While the world continues to endure a literal separation from what is considered normal, one thing sports’ fans have certainly enjoyed is “The Last Dance”, the 10-part behind the scenes journey through the final season and sixth title run of the Michael Jordan-Era Bulls. Through never before seen footage and first hand accounts from living legends, the experience has been spectacular. Though there have been plenty of memorable moments, it seems the most compelling and interesting of all could be the Bulls well documented face offs with the “Bad Boy” Pistons.
It may be a bit of a stretch to suggest the Pistons were on the same level of the Lakers and Celtics in perhaps the greatest decade in NBA history during the 1980’s; however, that idea is not as far-fetched as it may seem. From 1983-1992, the Pistons made the playoffs nine straight years, a steak that included five straight Eastern Conference championship appearances, three NBA Finals Appearances, and two NBA championships. For a time, the Pistons simply continued adding quality talent after quality talent to their core as they scaled the wall that was the Boston Celtics, until finally, they made their way to the top. The Bulls followed a similar path to their dominance in the 90’s by first failing for three straight years to get by the Pistons until their own initial title run. The years of struggle and eventual success for the Bulls against Detroit arguably made the Pistons Jordan’s biggest nemesis during his playing career.
Perhaps even more memorable than the actual success the Pistons achieved was the ways in which they achieved it. For me, there is no better way to describe the Pistons preferred and premeditated plans of action than the clip below:
Though this clip from Space Jam may be a bit of an exaggeration and from 1996, it gives an idea of what playing against the Bay Boy Pistons felt like, especially in the lane. The Pistons made it a priority to put together a team full of elite defenders as they were building their core in the mid-80’s. Names such as Bill Laimbeer, Adrian Dantley, Dennis Rodman, Joe Dumars, and Rick Mahorn, along with Isiah Thomas at point guard, formed a team that absolutely no one wanted to face. Though they may not have been as talented as other rosters, everyone on the Pistons roster not only wanted to earn the win every time they played, they wanted to break your will. Legendary coach Chuck Daley embraced his team’s mentality to maximize their potential. There is not a better example of this than the notorious “Jordan Rules” philosophy that contained Jordan just as well any would could in the late 80’s.
The Pistons were cut from a different cloth than other successful NBA franchises in the 80’s and 90’s. As more popular personalities and talents arrived in the league, and the league as a whole embraced opportunities to grow the game off the court, the NBA become just as much of a show as it was a game. Yet the Pistons found and maintained a high level of success by playing a physical game that focused on a slow pace, defense, dominating the paint and displaying plenty of grit and grin...
WAIT A MINUTE!!!!
If the description as to how the Bad Boy Pistons found their success seems to be something you have heard before as a Grizzlies fan, you memory is accurate. The Bad Boy Pistons and the Grit and Grind Grizzlies embraced similar styles of play that generated sustainable success and created cultures to cherish.
During their respective eras (Pistons from 1983-1992 and Grizzlies from 2010-2017), both Memphis and Detroit were two of the better teams in the NBA. The Pistons were third in total wins, while the Grizzlies achieved the seventh most wins . Both teams prioritized high percentage looks over relying on the three point shot, as Detroit attempted the fifth most two pointers in the NBA while Memphis led the NBA in two point field goal attempts. Detroit and Memphis were also in the bottom three of made shots behind the arc.
A big reason for the consistent success of both franchises came from their ability to establish extra possessions during games. Both Detroit and Memphis found a lot of scoring through second chance points, as they grabbed the third and sixth highest offensive rebound totals during their respective eras. Detroit further gained extra possessions by collecting the most total rebounds in the league; the Grizzlies created their advantage by generating the most steals. Along with forcing extra possessions, both franchises were among the best in the NBA at limiting mistakes. Both teams committed the fewest turnovers in the NBA for any franchise that played the entirety of their respective playoff presences.
While both teams played similar offensive styles and created significant possession advantages, it was defense that was the calling card of both the Bad Boys and the Grit and Grind Grizzlies. The Pistons allowed the fewest points of any team that played the entirety their playoff run; over their seven year peak, the Grizzlies allowed the second fewest points in the league. The Pistons collected the fourth highest defensive rebound total over their streak, while the Grizzlies created the most turnovers to limit scoring opportunities. Overall, Detroit and Memphis were third and sixth in team defensive rating. Both teams where also in the top ten of lowest effective field goal percentage allowed. For the Pistons and Grizzlies, their focus was making offensive positions become nightmares for their opponents. Both franchises consistently achieved that goal.
As can been seen, Detroit and Memphis share a lot of similarities in becoming consistent contender. However, there are few obvious differences to acknowledge. While both teams were postseason mainstays, Memphis fell far short of the championship level Detroit reached multiple times. A big reason for this difference is that the Detroit roster featured four future Hall of Famers while legendary Hall of Fame coach Chuck Daly looked on from the bench. While the Grizzlies roster had multiple All-Stars and All-Defensive Team selections, three different coaches led the Grizzlies to the playoffs over seven years. Beyond talent, though Chris Wallace and Jack McCloskey headed their front offices for the entirety of their respective eras, the Pistons enjoyed far more stability and continuity than the Grizzlies.
Yet, the biggest difference that separates the Pistons from the Grizzlies centers on the biggest weakness of Memphis’s run and the most obvious strength of Detroit’s: consistently adding significant talent. The Pistons drafted Thomas, Rodman, Dumars, and John Salley, and added Laimbeer, Dantley, and Mahorn over time. Though the Grizzlies drafted Mike Conley and added Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol along the way, Memphis’s core was never as talented as Detroit’s rosters. Furthermore, Wallace could never find consistent supporting talent like McCloskey could that may have provided the Grizzlies with a better chance at truly contending for a title.
Though the Grizzlies may be at a disadvantage in terms of results on the court, one positive difference in Memphis’s favor compared to Detroit could be how the two cultures are remembered. Though perhaps less effective overall, the lasting memory of the Grit and Grind Era in Memphis is enduring and admirable instead of being notorious and negative like the Bad Boy Saga in Detroit. As “The Last Dance” showed, the actions of the Pistons created tensions and resentment between some of the NBA’s greatest players that lasts to this day.
Regardless of how they are viewed, both the Bad Boy Pistons and Grit and Grind Grizzlies are two of the most recognizable cultures in the NBA over the past 30 years. The main reason for each era’s lasting relevance was their ability to find success in ways that maximized the overall strengths of their roster. Furthermore, both teams achieved better than expected results through playing styles that went against the grain of how the NBA was trending. They found ways to win against more talented teams, and stayed committed to what made them a contender. The result for the Pistons and the Grizzlies was the peak era in each franchise’s history; furthermore, in terms of Detroit and Memphis, it created plenty of moments to cherish for two of the most passionate basketball cities in America.
Stats provided by basketball-reference.com