NBA Notre Dame Fighting Irish

NBA Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Our next team is one of the most successful college basketball programs to never win a national championship. They’ve made 35 NCAA tournament appearances, and currently rank ninth ever in all-time wins. While they’ve never climbed the mountaintop in college hoops, they’ve produced a handful of players who’ve had success in the NBA, including a couple of multiple-time NBA champions. While they’re not elite, the NBA Notre Dame Fighting Irish team is a fun mix of offensively talented players who should be a tough out in our tournament.

Notre Dame has several options in the backcourt, and will start off without a traditional point guard in their starting lineup. Mr. Cavalier, Austin Carr, was a one-time all-star who averaged over 20 points per game in each of the first three seasons of his career. Although injuries derailed him, he was an explosive scorer, and excelled from the mid-range and in. He’ll be asked to take on more ball handling duties on this team, and will have to look for teammates more than he was typically accustomed to. Kelly Tripucka will join him in the starting backcourt. Tripucka was a natural small forward, but his shooting touch was his forte, and allowed him to average over 20 points per game five times in his career. He had the ideal height for a shooting guard (6’6”), though not the ideal quickness, so he’ll have to punish opponents on the offensive end of the floor to be effective. John Paxson, the team’s most natural point guard, will see a lot of time off the bench, and will allow Carr and Tripucka to slide to their natural positions when they share the floor together. Paxson and Tripucka are two examples of this team’s dangerous three-point shooting attack, which will be needed as they try to outscore their opponents.

Adrian Dantley, the standout offensive weapon on this roster, will start at small forward. Dantley led the league in scoring twice during a stretch of four straight seasons where he averaged over 30 points per game. Known for his devastating post-up game despite his modest height (6’5”), Dantley was a master of efficiency, currently ranking sixth all-time in NBA/ABA true shooting percentage. In addition to his excellent shooting from the field (54 percent), Dantley also led the league in made free throws five times, and was one of the more unique offensive players in league history. He’ll be paired up in the starting lineup with 6’9” Orlando Woolridge, another standout scorer who is far and away this team’s best athlete. Woolridge may not have fulfilled his immense potential as a pro, but, when motivated, he was an efficient, explosive scorer. The starting center, Bill Laimbeer, was best known for his thuglike tactics with the Bad Boy Pistons. He was more than just an agitator, however; he was also an elite rebounder who could spread the floor on offense. Laimbeer and Dantley can play an inverted inside-out game that will be difficult for any opponent to stop, especially with talented scorers surrounding them in the lineup.

Off the bench, there are a plethora of forwards who bring different strengths to the table. Donald Royal was a rotation player on the great Orlando teams in the 1990s, and had the ideal frame of a modern day wing player (6’8”, 210 lb). LaPhonso Ellis was a hybrid forward who was an inefficient high volume scorer on the 1990s Nuggets teams, but was a solid offensive rebounder who could cause matchup problems when not serving as an offensive focal point. Bill Hanzlik was a solid defensive wing who made the All-NBA Defensive Second Team in the 1985-86 season. Expect him to earn a large role in the rotation as perhaps the only plus defender on the roster. Tom Hawkins was a contributor to three NBA finalists in the 1960s. Pat Garrity was a good shooter who contributed little else, and will likely join Hawkins as permanent bench fixtures who only enter games in garbage time. Troy Murphy will serve as the de facto backup center. Murphy was an excellent shooter and rebounder who averaged a double-double five times in his solid career. He’s the bench’s most effective weapon, and will play alongside Laimbeer when they face bigger frontcourts.

The NBA Notre Dame Fighting Irish team will have no trouble scoring the ball, with a mix of talented shooters surrounding their efficient small forward. They will struggle mightily on defense, however, and will have to outscore opponents to have a chance to succeed. As the 25th seeded team in our tournament, they have an intriguing first-round matchup with the eighth seeded NBA Louisville Cardinals team.

All-Time Golden State Warriors vs. All-Time Detroit Pistons

Our third place game features two teams who both advanced further than expected based on wildly different approaches. One team used an unstoppable offense to upset a great Spurs team. The other used a dominant defense to vanquish Michael Jordan and the third-ranked Bulls. While both teams were tamed by the top seeds in our tournament, the third-place battle between the All-Time Golden State Warriors vs. All-Time Detroit Pistons promises to be a classic.

