Dr. James Naismith, a Canadian physical education teacher in Springfield, Massachusetts, was given the assignment to come up with an indoor sport to keep athletes running up and down the floor through the harsh winter days. The violent nature of football was weighing heavy on the nation’s conscience, as well as Naismith’s.
On Dec. 21, 1891, he lowered two railings on opposite sides of a gym, hung peach baskets off them and instructed his students to play the first-ever game of basketball. But it immediately devolved into a tackling, kicking and punching frenzy. From there, the original rules of basketball included fouls and disallowed running with the ball.
From its genesis, basketball was designed to prioritize grace and skill over physical aggression. “If some of the rules seem unnecessarily severe, it would be remembered that the time to stop roughness is before it begins,” said Naismith, setting the tone for the next 129 years of jostling between vicious players and rule-makers.
Even dribbling, so integral to the game that it’s absurd to imagine basketball without it, was incorporated as a salve against aggression. A 3-point line was introduced in 1979 and temporarily shortened for three seasons starting in 1994. After the 2003-04 season, hand-checking was outlawed. The NBA prizes finesse, adjusting the rulebook considerably over the years to maintain a balance between grace and physicality, between offense and defense. No team challenged that balance as dramatically as the “Bad Boys” Pistons, who won back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990, on the heels of a brutish style of defense that inflicted so much pain on opponents that it deterred them from veering too close to the rim.
ESPN’s Michael Jordan documentary “The Last Dance” re-ignited an old controversy. When Jordan’s Bulls, after two playoff exits at the hands of the “Bad Boys,” finally got over the hump in the 1991 playoffs, the Pistons refused to shake their opponents’ hands, an affront that still rankles. Modern-day Horace Grant, a member of those Bulls, called them “straight-up bitches.”
What the documentary didn’t include, as our very own Vince Goodwill pointed out, is that Jordan insulted the Pistons’ style in the days between Games 3 and 4. “The Pistons are undeserving champions,” said Jordan. “The Bad Boys are bad for basketball.”
I doubt that Jordan — or any of the other voices atop the NBA — had Naismith in mind when they said that, but the Pistons were indeed pushing the sport to an unnatural edge.
Not that the Pistons cared. Their job was to win. If they redefined the game along the way, so be it. They owned the hate, relished in it. In “Bad As I Wanna Be,” former Pistons power forward Dennis Rodman would have shook Naismith to his core if he read Rodman’s prideful admission that the Pistons approached the game with a “football mentality.”
In 2014, FiveThirtyEight’s Benjamin Morris investigated whether the “Bad Boys” were really that bad. It turns out they were, committing more technical fouls relative to their opponents than any other team in NBA history. Morris also realized that, in general, technical fouls correlate with victory. “Teams tend to win 1.4 percent more often when their players get a tech, and a whopping 5.5 percent more often when their coaches do,” he wrote. The punishment — likely giving up a free point at the free-throw line — isn’t strong enough to supersede the intimidation and intensity one might associate with teams that commit a lot of technical fouls. “While technical fouls can’t lead directly to winning, the types of behavior that lead to technical fouls just may,” he concludes.
The Pistons strategy wasn’t born from mining a market inefficiency, but they did make an intuitive calculation that the consequences of the fouls, both technical and personal, would not be enough to mitigate the advantage of their bruising style.
The Pistons, like many champs before and after them, manipulated conventions to gain an edge. The game evolves through such distortions. It always has, because winners beget copycats.
Jordan changed basketball, making it more perimeter-oriented. Magic Johnson and Scottie Pippen invented the point forward position that LeBron James stepped into in 2003. Nowadays, the league is trying to outshoot Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors.
The problem with the Pistons is the NBA couldn’t afford for everyone to copy their hard-nosed style. So ahead of the 1990-91 season, the NBA increased the penalty for committing flagrant fouls to two free throw attempts and possession of the ball. “The offender,” according to the history of rule changes on NBA.com, “may also be ejected if there is no apparent effort to play the ball and/or, in the official’s judgment, the contact was of such an excessive nature that an injury could have occurred.”
It’s easy to criticize the NBA for being soft here, but it’s soft by design. Diehards may love teams like the Pistons, but the mainstream audience tunes in when athleticism is fused with finesse. Even LeBron, regardless of his skill, gets criticized for his game being rooted in strength. Kids in playgrounds didn’t clothesline players driving to the rim as an ode to Bill Laimbeer. They wanted to be like Mike. Now they want to be like Curry.
The “Bad Boys,” as a result, will never be deified, but their legacy lives on in the contours of the game. They emerged in a landscape that was bereft of defense and set a precedent for the next generation by forcing teams to up their physicality to meet the challenge of beating them. In order to defeat them, the Bulls traded for big man Bill Cartwright and drafted Will Purdue. Jordan, Pippen and the rest of the team spent an offseason in the weight room after the Pistons kicked them all over the floor twice in a row. The Bulls’ triumphant series in 1991 challenged their mental toughness. They finally accepted the inevitability of the bruising and kept attacking. By withstanding the Pistons’ onslaught, the Bulls inherited some of their DNA. Trying to beat the Bulls would require physicality too. As a result, the NBA of the 1990s were defined by hard-nosed, low-scoring basketball.
The broad strokes of history are somewhat unfair to the Pistons, suggesting that they turned to brute force because they had no other recourse. But they were plenty skilled. Isiah Thomas was a floor general for the ages. Laimbeer was a 6-foot-11 floor spacer. They were more than bullies. In basketball, success requires a balance between skill and aggression. The Warriors zipped all over the court but they also played all-time defense. The “Bad Boys” Pistons just leaned so aggressively on the side of forcefulness that they coerced the rest of the NBA into leaning that way too. That will be their legacy.
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