches obsess with defense to the point of absurdity. One of the reasons: coach Chuck Daly used two players in his rotation -- John Salley and Dennis Rodman -- whose raison d'Ítre was defense. If either scored, it was a bonus. They were in the game to defend, rebound and block shots. Some teams had one guy whose main purpose was defense. Some had none. Few had two who not only played, but also generally were on the floor at the end of close games. That sent out a signal: defense uber alles.

Also contributing: The two years that the Pistons won the NBA title, 1989 and 1990, represented the first two years that we first saw teams holding their opponents to fewer than 100 points a game. In 1987-88, the year the Pistons should have won the title, all 23 teams (ah, those were the days, my friend) allowed their opponent to score at least 101.6 points a game. In 1988-89, the Utah Jazz became the first team since 1983 to hold its foes to double figures (99.7) while the Pistons were No. 2 at 100.8. The following year, the Pistons (98.3) and the sludge-ball Timberwolves (99.4) both did it. It's been that way ever since, to the point where now, if a team doesn't do it, it is considered to be either hopelessly deficient on defense, or, coached by Don Nelson. Or both.

Then came a gradual descent into the Dark Ages with Pat Riley's Knicks teams which deepened further with Mike Fratello's Cleveland teams. One often overlooked stat -- shots per game -- has been dropping and it first dipped under 80 with the 1990-91 Utah Jazz. That hadn't happened since the shot clock went into effect.

The championship Pistons were a terrific defensive team. They guarded you. They grated on you (with Laimbeer being, as former Boston general manager Jan Volk once said, "the consummate provocateur.") They occasionally resorted to thuggery; Rick Mahorn was also a part of that group and he wasn't known as McNasty (or was it McFilthy?) for no reason.

But that team also could do something that this Pistons team could not: It could produce points. In its four-game sweep of the Lakers in 1989, the Pistons averaged 109 points a game. That's a game and a half -- at least -- for this point-challenged assemblage that will try and beat the Lakers. (Aren't we grateful now that we're not looking at a Spurs-Pistons, first-team-to-reach-double-figures-wins final?)

These Pistons may like to be compared to the Bad Boys and you can't blame the fans for reaching back to those glory days. But really, folks, the difference is gigantic. It was a different time, a different league and, yes, offense mattered back then. Feel free to use the word association game if you must, but when you talk about the 2003-04 Bad Boys, the understanding should be that the operative word (bad) applies to their inability to score. That is the truth -- and it will in all probability play out for all to see, again, in the next fortnight.

Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.