Q&A with former Pistons great Isiah Thomas: Bad Boys culture didn't need to change

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

In his 13 NBA seasons with the Pistons, Isiah Thomas had a Hall of Fame career and led the Pistons to back-to-back titles in 1989-90, earning the Finals MVP in 1990. He serves as an analyst with NBA TV and TNT and was an executive with the Toronto Raptors and New York Knicks.

Former Pistons player Isiah Thomas disputes ex-coach Stan Van Gundy's belief the culture needed to change.

Thomas spoke with The News’ Rod Beard about the current state of the Pistons’ franchise and their rebuild, star players Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose and how his Bad Boys teams are remembered.

Following are excerpts from that conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.

►Beard: The Pistons are in the midst of a rebuild. How are they doing so far?

►Thomas: The first thing they’ve done, and they needed to do is make sure the coach they have has bought into the rebuild and what types of players moving forward he wants to coach and what he can win with. It’s establishing that — which it appears they’ve done.

Then it’s the style of play: how are you going to play and how can you be effective in winning in this league. Once you do that, that helps you decide what kind of player you want to draft.

►Beard: In a rebuild, there are going to be a lot of losses because of how many young guys they have. How hard is that in a rebuild?

►Thomas: That’s extremely difficult. What are you trying to build that’s going to allow you to win? It’s a solid foundation of culture in terms of rules and regulations, language — how we act and what we do and who we are. That may be different than the other 29 teams. That needs to be in place so that when you do acquire talent, they walk into that culture.

When Stan Van Gundy took over the Pistons, the one thing he said he wanted to do, which a lot of us disagreed with, is change the culture. Then the new regime comes in and where are you in terms of culture?

Culture is a big word. It’s one we throw around in sports but when you look it up and define it, it’s different than what people think. When you talk about changing or establishing a culture, those are pretty big words.

They’re in the process of establishing (culture) because you had one, then Van Gundy changed and now you’re trying to establish a new one.

►Beard: What do you see as one thing that the current Pistons have right in their rebuild?

►Thomas: (Dwane) Casey to me is a guy who is old-school, but he knows how to deal with new-school mentality. With his way of teaching and encouraging, I see the young players, when given an opportunity. He put them in positions where they could succeed and flourish in games and gain confidence. As a pro, you’re only as good as the confidence you have in yourself.

With the young players, just from watching from afar, he has not only given them playing time, but he’s put them in situations where they can excel and gain confidence.

There’s a good coaching core there. In terms of talent that comes in, that’s going to fit in the culture you’re building moving forward, that’s up to the people picking them.

Blake Griffin

►Beard: When the Pistons got Blake Griffin, it brought the superstar they were hoping would bring everything together. Was that a different direction for the culture they were building?

►Thomas: When you look at Chauncey (Billups), Rip (Hamilton) and Sheed (Wallace), none of them had been as successful with other organizations or as appreciated in other organizations and cities until they got to Detroit. You can make the argument that Chauncey’s career was on the downside before he got to Detroit. Sheed was heading down before he came to Detroit from Portland and Atlanta. Those types of players are what we’re about in terms of making a team.

Thirty-plus years later after the Bad Boys, people across the country can still name the eighth, ninth and 10th man on the team. With most championship teams, you can name one or two star players.

Everyone wanted to be individuals, but we prided ourselves on being a team. People rattle off the names of our 7-8-9 men like they were part of the starting five, which is great.

With Van Gundy, what was he trying to build? Whatever culture he was trying to build, he didn’t get to complete it. Blake and Andre Drummond are both great players, but what was the culture, foundation and what did they walk into?

I don’t know what the culture was that Van Gundy said he was building and tore down.

►Beard: Did Derrick Rose, a fellow point guard from Chicago, surprise you with the season he had?

►Thomas: I wasn’t surprised. The problem is that he had set the bar so high as the MVP at 19, and then after the knee injury, everybody wondered whether he could get back to that. He was the only person who was ever that. Can he get back to where nobody else was? In the three or four years after his injuries, he was still giving you 18 (points) and 5 (assists); it wasn’t like he was a scrub.

I thought Detroit would like him and embrace him and vice versa because his game fits Detroit. I’m not surprised at the season he had and the professionalism he exhibited. He was playing hard, not taking nights off and playing all hard minutes. That last Phoenix game (a season-high 31 points on Feb. 28), that was about as beautiful as we’ve seen any guard play this year. He fits what Detroit is all about. You want young players around him.

The professionalism and competitiveness that both Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose show when they get on the floor, they have that and that’s what young players need to see. Looking at both as Pistons, they are superstar players, but they don’t have superstar attitudes. They don’t appear to be me-first guys. Most superstars say they need theirs and everybody get out their way.

That’s how the culture of (our era) of the Pistons was set.

►Beard: Andre Drummond was the longest-tenured Pistons player before his trade at the deadline. How much did that set back the culture the new regime is trying to build?

►Thomas: It took us a long time to build a culture in Detroit, with a belief system, celebrating tradition. Before you celebrate, have to establish something to celebrate: a language, colors — the flag you represent. That’s what we had built in Detroit and that gave us an identity. Whether winning or losing, when you talk about Pistons Bad Boys culture, that is still relevant and talked about to this day.

Van Gundy came in and said he wanted to move away from that and build something else. What he was tearing down and trying to build, it wasn’t complete. Drummond as a player and talent coming into one culture of this is who Pistons are and then the change in regime says a new culture. The heartbreak that Andre Drummond feels I understand from a player perspective, but from an organizational perspective, it led to where they are now.

Where they are now is what they’re trying to build now. That’s still being determined. That goes a long way in whom to draft

Ben Wallace is the perfect example of what Detroit culture was and what it is. Ben Wallace in any other NBA city may not have been as great as what he became. What he brought to Detroit was much more appreciated because of his style. (Dennis) Rodman, (Bill) Laimbeer and (Ben) Wallace was how we won.

►Beard: There was a post on Twitter about the anniversary of Michael Jordan scoring 59 points against the Pistons in 1988. (Thomas’ reply was “Pistons beat the Bulls in that playoff series, 4 games to 1.”)

You set them straight, but do people kind of misremember what the Pistons did in that era?

►Thomas: Yeah, he got 59 and did all that, but at the same time, you have to tell the truth: they lost. When you put us all head-to-head, the 80’s era is among the best in basketball ever. We were all young and in our primes.


Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard