He is the central figure of “Bad Boys,” a documentary airing this month on ESPN, and opinions of Isiah Thomas are ever-changing, even 25 years after the Detroit Pistons’ first NBA title.
Thomas, a Hall of Famer and one of the game’s great point guards, was the primary force behind the rise of the Pistons in the late 1980s and the primary reason those teams are viewed as bullies for their roughhouse style.
Thomas has been mostly underappreciated, but the documentary allowed those of the current generation to see how stellar he was as a leader and point guard.
“I enjoyed it. I thought it was well done,” Thomas said of the documentary. “Going back and hearing some of those stories and reliving some of those moments, you forget a) how good we were and b) just how long and tough the journey was, how we had to persevere over so many obstacles, so many steps to really make it, and with the benefit of history you realize how good those teams were that you were competing against.
“You didn’t realize it at the time, those were two or three of the greatest teams to ever play in terms of the Celtics and the Lakers, so you were definitely trying to dethrone and beat the giant.”
The Pistons won consecutive titles and easily could have beaten the Lakers in 1988 if Thomas didn’t badly sprain an ankle in a 103-102 Game 6 loss along with a questionable late foul call on Bill Laimbeer, and if not for some key mistakes in the fourth quarter of the 108-105 Game 7 loss.
That Finals loss is still painful for Thomas to discuss.
“Had that call not been made [against Laimbeer] our place in history is totally different,” Thomas said. “LA would have won four [titles in the 1980s], Boston would have won three, and we would have won three, and Philadelphia would have had one. LA got gifted one, so they ended up having five. Had we won that one, our team would have definitely been looked at in a different light.”
What has made the reflection more cherished but perhaps more difficult is the current state of the Pistons. Fellow Hall of Famer Joe Dumars just resigned as Pistons president after he was unable to stop a precipitous fall that resulted in five consecutive non-playoff seasons and five coaches in the past six years.
There has been speculation that Thomas may become part of the team’s yet-to-be-assembled new administration, but the organization also has to hire another coach.
“We all want the Pistons to do well,” Thomas said. “It’s always about rolling up your sleeves and doing the hard work and making sure you try to put the pieces back together. I know the ownership in terms of Tom Gores definitely wants to do that and move the organization and move the Pistons up to the top. He treated us first class when we were there. He’s a first-class kind of guy and I think he’ll do everything he possibly can to make the Pistons winners again.”
When asked if he would consider working for a team again, Thomas said, “I don’t know. I look at what I am doing in terms of [curbing] gang violence and the important work I am doing around education also, the business I have in Chicago, my plate is full. My first passion is basketball and I love the Pistons. I’m hoping the Pistons can get back on top and I’m hoping that we [former Pistons] all can convene and share wine as brothers, so to speak.”
A staple of the Pistons has been defense, and the late 1980s Pistons brought a defensive presence to an NBA that was littered with 120-point games and up-tempo styles that emphasized little but scoring. The Pistons were so successful because they put together some of the game’s best and most physical interior defenses, along with perhaps the greatest one-on-one defender in league history in Dennis Rodman, to stop opposing offenses.
“I don’t know if that style of play will be brought back into the NBA,” Thomas said. “That’s how it was in the 1980s. We played both sides of the ball and we played it with an amount of flair. We scored a lot and we also defended. The great coaches that I played for, that’s what they always taught.”
One of the more moving portions of the documentary was the end of the era, when the Pistons were swept by the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals in 1991 and each player walked off the court before the fourth quarter of Game 4 concluded. It was considered a lack of respect for the rising Bulls dynasty, a move that would taint the image of those Pistons teams.
“Looking back on it now, while we were going through it, you always think you’ve got a little gas left in the tank,” Thomas said. “Until you push the pedal and you got nothing there. I had nothing left to give. We weren’t healthy and that’s just part of the process.”
Amazingly, Thomas retired before his 33d birthday. A torn Achilles’ tendon ended his final season and he decided to retire instead of attempting a comeback. Hidden in his retirement decision was an offer to become a part-owner of an expansion team in Toronto that would become the Raptors.