All-Time Golden State Warriors vs. All-Time Detroit Pistons

Key Matchups

Physicality vs. finesse – The Bad Boys made it to the Final Four largely due to the toughness and physicality of their roster. Dennis Rodman, Bailey Howell, Ben Wallace, and Bill Laimbeer were known for battering opponents, and getting under their skin in the process. They have size, athleticism, and support from other solid defenders, including Joe Dumars and Chauncey Billups, on their roster. However, they again face an offensive juggernaut that may be able to overcome their stifling defense. Golden State’s offense presents a unique challenge to their opponents, with six former scoring champions, including all five in their starting lineup. Expect Detroit to try to slow the pace of each game, and rough up Golden State’s perimeter stars whenever possible. Stephen Curry will be specifically targeted, as Detroit will test his pain threshold throughout the series.

Wilt vs. Worm – One could argue that the two greatest rebounders in NBA history are facing off in this battle. Wilt Chamberlain, the all-time leader in rebounds and rebounds per game, towered over opponents and used his elite athleticism to dominate the boards. Dennis Rodman, who dominated his competition on the glass even more than Chamberlain, used his superior instincts and basketball IQ to win seven straight rebounding (per game) titles in the 1990s. Rodman has experience guarding much larger foes, such as Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning, so expect Chuck Daly to use him on Wilt at times. In these instances, Dennis will try to get inside Wilt’s head with a combination of trash talk and cheap shots. Detroit will also use Bob Lanier, Ben Wallace, and Bill Laimbeer to frustrate Chamberlain and send him to the foul line as often as possible.

Biggest Mismatches

Detroit’s athleticism advantage – Detroit has a vastly superior team defense, which is partly due to the athleticism on their roster. Rodman, Grant Hill, Billups and Dumars can switch aggressively and cover plenty of ground to contest Golden State’s jumpers. Golden State’s roster is filled with players who were more advanced on the offensive end, and they do not have the team athleticism on the perimeter to thrive on the other end of the court.

Golden State’s firepower – Luckily for Golden State, they can make up for their lack of defense with a completely unstoppable offensive attack. They have several ways they can beat their opponents, specifically with either a Twin Towers lineup featuring two of the best offensive centers the game has ever seen (Chamberlain and Neil Johnston), or with one big man surrounded by a bevy of shooters and passers (with Tom Gola and Rick Barry playing as the forwards in this setup). Although Detroit’s perimeter defenders can cover a lot of ground, Curry’s limitless range alongside Paul Arizin, Barry, and Chris Mullin will help to negate that advantage.

X-Factor

Offense vs. Defense – NBA history is littered with examples of unstoppable offenses facing off against dominant defenses. Since 1950-51, basketball-reference.com has team data on offensive rating (an estimate of points produced per 100 possessions) and defensive rating (an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions). There are 19 instances where the league’s top offense by this metric met the top defense in a playoff series, with the defensive team winning 12 of these encounters:

NBA's Best Offense vs. Best Defense

This data shows that there’s no discernible pattern to be drawn from these matchups. Typically, the better team prevails, with a dominant player leading the way to victory.

Results

The Detroit Pistons advanced to the Final Four of our tournament through team play, relentless effort on the defensive end, and a diversified offensive attack. They finally met their match against a team with too much high-end talent for them to handle. While Golden State is not as good as Los Angeles, they have the same ability to elevate their offensive game to a level that Detroit can’t replicate. The Bad Boys fight to the very end, but Wilt, Barry, Steph, Arizin and company prove to be too much to handle.

Warriors win, four games to three.

All-Time Los Angeles Lakers vs. All-Time Detroit Pistons

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.

All-Time Los Angeles Lakers vs. All-Time Detroit Pistons

Key Matchups

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 be 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.

Biggest Mismatches

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).

X-Factor

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.

Can Detroit’s physicality unnerve Kobe and the Lakers?
Copyright © Lipofsky Basketballphoto.com

Results

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.

Next Round

The Lakers face the All-Time Celtics in the NBA Franchise Tournament Finals.

All-Time Chicago Bulls vs. All-Time Detroit Pistons

Our next match features two of the greatest rivals in NBA history. They met in four straight playoffs from 1988 to 1991, with three of those matches occurring in the Eastern Conference Finals. They represented the East in six straight NBA finals from 1988 to 1993, winning five championships between them. They also feature two of the biggest names from a golden age of NBA basketball – Michael Jordan, the most marketable athlete in NBA history, and Isiah Thomas, the baby-faced assassin who was Jordan’s chief adversary in his early career. The battle between the All-Time Chicago Bulls vs. All-Time Detroit Pistons is steeped in tradition, and features a number of players who harbor ill will from this contemptuous rivalry.

