Even if the detroit pistons crawl out of the playoff hole they dug for themselves Sunday after noon with a 94-83 loss to the Bulls in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final at Chicago Stadium, the suspicion around the NBA is that general manager Jack McCloskey can't wait to pick up his sledgehammer and start breaking things up. The Pistons, who are the two-time defending NBA champs, are heading for Splitsville, goes the thinking, just as surely as Norm Peterson is heading for the corner stool at Cheers.
"Just where does that opinion come from?" said McCloskey last Friday night before Detroit eliminated the Boston Celtics with a 117-113 overtime victory in a stirring Game 6 of their conference semifinal series. "You tell me, because I don't know."
Trader Jack was being somewhat disingenuous, of course—there is indeed much logic to the notion that the Pistons as currently constituted have gone as far as they can go. Nine of their 12 players are 30 or over. Two of their key frontcourtmen, scoring specialist James Edwards and defensive specialist John Salley, are unhappy with their salaries, and backcourt reserve Vinnie Johnson is frequently unhappy about playing time and the number of shots he gets—or doesn't get-in the balanced Piston offense. Center Bill Laimbeer strongly considered retirement even before this season, which was physically and mentally as grueling as any in his 11-year career. The longer mercurial forward Mark Aguirre stays, the more likely he is to alienate coaches and teammates, and he has now been in Detroit for 2½ seasons. And if McCloskey is really looking to rebuild, he has three starters with extremely high trade value—guards Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars and two-time Defensive Player of the Year Dennis Rodman.
Looming above all the other questions, of course, is the possibility that coach Chuck Daly, who has more balls in the air than a circus juggler, will quit the Pistons. Daly is wrestling with this dilemma: Can he better prepare for his 1992 Olympic coaching assignment by leading Detroit for another season or by working as a network commentator and seeing the whole picture more objectively? "Good question, isn't it?" says Daly, who claims—and whose closest friends confirm—that he has not decided which way to go.
And neither has McCloskey.
"Every year I ask myself the same question, and that is, Can this team win a championship?" said McCloskey last week. "That's the only thing that matters. My answer after last season, obviously, was yes, and we kept the team basically intact. I'll ask myself the same question this year, and if the answer is no, then there will be some changes. But it's too early to tell right now."
Well, do these Pistons have a three-peat in them? They didn't play like champions in Sunday's game, but that wasn't surprising considering the expenditure of emotion that was necessary to turn back the Celtics two nights earlier. The subplots of 1) breaking up and 2) grand old warriors ran strongly through that series. After the final buzzer on Friday night, Thomas threaded his way through a mob of jubilant teammates and fans and caught up to Boston's Kevin McHale as he headed to the locker room. "I wanted to let him know what a pleasure it was to compete against players like him," said Thomas. "I couldn't get to Larry [Bird], but I told Kevin to tell him the same thing. They make me feel proud to be an athlete." Later, Thomas reacted strongly when asked if he had the sense it was the last time he would see the old Celtics—meaning Bird, McHale and Robert Parish—together on the court. "I heard the same thing last year," said Thomas. "When will people realize that players like these are special, and that you can't replace them?"
No, you can't. But after the enervating Game 6 loss, Boston's Golden Oldie trio could have been wearing red crosses just as easily as Celtic shamrocks. Bird, 34, played 45 largely ineffective minutes with the most famous aching back in America. At week's end, Boston announced that he would be having surgery sometime this week. Parish, the NBA's oldest player at 37, looked great during Game 6, but he happened to be in a suit and tie at the time—he sprained his left ankle in Game 5 and had been hobbling on a gimpy right one before that. And McHale, who had squirmed and twisted his way to a game-high 34 points, faced the possibility of off-season foot surgery.
"A great team will find ways to win, and that's what the Pistons did," said McHale, who sounded as weary as he looked. "We have to get back to that here...whichever of us is here."
Several Pistons are wondering which of them will be around, too. But no one should start packing yet. Sunday's game, imperfect as it was, showed Detroit in all its formidable unpredictability. Yes, the Pistons lost, but the Bulls couldn't blow them out, despite coming in with four days rest. Detroit—and here's a recurring NBA story, if there ever was one—contained and sometimes downright frustrated league MVP Michael Jordan, who scored just 22 points on 6-of-15 shooting from the field. "I guess I had that headache today," said Jordan, referring to the migraine that all but incapacitated teammate Scottie Pippen in Game 7 of last year's conference final, which the Pistons won. Detroit got listless and uneven performances from several old reliables—Laimbeer, for example, celebrated his 34th birthday with an abysmal four-point, three-rebound effort, which he described as "horrible"—yet hung around for most of the game, largely because of the contributions of Aguirre (9 of 16 for 25 points) and Johnson (10 of 19 for 21 points). "All I know is that I wasn't tired," said Johnson afterward. "I played great, and I felt great."