“Once that opportunity presented itself, you got more years on the business side than I do on the playing side,” he said. “It wasn’t a hard decision.”
The end was sudden for Thomas and the Pistons, but the documentary perhaps created a new appreciation for their impact on the NBA and for Thomas’s greatness as a player.
“We were a family,” he said. “And that is what I wanted people to take away from this. We had a closeness that made us great.”
Cavaliers’ Brown sees reason for optimism
It was supposed to be a triumphant return to Cleveland for coach Mike Brown, who led the Cavaliers to the Finals in his previous stint before losing his job after being blamed for the team’s breakdown during the 2010 playoffs.
Of course, the Cleveland cast this season was considerably different with LeBron James gone, replaced by Kyrie Irving and a bunch of lottery picks. The result was a disastrous 33-49 season and total confusion about the chemistry between Irving and shooting guard Dion Waiters.
For what it’s worth, the Cavaliers played better in the final six weeks of the season and made a playoff push before the Hawks clinched the eighth spot by winning 7 of 10. But it seems Brown didn’t find out much about his team. It’s uncertain whether Irving and Waiters can play together. Anthony Bennett had perhaps the worst rookie season for a No. 1 overall pick in NBA history. Tristan Thompson has still not emerged as a cornerstone.
“After we got [Luol Deng] and settled down a little bit, I thought we started playing some pretty good basketball,” Brown said. “I thought our basketball was even a little bit better, particularly with the addition of Spencer [Hawes]. I think as the year has gone along we’ve gotten better in a lot of categories. The direction that we’re going, I’m excited about, I’m happy about.
“The thing I struggle with is we didn’t play good basketball in November and December. That put us 14 or 15 games in the hole and we were not good enough to be able to combat that.”
When asked if he has made an assessment of Bennett, Brown said, “Yes and no. Meaning that you were about to see flashes of his ability and talent more than enough to get you excited, but then again he’s missed chunks of games, especially as of late, to be able to see more consistency with it, which was real tough. The good thing about it, he’s hungry, he’s eager. He’s going to be around for summer league. Being a former No. 1 pick, guys are going to come at him and he’s going to have to respond to that.”
Resting for playoffs an unfamiliar concept
The Nets sat out all five starters in their season finale against the Cavaliers April 16. Coach Jason Kidd said it was planned even before New Jersey had an opportunity to slip to the sixth seed with a loss and a first-round matchup with the Raptors, avoiding the Bulls.
But it was apparent the Nets preferred the Raptors as a playoff opponent and had no issue starting, among others, Marquis Teague, Jorge Gutierrez, and Marcus Thornton in a 114-85 defeat in Cleveland. It seems that tanking to face a particular playoff opponent is a concept that did not exist in the 1990s.
NBA analysts Reggie Miller and Dennis Scott were asked whether they were ever benched late in the season for the express purpose of facing a particular opponent in the first round.
“That never, ever happened,” said Scott, who played most of his career with the Magic. “We looked at the logs the other day. Myself was still playing 38 minutes. Nick Anderson was playing 36 minutes. Penny [Hardaway] and Shaq [O’Neal] were playing their allotment of 40 minutes. [Coach] Brian Hill never even thought like that. That wasn’t even in our culture in the ’90s, where we say, ‘Hey, let’s rest.’ It was all about winning as many games as possible and having the best rhythm going into the playoffs.
“We had pretty healthy teams, so it was never thought about let’s not be the No. 1 seed, let’s be the No. 2 seed. In the year [the Pacers] swept us [in 1994], we were happy just to make the playoffs. So being able to tank or think like that was never in our thought process.”
Miller’s Indiana teams competed for Eastern Conference titles for most of the ’90s, and reached the NBA Finals in 2000.
“I’ve never been a big fan of rest,” he said. “I’m a big proponent of rhythm, playing well, getting guys on the same page. You never know who’s coming back from injury, who needs to be on the floor with your starters. I know it’s a long season and every coach has to do what’s right for them. I love rhythm going into the playoffs.”
