What’s in a name? For Detroit and Los Angeles basketball: everything.
Thirty years ago, the Detroit Pistons and Los Angeles Lakers began a journey that would define not only the 1987-88 NBA season, but the very fate of their franchises. By celebrating the Showtime vs. Bad Boys era this year, we may remember the past, understand the present, and perhaps predict the future of these illustrious teams.
PART I: 1987-1989
In November 1987, the Los Angeles Lakers began the NBA season fresh off their 10th franchise championship, having beaten Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics the previous year. With head coach Pat Riley famously promising a repeat campaign, the team returned its starting lineup of Magic Johnson, Byron Scott, James Worthy, A.C. Green, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Lakers also retained Defensive Player of the Year Michael Cooper and former top pick Mychal Thompson as prominent bench contributors. Together, the roster had already combined for 26 All-Star appearances and seven MVP awards, including Johnson’s first win six months prior.
Known throughout the ‘80s as the Showtime Lakers, the squad was famous for its high octane, run-and-gun offense. Marked by finesse, the team seldom fouled and rarely needed a second shot. The team finished within the top-3 in field goal percentage and never averaged under 50% shooting across the decade.
Yet the Showtime moniker was more than a flashy on-court style of play.
Inspired by a nightclub act at The Horn, the name embodied the vision of Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who dreamed of not only a basketball game, but a prime-time theatrical event each night at The Forum.
He replaced the arena’s family-friendly restaurant with a club of his own, introduced the cheerleading crew known as the Laker Girls, and invited a 10-piece band from USC to provide live music. Meanwhile, coach Riley walked the sidelines sporting slicked-back hair and Armani suits, and Johnson’s Hollywood smile became nearly as famous as any movie star’s. The celebrity glamour of L.A. quickly became paramount to Lakers franchise culture, as stars like Jack Nicholson became courtside mainstays. Even the players themselves were transformed into pop icons.
Meanwhile, halfway across the country, another major city was fostering its own NBA franchise.
Influenced by a hardworking, blue-collar environment—though menaced by gang violence, drugs, and unemployment—the Detroit Pistons were the perfect antithesis to Showtime. The team had no shortage of talent, featuring three former All-Stars including captain Isiah Thomas. More notably, however, the Pistons’ roster would eventually combine for 11 All-Defensive honors, eight rebounding titles, and two Defensive Player of the Year Awards.
After losing to the Celtics in the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals, the Pistons shipped Sidney Green to New York that summer and promoted Rick Mahorn to the starting lineup alongside Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer, and Adrian Dantley. The bench included Dennis Rodman, Vinnie Johnson, and John Salley.
While the sharp-shooting Lakers averaged 185 three-pointers between 1987-89, Detroit averaged just 89. Instead, they preferred to charge the lane and fight hard in the paint. Defensively, they pressured their opponents a full 94 feet, rewarded with a steal by Thomas or a tough forced shot. The miss was often collected by Laimbeer or Rodman, who combined for roughly 20 boards per game.
Regularly accused of dirty play, the official NBA tape for the 1987-88 Pistons was titled Bad Boys, inspiring the team’s infamous nickname.
Their underdog spirit drove them all the way to the Finals against the Showtime Lakers that year.
The Pistons led the series 3-2 heading into Game 6. A battle of the guards, Johnson notched 22 points and 19 assists, while Thomas proved his grit by scoring 43 points and six steals despite suffering a severe ankle sprain in the third quarter. After forcing Game 7, the Lakers beat the Pistons 108-105 with a triple-double from Worthy, making good on their season-long promise of a repeat championship.
However, Detroit had its revenge the following year (albeit this time without Dantley who was traded for Mark Aguirre midseason). The Lakers stood little chance against the Pistons in the 1989 Finals with hamstring injuries sidelining Scott and Johnson early in the series. Despite a 40-point effort from Worthy in Game 4, the Bad Boys Pistons swept L.A. for their first NBA championship.
