Commentary

Daly left mark on Pistons, Dream Team

Title-winning coach Chuck Daly emphasized defense, changing the tempo of the NBA

Updated: May 11, 2009, 4:25 PM ET
By Ken Shouler | Special to ESPN.com

Chuck DalyJonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesChuck Daly's defensive-oriented style brought Detroit its first title in 1989.

It was after Game 4 of the 1988 NBA Finals. The Pistons had destroyed the Lakers in body-to-body combat, 111-86. "Adrian Dantley went headhunting twice, after James Worthy and Magic," Los Angeles coach Pat Riley fumed after the game. Asked about the Pistons' hyperphysical play, Chuck Daly said he didn't encourage it, explaining coyly that his undersized Pistons couldn't win with that style against a team of thoroughbreds like Los Angeles.

Then Daly reversed himself.

"Things change from the regular season into the playoffs," he added. "The game is more physical. But look at us; if we and the Lakers lined up next to each other five-on-five, position-by-position, we come out on the short end. They're studs -- they make us look like a mongrel team."

There was the rationale. It was Detroit, brandishing a combative Eastern style, against the superabundantly talented habitués of Rodeo Drive. Due to their rough style, the Pistons came to be known as the "Bad Boys."

To listen to some observers, the Pistons ushered in a bruising, over-the-top defense that brought rugby into the NBA, lowered scores for more than a decade, and dragged the game through Dante's eighth circle of hell and worse.

It didn't work in 1988. After the Pistons shrunk the Lakers' potent 113-points-per-game offense to 90 points over Games 4 and 5, Los Angeles won the last two at home. But the Bad Boys were graduating adolescence and moving into Bad-manhood.

In 1989 and 1990, Detroit cut down Los Angeles and Portland in the Finals with a compelling and still undersold 8-1 record. Daly was one of five coaches in NBA history to win back-to-back titles, and if not for a disputed whistle on Bill Laimbeer with seconds left in Game 6 of the 1988 Finals, he could have had three in a row. No wonder that Daly -- recognized as an easygoing "players' coach" -- was chosen to guide the 1992 Dream Team, the first Olympic squad composed of NBA players. In 1996, he was selected one of the 10 greatest coaches in NBA history.

Early years

Daly was born in St. Marys, Pa., on July 20, 1930. He grew up in Kane, a small town two hours east of Erie, where he attended the now-closed St. Callistus parochial school. He attended St. Bonaventure in 1948 and played freshman basketball there before transferring to Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania. After graduating in 1952, his coaching career began at the high school level. He coached Punxsutawney High to a 111-70 mark (.613 win percentage) from 1955 to 1963.

After eight years as a high school coach, Daly spent six more as an assistant at Duke University. His work at Duke made him a candidate for the head coaching job at Boston College, succeeding a retiring Bob Cousy, who led BC to a 24-4 record in 1968-69 before assuming the role of player-coach with the Cincinnati Royals.

Daly coached Boston College to a 26-24 record over two seasons before moving to the Ivy League, succeeding Dick Harter at Penn. Harter, who was moving on to Oregon, was tough to replace, having posted 25-2 and 28-7 seasons. But Daly led Penn to four first-place seasons in the Ivy League, compiling a 125-38 record (.767) in six years. His entry into the NBA came in 1977-78 as an assistant to new 76ers coach Billy Cunningham.

Daly's start as an NBA head coach was inauspicious. He was already the third coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the 1981-82 season when he took the reins in December. They were a hapless 4-14 when he took over and he made them more hapless: Cleveland was 13-46 when Bill Musselman replaced him in February.

Chuck Daly
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty ImagesChuck Daly had great material to work with in Joe Dumars, left, and Isiah Thomas.

He got his next chance in the 1983-84 campaign, his first of nine years with the Detroit Pistons. Under Daly, the Pistons won 49 games -- 12 more than the season before and their best since winning 52 in 1973-74. Detroit averaged 117 points that first season but also allowed 114 per game, and New York knocked the Pistons out of the postseason in the first round. The following two seasons produced 46 wins apiece, but ended in second- and first-round eliminations, respectively. In three seasons, Daly hadn't fulfilled the job specs of his general manager.