All-Time Chicago Bulls vs. All-Time Detroit Pistons

Key Matchups

Isiah Thomas vs. Chicago’s backcourt: Coach Phil Jackson values length in his starting backcourt, and earlier in the tournament, he eschewed starting a traditional point guard in favor of having Scottie Pippen serve as his primary ballhandler. While Pippen and Jordan make up the best defensive backcourt combination in the tournament, they are vulnerable to lightning-quick smaller guards who can penetrate. How will Jackson guard Isiah Thomas? He can stick with his starting lineup, and have Jordan chase around Thomas, or he can play the matchups and start Norm Van Lier, an eight-time all-NBA defensive selection who had the same listed height as Thomas (6’1”). If he starts Van Lier, Pippen would move to his natural small forward slot, and Chet Walker would slide into the sixth man role. This would create a bigger rebounding burden on the Bulls frontcourt, however, where they are already over matched, as described below.

Dominant defenses: These are two of the best defensive teams in the tournament. Combined, their players made 56 all-NBA defensive teams, and earned eight Defensive Player of the Year awards. Despite the plethora of scoring threats on each side, this series could feature a surprisingly high number of low-scoring games.

Advanced statistics vs. The Eye Test: Although Detroit features a slew of Hall-of-Famers, the advanced statistics of their superstars are not overwhelming, particularly Thomas, as described here. Despite this, their team members should complement each other well, with a nice mix of penetrators (Thomas and Dave Bing), shooters (George Yardley, Chauncey Billups, Joe Dumars, and even Bill Laimbeer), all-around dynamos (Grant Hill), low post scorers/rebounders (Bob Lanier, Bailey Howell, and Larry Foust), and dominant rebounders/defenders (Dennis Rodman and Ben Wallace). Chicago, meanwhile, features Michael Jordan, who is not only regarded by experts as one of the greatest players of all time, but who is the GOAT of advanced statistics, standing as the all-time leader in PER and WS/48. He’s surrounded by a mix of Hall-of-Fame and all-star level competitors, who don’t appear to fit as well with one another as the Detroit club. The Bulls lack outside shooting, which will make it easier for Detroit to employ a modified version of The Jordan Rules. Artis Gilmore, their best center, will also have a difficult time, since he will have to find a way to avoid clogging the lane for Chicago’s penetrators while working as their best low-post scoring option.

Biggest Mismatches

Chicago’s perimeter length: The long arms of Jordan and Pippen will loom large in this series, particularly when they share backcourt duties. Jerry Sloan and Luol Deng provide additional perimeter options who can use their length for defensive and rebounding advantages. Detroit’s perimeter options are not as long or athletic as Chicago’s (outside of Grant Hill, who will match up with Pippen frequently), which will help the Bulls make up for their lack of dominant frontcourt rebounding. Speaking of which…

Detroit’s rebounding advantage: Detroit should control the glass in this series. They feature four players who led the league in total rebounds for at least one year as a Piston (Foust, Laimbeer, Rodman, and Wallace), and two others who averaged in double figures in their time in Detroit (Howell and Lanier). While Chicago’s wings will try to help mitigate this advantage, Rodman, in particular, could go off in this series. The Bulls may again have to adjust their starting lineup for matchup purposes, with Horace Grant taking the place of Bob Love. However, benching Love and Chet Walker in favor of Grant and Norm Van Lier will put a much greater scoring burden on Jordan, and Chicago’s offense may stall without multiple shot creators against Detroit’s dominant defense.

X-Factor

Chicago’s spacing: The Bulls face several lineup dilemmas, as outlined above. If Phil Jackson starts Van Lier, Jordan, Pippen, Grant, and Gilmore, Detroit will pack the paint and force Chicago’s mediocre shooters to beat them from long-range. Chicago doesn’t have much shooting coming off the bench, either. Deng and Toni Kukoc were pedestrian three point shooters during their times in Chicago (shooting 33.1 percent and 32.7 percent, respectively), while Derrick Rose was below average, particularly for a guard. Phil Jackson’s triangle offense will help to create space for the Bulls scorers, but Detroit features a number of smart defenders who will try to cut off Chicago’s strengths.

