The Detroit Pistons are back in the playoffs. For the first time since the 2015-16 season, and the first time in Little Caesars Arena history, postseason basketball has returned to the Motor City. Some fans are excited to watch David versus Goliath, the banged-up Pistons versus MVP frontrunner Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks.
It’s unrealistic to say that the Pistons are title contenders, because they’re simply not. It’s not even realistic to imagine that the Pistons make it out of round one, as Vegas is predicting a sweep. The Bucks have already taken a 1-0 series lead following a 121-86 victory in game one. But, there’s a reason we play the games, right?
Regardless of where you’ve got the Pistons headed, the standard for Detroit fans will always be there. Eight seeds and first round exits, which is exactly what happened in 2016, aren’t good enough.
While that’s true, is it complete blasphemy to highlight a roadmap for the underdog Pistons to take down the MVP? To do this, let’s take a side-by-side look at the founding fathers of the winning culture in Detroit, the 1988-89 NBA Champions, the Baaaaad Boys.
REGGIE JACKSON / ISIAH THOMAS
We’ll start with the obvious. By no means am I saying Reggie Jackson is in the same breath as Isiah Lord Thomas III, one of the greatest point guards to ever see the floor. But, he’s the point guard of the current squad, and while all of us would agree that Blake Griffin is the first scoring option, Thomas wasn’t the first scoring option on the Bad Boys either.
Nonetheless, the Pistons are going to need a Zeke-like performance out of Jackson in order to advance, period.
Thomas averaged 18.2 points and 8.3 assists per game in the first championship season, shooting 46.4% from the field. With the conclusion of the 2018-19 regular season on Wednesday, Reggie Jackson averaged 15.4 points and 4.2 assists on 42.1% shooting. He’ll have to take a step up in the playoffs, as most star players do.
The bottom line is, regardless of how well Jackson can emulate Thomas on offense, he’s going to have to leave it all on the floor on defense. The Bucks have a star point guard of their own in Eric Bledsoe, who averaged 15.5 points and 5.5 assists on 48.4% shooting this season.
To set a goal, if Jackson and the Pistons defense can hold Bledsoe under 15 points and bother him enough to bump the field goal percentage down to as close as 40 as possible, the Pistons will win this matchup.
BLAKE GRIFFIN / BILL LAIMBEER
Before you laugh at this comparison, let me first state the obvious that it’s not a fair one. There’s no doubt about that. However, what we do know is that Griffin is a little banged up heading into the postseason, as he missed four of the final seven games of the Pistons’ season due to knee soreness. He was also a late scratch for game one versus the Bucks, and his absence was a monumental advantage for Milwaukee.
There’s no telling how much of his aggressiveness he’ll be able to show off, but we do know that regardless of his scoring ability, he’ll draw double-teams and facilitate perfectly, as he’s done all season.
If you see Griffin being uncharacteristically passive during the beginning and middle stages of the game, don’t panic. He’s saving some octane for the fourth quarter. One thing that he will do for the entirety of the game, however, is launch the long ball.
Griffin attempted a career-high seven 3-pointers per game this season, and hit them at a 36.2% clip. Not bad at all, Blake. This is where the Laimbeer comparison comes in. The Pistons hard-core center hit the three ball at 34.9% during the Bad Boys’ first championship season. If Blake continues to provide the successful big man 3-point shooting, it’ll take loads of pressure off of his teammates.
One more primary area where Griffin must measure up to Laimbeer, and perhaps exceed Laimbeer, is on the defensive end of the floor. There’s no telling exactly how coach Dwane Casey will attack Antetokounmpo, but we can confidently conclude that Griffin will be one of his primary defenders.
You all know exactly how Laimbeer made Michael Jordan uncomfortable, and while the hostile play of that era is no longer allowed, Griffin can still bring the guns out for a physical matchup. Even if elite defense from Griffin costs him six to eight points off his season average, the Pistons will take it if it leads to a win.
ANDRE DRUMMOND / DENNIS RODMAN
This was perhaps the most obvious choice. The best rebounder of this generation and the most dominant rebounder of all time. In fact, Drummond just became the first player since Rodman to average 15+ boards per game in consecutive seasons.
Drummond (15.6 RPG) just captured his second straight rebounding title and his third in the last four seasons. It’s hard to imagine that Rodman was actually a full two and a half rebounds per game better in his prime.
Aside from the rebounding, these two compare in a different area, particularly this season, that most people probably didn’t see coming. Drummond led the league in defensive win shares this season at 5.9, 0.2 ahead of Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (2.2 blocks per game).
Rodman was a Defensive Player of the Year award winner twice as a member of the Pistons. Detroit will need Drummond to be as much of a roadblock as possible in front of the rim for Antetokounmpo.
LUKE KENNARD and BRUCE BROWN / JOE DUMARS
Here, it’s the Pistons’ two-headed monster of young shooting guards that need to do their best Hall of Fame three-and-d impression. Dumars averaged 17.2 points per game while guarding the other team’s best guard. I believe in Kennard and Brown to combine for that type of production.