Webber’s Bullets failed to get it done
Chris Webber was recently asked about his ill-fated stint with the Bullets nearly two decades ago. Along with Juwan Howard and Rod Strickland, Webber was supposed to help make the organization a powerhouse, but those hopes fizzled when Strickland’s production steadily declined, and Webber was dealt to the Kings in May 1998.
The highlight of Webber’s time in Washington was a competitive first-round series against the mighty Bulls in 1997. The Bullets lost the final two games of the three-game sweep by a combined 6 points.
“I always tell people it was such a different NBA then in style and in fashion, and we were one of the youngest teams in the league at that time when you had the Bulls, Indiana, other teams dominating in the East, the Pistons,” Webber said. “We had expectations and our only hope was to make it to the playoffs. We were young and building for the future. The year we played against the Bulls, you should make sure everyone knows it was the best team in the history of the NBA, in my opinion. We lost three games in the series by  points total. So if I ever had a moral victory, that was our moral victory because they blew out everyone else.”
Rivers has made some changes with Clippers
Gregg Popovich was named Coach of the Year for leading the Spurs to 62 wins after their disheartening Finals loss last season to the Heat. Doc Rivers, meanwhile, finished seventh in the voting, with one first-place nod, after leading the Clippers to 57 wins in his first season after departing Boston.
“They ended up winning one more game than Vinny Del Negro a year ago but the culture has changed with the Clippers,” Reggie Miller said. “We did their (late regular-season game), they’re up by 20 against Denver, and he is still animated, cussing out, yelling at CP3 [Chris Paul], DeAndre [Jordan], Blake [Griffin]. It’s called coaching. I always told people great players want to be coached hard. Doc Rivers coaches you hard.”
Said Webber: “The trust that Doc Rivers has, along with putting the onus and responsibility on the players, is something that you can’t just underestimate. You sense that the locker room is different. Now they feel they’re entitled to a championship because they worked just as hard as anyone else. I don’t know if they have had that feeling many times before.”
Draft prospects C.J. Wilcox (Washington), Gary Harris (Michigan State), and Elfrid Payton (Louisiana-Lafayette) have signed with CAA Sports, the agency that represents Carmelo Anthony and Paul. Rodney Hood (Duke) has signed with Relativity Sports and agent Dan Fegan, which counts Amar’e Stoudemire and Dwight Howard as clients. Hood could be a target of the Celtics with the 17th pick as they need an athletic shooting guard/small forward . . . Tyrone Corbin is out as coach of the Jazz but not before winning the season finale in double overtime at Minnesota. Corbin pretty much knew his contract would not be renewed, so he exhausted every option to win that game, knowing it would tie the Jazz with the Celtics for the fourth-worst record. While Utah won the drawing for the extra ping-pong ball, the teams have roughly the same odds of winning a pick in the top three. The Jazz would love to draft Duke’s Jabari Parker, who is a Mormon, would fill a small forward role, and would perhaps allow the Jazz to part ways with Gordon Hayward, who is a restricted free agent . . . Don’t feel bad for the 76ers, despite their 19-win season that included a 26-game losing streak. They could have two of the first 10 overall picks. Philadelphia owns New Orleans’s first-round pick from the Jrue Holiday deal and should come into training camp with three prized prospects, including former Everett High star Nerlens Noel, who missed his rookie season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Add in Michael Carter-Williams and Tony Wroten and Philadelphia is beginning to build a core. Of course, if the 76ers make the playoffs next season, their draft pick acquired from the Heat that went to the Celtics in the Joel Anthony deal becomes a first-rounder . . . While Nets GM Billy King said re-signing Shaun Livingston is the team’s No. 1 priority, expect Brooklyn to have stiff competition for his services. Livingston has repeatedly said this is the best he’s felt since his career-derailing knee injury in 2007. Livingston played in a career-high 76 games this season (26 minutes per game) and shot 48.3 percent. Despite losing a step, Livingston is still a matchup nightmare for guards because of his height (6 feet 7 inches). Livingston, who signed a series of 10-day contract over the years, may be looking for a lucrative multiyear contract.