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Past, Present And Future
Jack McCallum
July 04, 1988
As promised, the Lakers repeated for the NBA title, proving they're still the best, but Detroit could be tomorrow's team
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July 04, 1988

Past, Present And Future

As promised, the Lakers repeated for the NBA title, proving they're still the best, but Detroit could be tomorrow's team

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Of the many other dynasties in sports, only the NBA's Boston Celtics (nine championships in the '60s), the NHL's Montreal Canadiens (five in the '50s, five more in the '60s and six in the 70s) and baseball's New York Yankees (five World Series victories in the '30s and six in the '50s) have won five or more titles in a single decade. Not bad company, Pat, not bad at all.

This season's championship game had been over for an hour, but Detroit's Thomas was still in uniform, his bum ankle draped with an ice bag, his fingers wrapped around a bottle of bubbly. "We deserve to drink champagne as much as they do," said Thomas.

Next year, Thomas could be savoring his drink in a winning locker room. But while Detroit has the right ingredients to become a champion, the team must still learn to combine the elements in the right proportions. And the Pistons are, to be sure, a volatile mix, the kind that can blow up in the kitchen.

For one thing, Thomas is not happy with his $700,000-a-year contract, especially since that figure would put him below the $800,000 earned by the Pistons' William Bedford...should the seldom-used, second-year center make it back from drug rehabilitation for the '88-89 season. The Pistons are expected to renegotiate with Thomas, but sometimes these matters do not go smoothly.

Adrian Dantley, the Pistons' "proud warrior," in the words of assistant coach Dick Versace, has never been a particularly happy camper. Even when things were going well this season, Dantley would work virtually every conversation around to how he was not getting enough shots in the Piston offense. He and Thomas have successfully walked a tightrope for the last two seasons, each subordinating a little of his own game for the sake of the other's. They deserve credit for that. But the tightrope is still strung and must still be walked.

And at times during the season, reserve guard Vinnie Johnson got the blues over his lack of playing time; it showed particularly in his regular-season performance. Furthermore, by the start of next season, power forward Rick Mahorn will either be recovering from off-season back surgery or again trying to be effective while playing through the pain. And it will be interesting to see if John Salley and Dennis Rodman, having tasted success in '87-88, will make off-season commitments to improve on offense. They should not emulate center Bill Laimbeer, who in spite of being as tough a competitor as there is during the season, has never taken the time during the summer to improve his post-up game. That is a sore point between Laimbeer and Piston general manager Jack McCloskey.

There is a degree of uncertainty about the Detroit coaching staff too. As of Sunday, both head coach Chuck Daly and assistant Ronnie Rothstein were candidates for the head coaching position with the Miami Heat, one of the two expansion teams joining the NBA next season (the Charlotte Hornets are the other). With both a keen wit and a firm hand, Daly, whom the Pistons call Daddy Rich for his slick appearance, did an amazing job of keeping this unpredictable team together. And Rothstein, who came from Atlanta before the 1986-87 season, deserves most of the credit for introducing to the Pistons a seven-letter word: defense. Even if Daly stays, who knows what ill feelings may linger, and possibly fester, over the Pistons' inability to sign him to a long-term contract before his old one expired on May 31, one week before he led the franchise into the finals. The $185,000 Daly earned in 1987-88 is positively paltry in light of both the Pistons' success and the five-year, $3.5 million deal given new San Antonio Spurs coach Larry Brown.

There is something else that could derail Detroit. The real strength of the Lakers came—and still comes, in spite of Worthy's great playoff performance—from Magic Johnson. He runs the show, just as Larry Bird runs it in Boston. The Pistons do not have that kind of leader. Thomas has the potential to become that player, but he's not there yet.

Despite such questions, Detroit, the product of solid draft choices (Thomas, Joe Dumars, Salley, Rodman) as well as crafty acquisitions by McCloskey (Dantley, Vinnie Johnson, James Edwards), is clearly a model team for the '90s—for these reasons:

•The Pistons emphasize defense. Double-teaming defense, combative one-on-one defense, hellacious off-the-ball defense—the Pistons do it all. Rodman, about whom Riley said, "There's no better defensive player in the league," gave the NBA something to think about by harassing Magic as no defender has before. Of course, not everyone is a Rodman, who at 6'8" is tall enough to obstruct some of the 6'9" Magic's passing angles and quick enough to skirt around picks and take away the Laker guard's proficiency on the pick-and-roll.

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