SI Vault
Jack McCallum
November 06, 1989
No one shuts down Michael Jordan, but the champion Detroit Pistons have developed an intricate defensive system, called the Jordan Rules, that comes close to containing him
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November 06, 1989

Mission Impossible

No one shuts down Michael Jordan, but the champion Detroit Pistons have developed an intricate defensive system, called the Jordan Rules, that comes close to containing him

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For as far back as he can remember, Joe Dumars has played the tough guys. "Neal Carter from Captain Shreve High in Shreveport," says Dumars, smiling at the memory of his high school days in Louisiana. "Man, I just couldn't stop that guy. I'll never forget him."

And what happened to Carter? "Lost track of him after high school," says Dumars, who attended Natchitoches Central. "But if it had been up to me, he would've gotten a scholarship somewhere."

The man that Dumars is best known for guarding these days has a slightly higher profile than Carter did. Michael Jordan is his name. Has a few moves. Can jump a little. Definite scoring threat.

Dumars is the point man, the first line in a Detroit Piston defensive scheme that possibly represents the most concentrated effort to contain one player in NBA history. The Pistons' proficiency in executing that defense has been a big factor in their success—two appearances in the playoff finals and one championship—in the last two seasons. "Their philosophy is to stop at nothing to stop Michael," says Doug Collins, who was fired after last season as coach of Jordan's team, the Chicago Bulls. "And, basically, they've succeeded."

"It should be the easiest defense in the league to tear apart," says Jordan, his voice reflecting the frustration he feels about the Bulls' failure to overcome the Pistons' scheme. "But we haven't done it. It's worked. They've accomplished what they wanted to accomplish."

It wasn't always that way. On the afternoon of April 3, 1988, Jordan embarrassed Detroit by scoring 59 points in a nationally televised game that Chicago won 112-110. That wasn't the first time Jordan had worn out the Pistons—he had gone for 49, 47, 61 and 49 against them during various games in previous seasons. But after the 59-point effort, Detroit coach Chuck Daly had seen enough. "We made up our minds right then and there that Michael Jordan was not going to beat us by himself again," says Daly. "We had to commit to a total team concept to get it done."

So Daly and his assistants at the time, Ron Rothstein and Dick Versace, created a defensive game plan just for Jordan. Each Piston had specific responsibilities: Jordan has the ball on the wing, you go there, you do this; Jordan is posted up on the right box, you check him there, you watch for this, and so on. Collectively these responsibilities became known as the Jordan Rules.

Result? In the 17 games (including playoff games) between the Bulls and the Pistons since that 59-point outburst, Jordan has averaged 28.3 points, 7.6 fewer than he did in his first 19 games against Detroit. The Pistons have won 14 of those games, and in each of the last two seasons they have eliminated Chicago from the playoffs. Oh, Jordan, the NBA scoring champion the last three seasons, has had his moments against Detroit in those 17 outings—he scored 40 in a regular-season game on April 7, 1989, and 46 in Game 3 of last spring's Eastern Conference playoffs—but he has yet to erupt for what Versace calls "astro points."

Remember, too, that the better the competition, the better Jordan usually plays. When it comes to Detroit, there is another factor. Jordan doesn't like the Piston players—in particular center Bill Laimbeer and power forward Rick Mahorn, now with the Philadelphia 76ers—and the stakes are often quite high when the teams meet. Still, he can't really break loose.

In fact, the 46-point performance came when the Jordan Rules weren't in effect, Daly and his staff having called them off before the playoffs because they were concerned about the scoring of Chicago forwards Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. But after Jordan's Game 3 performance gave the Bulls a 2-1 series lead, the Piston players, led by Isiah Thomas, urged Daly to reinstitute the rules. He did, and Detroit won the three ensuing games as Jordan struggled to score 23, 18 and 32 points.

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