Yesterday, I opened this week long series on what I learned about teamwork from sport growing up in Southeast Michigan with a view on the Detroit Tigers magical run in 1984. Based on the conversations that arose from this post, I wasn’t the only one touched by this amazing team, manager, and season.
Today, the focus shifts to a team that was either loved, or hated, no in-between. If you were a fan of the Bulls, Celtics, Lakers, Bucks, 76ers, Bullets, Cavs, Hawks, or Trailblazers during the late 80’s and early 90’s you absolutely hated the Bad Boys. What is really odd about that statement is that this team had some really likeable people that were major contributors, including Chuck Daly who is one of the most respected coaches in NBA history (remember he was the coach of the first Dream Team), and Joe Dumars who was such a good example of sportsmanship that the NBA named their sportsmanship award after him.
How does a team with such highly respected professionals like Chuck Daly and Joe D become known as the Bad Boys? Recording fines from the NBA triple the amount of the next most fined team sure does help, especially when they come because of Bill Laimbeer, Isaiah Thomas, Rick Mahorn, Dennis Rodman, John Salley, and to a lesser extent Mark Aguirre and James “Buddha” Edwards. This team was the most physical, defensive-oriented team in the league for 1987-1991. Back when the NBA let teams play defense, and by defense I mean the no-blood-no-foul days, the Pistons were masters. They regularly agitated teams to their breaking point and caused retaliations by some of the league’s most notable players (i.e. Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, Danny Ainge, Charles Barkley, Bill Cartwright, Brad Daugherty, and nearly the rest of the Eastern Conference).
This team personified the spirit of Detroit (as did the later Goin’ to Work Pistons which I will post on later). They were tough, blue collar in their approach, sometimes undersized (starting backcourt of Isaiah and Joe D was pretty short even in those days, add in Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson coming off the bench and they were pretty short, but boy were they good), and downright chippy! What was amazing was that while they were so different as people, they all rallied around the team identity to the point that they were able to take on one of the best archetypes for any epic “us vs. the world” and they were able to go out and win!
What amazed me as a kid was how even though Isaiah was a great player, and Joe D. was a Hall of Famer, it was the amazing ability for every player on that squad to play an important role. They had six players in the 1988-89 season (this includes Dantley and Aguirre who were traded for one another halfway through the season), and every player that played real minutes on that team averaged at least 7 points a game. Even though they were known for their defense, their team FG% was .494 and they were a collective .769 from the Free Throw line. The following year the numbers were very similar. In both seasons in which they won the NBA Championship though, their numbers were league average in most categories. How did this team win?
The takeaway from the organizational perspective is that you don’t have to be the biggest, most expensive, flashiest, or most highly recognizable to be a winner. This team defined its purpose, recognized its goals, embraced their individual roles, understood who was leading them, and lived out their culture to great success. They were not the most loved, appreciated, or understood group, but they were a team that functioned together against the odds to become a historic team that is now remembered in documentaries.
Do you know your team, purpose, role, culture, and leaders? If not, don’t expect to succeed even with more money and flash than others.
What did you learn from the Bad Boys?