On the surface, our second semifinal is a mismatch. One franchise has the greatest collection of individual talent in NBA history, while the other is known more for its championship-team ensembles than for the excellence of its star players. However, the past three decades of Pistons basketball have shown that team play can prevail in such matchups. Specifically, the 1988, 1989, and 2004 NBA Finals between these two franchises illustrated the effectiveness of team defense, rebounding, and hustle against high end individual talent. While the battle between the All-Time Los Angeles Lakers vs. All-Time Detroit Pistons seems lopsided, the complementary nature of Detroit’s roster, and the relentlessness of their stars, will create many issues for L.A.
Best frenemies – Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas, the best point guards of their generation, face off in a classic battle. However, don’t expect them to play each other on defense; Detroit will use a combination of Grant Hill, Dennis Rodman, Chauncey Billups, and Joe Dumars on Magic, while L.A. will primarily utilize Jerry West on Thomas. Hill and Rodman have the size to neutralize Johnson, and Rodman had great success guarding him in the past. West, whose freakishly long arms helped make him an elite defender and one of the top thieves in NBA history, should capitalize on Thomas’s penchant for turnovers. Both teams will look to harass these primary ballhandlers, and attack them on defense.
Rebounding mavens – Statistically, Los Angeles features four of the top 25 rebounders in NBA history (Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, and Elgin Baylor). Detroit, however, has a chance to win the battle of the boards, thanks to Dennis Rodman, the league’s all-time leader in offensive and total rebounding percentage (since the 1970-71 season, the first year this statistic was tracked). Detroit also has Ben Wallace, who ranks 11th all-time on the total rebounding percentage list, and Bob Lanier and Bill Laimbeer, who will tasked with guarding the Lakers’ centers. If Lanier, Laimbeer, and Wallace can hold their own, Rodman and Bailey Howell should wreak havoc against the Lakers’ forwards, and create second and third chance point opportunities.
Detroit’s defense vs. Showtime – The Lakers have the greatest collection of skill players ever assembled. Their offense is led by arguably the greatest passer in NBA history, and features many of the league’s greatest scorers. There’s no way Detroit can compete offensively with this group. The Pistons will counter with a slew of excellent defenders who will make life difficult for the Lakers’ scorers. In addition to his rebounding prowess, Rodman was one of the greatest defensive players in NBA history, and should expect to spend time on Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Elgin Baylor, and the Lakers’ hall-of-fame centers at different points in the series. Wallace won four Defensive Player of the Year awards with the Pistons, and keyed their 2004 title run against Bryant and O’Neal. Dumars was a five-time selection to the All-Defensive team. Billups and Hill were known as solid defenders throughout their careers. If they need a stop, Detroit can play a lineup featuring these five, though the Wallace-Rodman combination would be perilous on offense. Expect Check Daly to utilize his versatile personnel to throw off L.A.’s offensive machine.
The Lakers scoring punch – With that being said…this Lakers team can really score. Magic Johnson has an almost unfair amount of weaponry at his disposal. They should be able to get hard baskets by throwing the ball into Abdul-Jabbar or O’Neal, leaning on West and Gail Goodrich to space the floor, and allowing Baylor and Bryant to operate from mid-range. The Pistons scorers (specifically Thomas, Dave Bing, and George Yardley) are going to have to have the series of their lives to compete.
The Lakers’ size – Los Angeles features superheavyweights O’Neal, Chamberlain, and Abdul-Jabbar, three of the biggest and baddest men in league history. They also have George Mikan, the league’s first dominant center, and Magic Johnson, the biggest point guard in our tournament. If Detroit plays the three behemoth centers one-on-one, they’ll get destroyed, but double-teaming them will lead to the other Laker Hall-of-Famers going off. Detroit’s players do not present the same matchup issues for L.A.
Detroit’s Toughness – Calling this a mismatch is inaccurate, since the Lakers have some tough hombres on their team, but expect the Pistons to live up to their ‘Bad Boy’ moniker in an attempt to unnerve their Hollywood counterparts. Rodman, Wallace, Howell, and Laimbeer will have a green light to make this series as physical as possible and rough up the Lakers’ stars. While this may work on some players, it’s hard to believe these tactics will affect the Herculean tandem coming off L.A.’s bench (O’Neal and Chamberlain).
Will the referees let them play? – You hate to bring up a topic like this in a fantasy tournament, but basketball history is littered with examples of referees impacting important series. If the refs call the games tight, Detroit has no chance to compete. However, if they allow some physicality, and aren’t too stringent with the rules, that works to the Pistons’ advantage. Expect Rodman and Laimbeer to test the limits, and see what they can get away with.
As mentioned above, Detroit has thrived in the underdog role against the mighty Lakers in the past quarter century. They have enough unique pieces and big-game performers to make the All-Time Lakers team sweat over the course of a seven-game series. However, the Lakers high-end talent is too much for the scrappy Bad Boys to overcome. Even though the referees swallow their whistles, which allows Rodman to avoid major foul trouble, Los Angeles punches their ticket to the finals in six hard-fought games.
Los Angeles wins, four games to two.