Embracing defense

"When Jack McCloskey hired me, he wanted me to do something about the Pistons' defense," Daly said in 1995. "Frankly, I wasn't sure what I could do. They won 39 and 37 games two years before I got there. I looked at the tapes of those games and I thought Scotty Robertson [Detroit's coach from 1981 through 1983] did a good job. I didn't know how I could improve on it. But I had a contract with two guaranteed years and an option for another year, and if they wanted me to work on the defense, I'd work on the defense."

Daly's revelation -- and a career-making revelation at that -- came in the summer of 1986.

He knew the league's rhythm was upbeat, as NBA teams topped 110 points per game. He also realized that teams shrank the court come playoff time and made half-court skirmishes the norm. "If you have to play that way in the playoffs, why not just do it in the regular season?" he wondered. "Why play one style for 82 games, then change it all around for the playoffs?

"The more I thought about it, the more I knew that slowing down the tempo was the way to go back then. Everyone wanted to run up and down the court and put up big numbers.

"By slowing it down, we could frustrate the rest of the league. Our identity was going to be our defense. On offense we wanted to establish a half-court game that could produce about 100 points a night. Our goal was to play every game as if it were a playoff game."

Daly convinced McCloskey to trade Kelly Tripucka, one of the leading scorers on the team, for Adrian Dantley. Daly liked the fact that Dantley's strength was a low-post game full of fakes and feints that always placed him among the league leaders in free-throw attempts. "A.D. living at the foul line gave us time to set up our defense, and it took away the other team's fast break," said Daly.

The Pistons had already drafted Joe Dumars (18th pick in the '85 draft), John Salley (11th pick, '86) and Dennis Rodman (second-round pick, 27th overall in '86). They got Rick Mahorn in a trade with Washington. Center Laimbeer had gathered 1,000 rebounds for three consecutive years and could mix it up inside and fire in tip-toe 3-pointers. Isiah Thomas was a perennial All-Star at guard.

Road to Detroit titles

Now the run was on. Detroit won 52 games in 1986-87, losing in a heartrending seven-game series to Boston in the conference finals. Larry Bird turned the series with seconds left in Game 5 when he stole a soft inbounds pass from Thomas and fed Dennis Johnson for a layup and a 108-107 Boston win.

The following season the Pistons won the Central Division title and eliminated Boston in six games. Boston scored 114 points a game during the season, but reached 100 just once against Detroit.

The ultimate manifestation of Detroit's defensive style came in a tactic known as "the Jordan Rules," the Pistons' strategy for stopping the upstart Bulls and the game's greatest scorer. "Jordan is embarrassing the league," Daly noted, seeing Jordan on his way to his second of seven consecutive scoring titles. But come playoff time, Jordan would not embarrass the Pistons. Detroit hit him, bumped him and swarmed him whenever possible, knocking him down repeatedly on his drives toward the basket.

In a January 1988 game at Chicago Stadium, Jordan drove the lane and got whacked. "I didn't see if it was Mahorn or Laimbeer, but one of those guys just took Michael down," said Bulls coach Doug Collins. A scrap ensued involving Charles Oakley, Jordan's designated bodyguard, and Mahorn. When it was over, Collins had been thrown into the stands by Mahorn and the league had suspended Laimbeer for a game. When asked about the Jordan treatment, the Pistons just shrugged, but belting Jordan around proved successful from 1988 through 1990, with Detroit ousting Chicago from the playoffs each year.

When 1988-89 came, it appeared to be their year, one that would overcome the Pistons' dismal history.

The Pistons had been in the NBA since 1948 and had moved to Detroit from Fort Wayne, Ind., in 1957. In 41 seasons, they had come up empty, despite having made it to the seventh game of the Finals in both 1955 against Syracuse and 1988 versus Los Angeles. In both series they had a 3-2 lead, and lost Games 6 and 7.