"Go to hell." "You too!" Copyright © Lipofsky Basketballphoto.com
“Go to hell.”
“You too!”
Copyright © Lipofsky Basketballphoto.com

Results

Recently, the good folks at the Over & Back Podcast asked what the third greatest rivalry in NBA history was, conceding that the first two were Wilt vs. Russell and Magic vs. Bird. A good argument could be made for Isiah vs. Jordan, especially considering how impactful their teams were to the championship chase in the late 80s and early 90s. Neither of these stone-cold competitors would want to lose this historic matchup, which should be closely contested. Despite Jordan’s brilliance, the flaws of the Bulls roster are too much for him to overcome, and he suffers another heartbreaking defeat to his nemesis.

Detroit wins, four games to three.

Next Round

Detroit faces the All-Time Lakers.

All-Time Detroit Pistons Team

All-Time Detroit Pistons Team Infographic

Deeeeeeeetroit Baaaaaaaasketbaaaaaall! Our next franchise has made five NBA Finals appearances since 1988, with two selfless teams that suffocated opponents on the defensive end, and epitomized team play on offense. Prior to 1988, they only had two 50 win seasons in their history (which dates back to 1949), though they did make back-to-back Finals appearances in 1955 and 1956, when they operated out of Fort Wayne. As we’ve seen before, when you’ve been around so long, you’re likely to have had many great players in your history, in spite of the inevitable rough patches. The All-Time Detroit Pistons team is loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, featuring a mix of great players from different eras of NBA history.

Isiah Thomas is the leader of this team, and is the easy choice for starting point guard. Thomas was one of the greatest clutch players of all time, averaging 20.4 PPG and 8.9 APG in 111 playoff games, and he was responsible for some of the most memorable moments in playoff history (including this, which may have been the best performance in NBA Finals history). Surprisingly, Thomas’s advanced statistics are not too impressive, but his leadership role on two championship teams, his clutch play, and his scoring and passing ability made him one of the greatest point guards ever. Fellow Hall-of-Famer Dave Bing joins Thomas in the starting backcourt. Bing was another primary ballhandler who excelled at the drive and kick game, but both guards have the scoring and shooting acumen to play well off of each other. Off the bench, “Mr. Big Shot” Chauncey Billups was an excellent all-around player who spaced the floor and played elite defense from the point guard position. Hall-of-Famer Joe Dumars, another great all-around option, will play well off of the three other guards, and provides them with another terrific defensive option.

For six seasons in Detroit, starting small forward Grant Hill was one of the best players in the NBA. A prolific point forward, Hill could run an offense to perfection, and fill the lane in transition. In the 1997 season, Hill finished third in the MVP voting, averaging 21.4 PPG, 9.0 RPG, and 7.3 APG (the entire list of people who’ve been able to reach those marks can be seen here). The starting power forward, Dennis Rodman, is one of the handful of greatest defensive players in NBA history. When he focused on rebounding, he became arguably the greatest ever at that skill, and led the league in his last two seasons in Detroit. Off the bench, Hall-of-Famer George Yardley will help to space the floor with his deadly jump shot. The first player in NBA history to score 2,000 points in one season, he was also a tremendous athlete, whose game should translate well across eras. Bailey Howell, a double-double machine who twice led the league in true shooting percentage (once in Detroit), provides another prolific scoring and rebounding option off the bench.

Bob Lanier, the starting center, was one of the more underrated centers in NBA history. He never made an All-NBA team despite averaging over 20 PPG and 10 RPG for seven straight years as a Piston, and he’ll anchor this team’s offense with his low-post play. Ben Wallace, who played both power forward and center, won four Defensive Player of the Year awards in a five year period. He also won two rebounding titles as a Piston, and was a key cog in their unlikely title run in 2004. Larry Foust helped lead the team to the aforementioned Finals appearances in 1955 and 1956, when he led the league in win shares per 48 minutes in both seasons. The notorious Bill Laimbeer, who, along with Thomas, was the leader of the infamous Bad Boy championship teams, adds rebounding, toughness, and outside shooting from the backup center position.

This team is deep, tremendously versatile, and features two of the greatest defenders in recent NBA history. When they need a defensive stop, they can trot out a lineup with Rodman, Wallace, Dumars, and Billups, which will cause nightmares for opposing offenses. The number six seed in our tournament, they have a first-round match up with the All-Time Charlotte Hornets.

Coach: Chuck Daly

All-Time Franchise Winning Percentage (through 2014-15): .487