Abdul-Jabbar announced his retirement after the 1988-89 season, signaling the end of an era for the Showtime Lakers. The Pistons also lost Mahorn to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the NBA expansion draft that summer. Nevertheless, they bested Clyde Drexler and the Portland Trail Blazers for their second consecutive championship in 1990 before falling to the Chicago Bulls in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals. The original Bad Boys never won another playoff series.
PART II: 2004
In 2004, the Pistons and Lakers met again for a second generation of Bad Boys vs. Showtime. The Lakers were led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, joined by Gary Payton and Karl Malone that season. Devean George rounded out the starting five with Rick Fox, Stanislav Medvedenko, Derek Fisher, Kareem Rush, and current head coach Luke Walton manning the bench.
After winning three of the previous four NBA Finals, the Lakers were heavy favorites once again. Their starting lineup alone would have rivaled the original Showtime roster, combining for 38 All-Star appearances and three MVPs.
The underdog Pistons met the challenge with Richard Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince, and Ben Wallace who was coming off his second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award. Their physical style became even more dominant after trading for 2x All-Star Rasheed Wallace, who had previously played for the Portland Trail Blazers and Atlanta Hawks that season. Mehmet Okur, Corliss Williamson, Elden Campbell, and Darvin Ham completed a rotation compiled by none other than original Bad Boy Joe Dumars, acting as general manager.
Both franchises were clearly operating under the same identities forged 15 years prior. The Lakers filled highlight reels with dunks from O’Neal and multiple 40+ point efforts from Bryant, finishing with a top-3 offense of 98.2 points per game. They also captured media attention with four of the league’s most recognizable stars, though with Bryant’s sexual assault scandal dominating many of the headlines, this proved to be a major distraction.
Meanwhile, the Pistons adopted a blue-collar “Goin’ to Work” identity much like their predecessors. They led the NBA with 7.0 blocks per game, controlling the glass while holding opponents to just 41.3% shooting.
The 2004 NBA Finals began frustratingly for both teams. Despite a valiant two-way effort from Bryant, notching 25 points, four steals, and two blocks, the Pistons easily took Game 1. They looked poised to extend their lead in Game 2 behind 27 points and nine assists from Billups, yet the Lakers succeeded in overtime to even the series. Detroit flexed their defensive might for a Game 3 win, holding the Lakers to a Finals record-low of just 68 points. O’Neal responded by exploding for 36 points and 20 rebounds in Game 4, but ultimately lost the contest following a third quarter knee injury for Malone. The Pistons sealed the upset before a Game 5 home crowd, led by 18 points and 22 rebounds by Wallace.
Suffering a devastating loss, the Lakers imploded that summer. Malone opted for retirement and Payton was traded to the Celtics. Coach Phil Jackson took a hiatus from the team, deeming Bryant “uncoachable,” while big egos developed under the Hollywood spotlight created an irreconcilable rift between Shaq and Kobe. The breakup was finalized after a trade demand from O’Neal resulted in a deal with the Miami Heat. In 2005, L.A. missed the playoffs for the first time since 1994.
The Pistons meanwhile returned to the 2005 Finals to face Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs, losing in Game 7. However, their season was marred by the infamous Pacers-Pistons brawl that November, creating an ugly stain for both franchises and the NBA at large. The violent player/fan altercation resulted in five assault charges and nine suspensions totaling 146 games. As a result, Pistons management strove to lay the tough Bad Boys reputation to rest.
PART III: NOW
Over the years, both teams have retained their Showtime and Bad Boys reputations, regardless of overall record. From 1988-2017, the Lakers averaged a +2.3 ORtg and -0.1 DRtg compared to the yearly league mean. Meanwhile, the Pistons averaged a +0.1 ORtg and +1.0 DRtg.
But, the next postseason matchup between Detroit and L.A. is unlikely to occur anytime soon.
Over the past five seasons, the Pistons have earned a 171-239 (0.417) record while the Lakers accomplished an even worse mark of 136-274 (0.332). However, both franchises seem ready to turn things around this year.