But in 1988-89, Detroit won a franchise-record 63 games and finished second in league defense. When a flag bearing the name "Detroit Bad Boys" was brought to center court during the Finals' Game 1 introductions, the Lakers might have taken it as an omen. Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas kissed on the cheek before the game, but that was the last sign of civility. Lakers starting 2-guard Byron Scott missed the game with a hamstring tear, and Detroit prevailed easily, 109-97.

In Game 2, Johnson tore his hamstring and missed the last 16 minutes of the game. Even without Johnson, the Lakers took a 92-84 lead into the fourth quarter. But comeback ability was another component of Detroit's identity. The Lakers' makeshift backcourt featured reserves Michael Cooper and Tony Campbell. The Pistons scored the first 10 points of the quarter and pulled out a 108-105 win. Detroit had held Los Angeles to a paltry 13 points in the fourth quarter.

The Pistons won the last two games in Los Angeles, taking Game 3, 114-110, and then overcoming a 16-point second-quarter deficit to win 105-97 in Game 4. The sweep was staggering, considering the 11-0 playoff record the Lakers had run up in the Western Conference against Portland, Seattle and Phoenix. The Pistons had their first title and ended the career of Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was retiring at age 42.

The Pistons set a playoff record (in the 24-second clock era) for fewest points allowed (92.9). "All that on the defensive end was hard work," Daly said after Game 4. "We deserved the championship."

Averaging 27 points for the series on 58 percent shooting, Dumars took the Finals MVP award.

The Lakers posted a league-best 63 wins in 1989-90, but it was Portland that emerged from the West in the playoffs. Portland and Detroit finished with 59-23 records.

Detroit had its toughest playoff test with Chicago, but took Game 7 at home, 93-74. Jordan had played well but had no help. Scottie Pippen had been averaging 19 points for the series, but on this day had a migraine headache which produced double-vision and left him disoriented. Horace Grant missed 14 of 17 shots, and John Paxson was injured. So Chicago suffered its third consecutive elimination at Detroit's hands.

In the Finals series between Detroit and Portland, three of the five games were decided by three points or less. But despite the close contests, it was evident that one team was tournament-tested and the other was not, as the Pistons prevailed.

End of run with Pistons

Daly signed a new contract following the season but coached Detroit just two more years. The Pistons fell off to 50- and 48-win seasons and the Eastern Conference swung to the Bulls. The Jordan Rules had been rendered irrelevant. In Detroit's playoff series against Chicago in 1991, the Bulls built a 2-0 lead at home and then completed the sweep on the Pistons' floor, running up 113 and 115 points in the final two games.

[+] EnlargeDream Team
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty ImagesDaly was at the center of a Dream Team's hopes in 1992.

Daly followed his nine years in Detroit by coaching the Dream Team in 1992. His All-Star squad squashed the competition in Barcelona, Spain, with an 8-0 mark and a 44-point average margin of victory to earn a gold medal. He then returned to New Jersey to coach his new team, the Nets. His key players were Kenny Anderson and Derrick Coleman, and he got 22 points per game from Drazen Petrovic, who died tragically in a car accident following the 1992-93 season. Daly led the Nets to 43- and 45-win seasons, but they lost in the first round in 1993 and 1994. During the 1993-94 season, Daly was inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame with Buddy Jeannette, Denny Crum and Carol Blazejowski.

He spent his next three years as a broadcaster with Turner Sports before Orlando lured the 67-year-old coach back for a final two years. He was 31-17 in his final year and was a candidate for coach of the year in that lockout-shortened season. But the old players' coach, who had once given Thomas a day off because he was angry over a newspaper column, was tired of nursing the egos of his young players, and he quit with a year left on his three-year, $15 million pact. From there, Daly slid away from the NBA scene over his final years.

His legacy is secure. Not only did he win consecutive NBA titles but he did so by shaping one of the greatest defensive teams ever assembled -- and in doing so, he changed the game.

Basketball historian Ken Shouler has served as managing editor and a writer for "Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia."

Ken Shouler is the editor and a writer for "Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia." Shouler has also written three baseball books and served as a panelist for the "DHL Presents Major League Baseball Hometown Heroes" project.