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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Celtics Were the First Bad Boys

ESPN's 30 for 30 episode "Bad Boys" originally aired last month. Here are three important truths to take away from that documentary:

1) Isiah Thomas is one of the most underrated players in pro basketball history. He was tough, he was fearless and he had an impeccable skill set: he was a tremendous ballhandler, he was a gifted passer who racked up legitimate assists (not fake ones given to him by generous scorekeepers), he rebounded well for his position, he was a solid individual defender who played heavy minutes for one of the best defensive teams of all-time and even though he was not a great outside shooter he made a ton of clutch jump shots throughout his career--and he was a good enough shooter that defenders could not just sag off of him. Thomas dropped 25 points on the L.A. Lakers in the third quarter of game six of the 1988 NBA Finals while playing on one leg, setting an NBA Finals single quarter record and the tying ABA/NBA Finals record set by Julius Erving during the 1976 ABA Finals; veteran NBA reporter Jack McCallum called Thomas' heroics "one of the top five offensive performances that there ever was." Thomas sacrificed a lot of his scoring and assist numbers to blend in with Detroit's team concept--so the "stat gurus" will forever underrate his value--but a strong case could be made that Thomas is the greatest 6 foot and under (don't believe his listed height of 6-1) player ever.

2) The Pistons were not the NBA's first "Bad Boys" or even the baddest of the bad. The Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish Boston Celtics were a brutally physical team--think back to McHale clotheslining Kurt Rambis in the 1984 NBA Finals and M.L. Carr undercutting Julius Erving in the 1980 Eastern Conference Finals and the way that their whole frontcourt mauled the Philadelphia 76ers' frontcourt in game seven of the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals while the officials swallowed their whistles. Erving was one of the classiest players in pro basketball history, someone who rarely received technical fouls and never got into fights--but during a November 1984 regular season game he took a swing at Bird after getting frustrated by Bird's roughhousing tactics (and verbal taunting, something that Erving never did on the many occasions that he outplayed Bird and other players). James Worthy put it best during "Bad Boys": "We knew that they (the Pistons) were a good team, a very physical team, but 'Bad Boys' was something that, nah, they didn't get much respect from us. Playing against the Celtics--it didn't get any tougher, no one got any badder. You could call the Celtics 'Bad Boys' back in the early '80s."

Erving's 76ers overcame the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1980 and 1982 despite the Celtics' rough tactics and then in 1983 the 76ers brought in Moses Malone as the final piece to their championship puzzle; although the 76ers had proven that they could circumvent the Celtics' physical tactics without changing their own style, they needed Malone to match up with the Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The Pistons followed a similar path in the mid to late 1980s, adding Rick Mahorn, John Salley and Dennis Rodman in order to matchup with the size, strength and physicality of the Celtics' frontcourt--but the idea that the Pistons did something fundamentally different from what the Celtics had been doing for years is nonsense. The Celtics taught the Pistons how to use physicality to gain an edge and win championships but then the Celtics got mad and lost their composure when they received a dose of their own medicine.

3) The Adrian Dantley-Mark Aguirre trade was not a product of politicking by Thomas on behalf of his boyhood friend Aguirre but rather a shrewd basketball move made by Detroit General Manager Jack McCloskey to put the final championship piece in place. Dantley resented Dennis Rodman's increasingly large role on the team and Aguirre was a much better passer than Dantley; bringing in Aguirre improved the Pistons at both ends of the court and the Pistons rolled to two straight titles with Aguirre and Rodman splitting time at the small forward position. Dantley wanted the Pistons to be his team, while Aguirre fit in perfectly; in his second year with the Pistons, Aguirre voluntarily gave up his starting role to Rodman, an unselfish act that Dantley would never have considered doing.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:03 PM

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