And so it has come to this for the Detroit Pistons' erstwhile Bad Boys: William Bedford, a 7'1" figment of general manager Jack McCloskey's imagination, ambles onto the court as the starting center, while Bill Laimbeer, if not Detroit's heart and soul during its championship seasons, then certainly its guts and gall, stays on the bench. What next? Lance Blanks and Charles Thomas for Joe Dumars and Isiah Thomas? A G.I.-style crew cut instead of razor-cut messages for Dennis Rodman? Off-the-rack suits for coach Chuck Daly?
Everyone knew this year's Pistons would be different without frontcourt scorer James Edwards, beloved bombardier Vinnie Johnson and broad-shouldered benchmates Tree Rollins and Scott Hastings, but no one expected they would be this different. "We thought we'd adjust to the changes better than this," says shooting guard Dumars. "It seems like nothing's clear anymore." Says Dumars's equally fog-shrouded running mate, Isiah Thomas, "Every game's like an experiment." Which is what the Bedford-as-starter stratagem is. The decision to start Bedford, made by Daly on Nov. 22 following three straight losses, was a signal that the Pistons were grasping at straws instead of pushing buttons and that this once-proud franchise, which at week's end had an 8-9 record, was heading down, down, down.
Bear in mind, though, that down is a relative term in this year's frail Eastern Conference. Early indications are that the Chicago Bulls (13-2 through Sunday) will fail to make the NBA Finals only if Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant decide to, say, join a kibbutz or sign on as roadies for Whitesnake, and that virtually everyone else in the conference—well, maybe not the New Jersey Nets—is playing for second place.
Whatever happens, it will be hard to beat the tenants of The Palace of Auburn Hills for palace intrigue this season. Of course, that's nothing new. For in victory and defeat, joy and sorrow, sickness and health, the Pistons have always had a way of making things interesting.
"You know that swing set you assemble in your backyard, the one that almost ends your marriage?" said Daly last week. "When you're done, you always have some pieces left over, pieces that don't fit, square pegs for round holes. That's what we've got here right now." For Daly, the season has become a search for the right rotation, as well as for the right metaphor. On another occasion he rubbed his hands together with a maniacal smile and said, "You know what I feel like? A mad scientist. We've got all these different parts, all this stuff bubbling. The trick is to find a way to put it together."
As Daly peers into his caldron, taking care to keep his $150 silk tie out of the broth, these are some of the boiling questions he sees:
•Will Isiah's play for the Pistons be affected by the hurt and resentment he feels at being excluded (so far) from the Olympic team, of which Daly is the coach? Is Dumars, who as of Sunday was shooting a career-low .388, similarly bothered about not making the Olympic team?
•What is the role of newly hired team broadcaster Ronnie Rothstein, the former Miami Heat coach and a onetime Detroit assistant under Daly? Was he brought in by McCloskey to look over Daly's shoulder? Is he not the most apparent heir apparent in NBA history?
•What offensive tempo can the Pistons come up with to accommodate both the open-court abilities of newcomer Orlando Woolridge and the old grind-it-out style that characterized Detroit in its championship years, 1989 and '90?
•What's the deal with Bedford?