Expect Kennard to shoot it. He’s currently at just under 40% from deep, attempting 4.3 threes per game. That number has trended up since the trade shipping Stanley Johnson and Reggie Bullock out of Detroit, and we can expect it to take yet another step up in the playoffs.
Brown will most likely be the primary defender on All-Star Khris Middleton, and he’ll help out with the plethora of the Bucks’ scoring attack. Middleton’s 18.3 points per game will need to be reduced or maintained at worst.
Brown’s elite perimeter defense as a rookie has pleasantly surprised many Pistons fans, and they’re hanging onto hope that the best is yet to come in the postseason.
WAYNE ELLINGTON / MARK AGUIRRE
Of all the comparisons, this one is probably the most spot-on besides maybe Drummond/Rodman. Pistons fans know that Mark Aguirre was acquired via trade midway through the 1988-89 championship season, as Detroit dealt away scoring machine Adrian Dantley. This season at the deadline, the Pistons signed Ellington following the trade that sent starting guard Reggie Bullock to Los Angeles.
Aguirre provided a post game, a faceup mid-range game and above average 3-point shooting as well. The latter two are exactly what Ellington specializes in. Since coming over, Ellington has averaged a dozen points for the Pistons as a starter, just below Aguirre’s 15.5 points in 1988-89.
Furthermore, Aguirre was systematically the third scoring option on offense for the Bad Boys behind Dumars and Thomas. This holds true, or close to it, for Casey’s squad, with Griffin and Jackson clearly ahead of Ellington. A case can be made for Drummond as a third option in the low post, but Ellington’s perimeter 3-point clip of 37.3 percent might beg to differ.
ISH SMITH and LANGSTON GALLOWAY / VINNIE JOHNSON
Another two-headed monster. The Bad Boys ran a three-guard rotation, with Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson serving as both the backup point guard and shooting guard. While Smith is the backup point guard nowadays, Galloway is a rotational shooter. Still, that’s exactly what The Microwave did, he came into the game and heated it up with his shooting.
The Pistons went through a very tough month of January when Smith was banged up with an adductor injury, and his return was a very important cog in the return to the playoff race. His 8.9 points and 3.6 assists has provided the Pistons exactly what they’ve needed when Jackson heads to the bench.
As for Galloway, he has struggled down the stretch this season in terms of 3-point shooting, his best asset. The Pistons are going to need him to do some “heating up” of his own to give them the bench scoring support they need.
THON MAKER / JOHN SALLEY
Maker has been a fan favorite since the Pistons acquired him in a one-for-one swap with none other than the Bucks for Stanley Johnson. He’s helped the Pistons stretch the floor with some decent 3-point shooting along with his rim protection, which is something that John “Spider” Salley excelled in.
The two are almost identical in rotation minutes, with Salley (21.8) just a hair above Maker (19.4). Especially with Griffin’s lingering knee soreness, Casey will call on Maker to provide a quarter and a half of solid frontcourt play.
ZAZA PACHULIA / RICK MAHORN
The addition of Maker to the roster has really caused Pachulia’s minutes in the rotation to suffer, and rightfully so. Pachulia’s best asset is his size, and as a big, tough body to wear down the opposing bigs, he can be somewhat effective in a seven-game series.
Mahorn is perhaps the greatest “tough guy” of all time. We all have seen the Bad Boys “30 for 30” from ESPN and can recall Mahorn giving plenty of “love taps” as he called them. By no means am I advocating for dirty play out of Zaza… but maybe a love tap to Giannis would help?
JON LEUER / JAMES EDWARDS
Last but not least, we reach the end of the rotation. It’s hard to see a situation where Leuer gets significant playing time, or even more than a couple garbage-time minutes at the end of a decided game. However, to once again bring up Griffin’s lingering knee soreness, you never know when the next man up might have to rise to the occasion.
Leuer’s game is primarily finesse scoring as a stretch four. James “Buddha” Edwards played the five, but his game was much of the same. Lots of turnaround low-post jumpers with a soft touch, or mid-range shots.
DWANE CASEY / CHUCK DALY
Casey’s legacy as the head coach of the Pistons is still being built, and it’s far too early in his tenure to get any sense of trajectory, although I would argue the future is bright. With that being said, Chuck Daly is most definitely the greatest coach in franchise history, delivering back-to-back titles and a No. 2 jersey hanging in the rafters with his namesake to show for it.
It’s no secret that Daly was notoriously known for his defensive tendencies of wearing down the opponent as much as possible with physical play. This in turn made the offense come with a little more ease.
Casey, on the other hand, prides himself on the offensive system. The Griffin/Drummond frontcourt pairing this season is a far cry from his Kyle Lowry/DeMar DeRozan backcourts in Toronto, but the Pistons’ offense did indeed make strides on offense this season. The question is, will Casey’s offense be able to score on Milwaukee’s elite team defense spearheaded by the Greek Freak.
Regardless, fans have a lot to cheer for. If one thing’s for sure, it’s that Casey will have his players geared up and ready for a tough road ahead.