A new home at Little Caesars Arena hopes to provide the Pistons a fresh start in the heart of Detroit, while the Lakers have enlisted Magic Johnson himself to right the ship as President of Basketball Operations.
With Bryant retiring before last season, the Lakers endured a starless 2016-17 season for the first time in over 20 years. Still, they adhered to Showtime tradition as best they could with an up-tempo, offense-first style of play led by volume shooters D’Angelo Russell and Nick Young.
However, their top-5 pace was compounded by weak defensive effort, giving up 111.5 points per game and a league-high 454 dunks throughout the season. They ranked 26th in defensive rebounds and 28th in blocks. Nevertheless, their overall DRtg—and especially ORtg—were improvements compared to 2016.
The franchise made major strides toward relevance this offseason after completing a number of high-profile moves. They impressively flipped Russell and Timofey Mozgov’s remaining $48M contract to the Brooklyn Nets for former All-Star Brook Lopez and the 27th pick, which later became Kyle Kuzma. They also selected UCLA star Lonzo Ball second overal—a highly calculated decision by Lakers brass given Ball’s Magic-like leadership, athleticism, and historic fame as a pre-Draft prospect. Popularized by the media-grabbing antics of his father, LaVar (who recently debuted in his own reality TV series), the franchise hopes Ball will garner even more attention alongside fellow lottery picks Brandon Ingram (No. 2, 2016) and Julius Randle (No. 7, 2014). Finally, they snagged Pistons two-guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as a restricted free agent. The young but promising Lakers also include Ivica Zubac, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., and this year’s No. 42 pick Thomas Bryant.
The Pistons are meanwhile anchored by 2012 lottery pick Andre Drummond, a one-time All-Star who recently led the league in defensive rating and total rebounds for a second straight year. Exemplifying fine mid-range presence and excellent glass control, the Pistons held opponents to a mere 102.5 points per game. However, with few players matching Drummond’s physicality, they finished 26th in steals, 29th in blocks, and last in free throws per field goal attempt.
Nevertheless, while their ORtg has steadily fallen, their DRtg has continuously risen since 2015. They inched even further toward their legacy this summer by trading Marcus Morris to the Celtics for shooting guard Avery Bradley. While Morris underwhelmed defensively as a 6’9” forward, Bradley is famous for his two-way talent, making the All-Defensive Second Team in 2013 before a First Team selection in 2016. Bradley will join the Pistons’ starting lineup beside Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Tobias Harris, and Jon Leuer. Ish Smith and Stanley Johnson will also see significant court time.
However, both teams face important decisions that could build—or kill—their momentum. Detroit coach and president Stan Van Gundy is reportedly dissatisfied with Drummond, yet with $105.1M and an 8% trade kicker left on his four-year contract, the Pistons may have no choice but to embrace his future.
In building around the defensive pillar, the Pistons could especially use more grit n’ grind at the wing. Entering the final year of his contract, Bradley has missed a troubling 28% of his regular season career with a plethora of injuries and managed only 55 games last season.
Meanwhile, the Lakers face three major expiring contracts in Caldwell-Pope, Lopez, and Randle. Nevertheless, though the Clippers have unofficially stolen the Showtime spotlight, the Lakers are hoping to add a generational star before 2019. Perhaps a bit too eager this summer, after being fined $500,000 for tampering with Paul George, all eyes are looking towards LeBron James’ big free agent decision next year. With three championships, four MVP awards, and 38M followers on Twitter, James ranks among the most successful and popular athletes of all time. His on-court explosiveness, celebrity status, and Hollywood interests as both an actor (Trainwreck, Space Jam 2) and producer (More Than a Game) place James as the ideal candidate to revive the historic Showtime brand in Los Angeles.
The immediate futures of these teams remain unknown for now. However, as evidenced by a 30-year history, the Showtime vs. Bad Boys era will forever guide the Lakers’ and Pistons’ organizations. Forged and fueled by the very culture of their respective cities, these identities are inescapable—even throughout a losing streak. Therefore, while it may not look as pretty as we remember it this season, make no mistake: The next chapter has already begun.
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