After the Pistons game two loss to Cleveland on Wednesday, rookie Stanley Johnson made some post-game comments about LeBron James. These comments garnered national attention and criticism. In addition, they also made me fall in love with a rookie for the first time in years. So what did he say? We'll get to that in a minute; let's look earlier first.
The 1981-82 NBA season saw the Detroit Pistons add two players that would become franchise cornerstones. The Pistons, in decades earlier saw their share of Hall of Fame talent pass through town, but they never had a real identity. That started to change at the 1981 NBA draft when the Pistons selected Isiah Lord Thomas III. Then, midway through Thomas' rookie season, the team pulled off a trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers to acquire Bill Laimbeer. Over the next decade plus, Thomas and Laimbeer would alter not only the face of the team, but the NBA as a whole. As the decade rolled on they added guys like Dennis Rodman and Rick Mahorn, and the Pistons became the Bad Boys of the NBA. Offensive talent punctuated by physical, hard-nosed defense, and a mental edge over their opponents. This trash talking, hard fouling philosophy resulted in two championships during what many consider the be the best era of the game. When Thomas and Laimbeer both retired in the early '90s, that identity went with them, and so began the Grant Hill era. Fair or not, Hill spent most of his time in Detroit with fans calling him 'too soft.' Taking over for Zeke as the face of the franchise was an unenviable position. As it turned out though, Grant Hill would become the bridge between generations of champions.
After six seasons worth of middling success (the team went 236-224 during his tenure), with ex-Bad Boy Joe Dumars now in charge, Hill agreed to a sign and trade with the Orlando Magic. The result of that trade; Ben Wallace would become one of the greatest Pistons to ever wear the red and blue. This second era of championship basketball saw the Pistons once again focus on their identity - shut down defense. They weren't as physical as the '80s team, and didn't talk as much, but they were one of the greatest defenses the NBA has ever seen, and in 2004 they dominated the Lakers in 5 games to win the NBA title.
Just as both championship eras began with trades, the second era was killed by one. Chauncy Billups was sent to Denver for Allen Iverson, and that was all she wrote. If the deal that brought Laimbeer to Detroit in 1982 is athe greatest trade in franchise history, then shipping out Billups might be the worst one. Since this trade, the team's identity has been that of a sub-.500 club who plays no interior defense, and lacks leadership.
Enter Stan Van Gundy.
From 2008-2014 Detroit ran through five head coaches - that's not good. In 2014 SVG was brought in as Coach and Team President, a co-title that promised some much need stability. He went to work right away gutting the roster. The 2014-2015 season saw what appeared to be a much-improved team, hampered by injuries and out of the post-season for what felt like the one-hundredth year in a row. During his second offseason Van Gundy made so many moves that only two pieces now remain from that 2013-14 team. Drummond and KCP - A big man with (unmet) defensive potential, and a two-guard who is one of the NBA's best on-ball defenders. A trade with the Suns brought in Marcus Morris, a hard-nosed, physical leader, hungry for minutes. Aron Baynes was signed away from the Spurs, and in the draft - one Mr. Stanley Johnson was selected. (Took me long enough to get back here huh?) Stanley, while not the most popular pick among the fans on draft night had displayed something many of the other top notch rookies maybe didn't have - elite toughness. Both physically and mentally. He plays good defense, stands his ground and seems fearless on the offensive side of the court.
The NBA isn't the same as it was in the 1980s. Hell, it's not even the same as it was in 2004. But one thing has always remained the same - the Pistons are at their best when they get physical, play defense, and stop trying to make friends. Michael Jordan hated the Pistons because they were division rivals who were not in awe of him, and weren't afraid to knock him on his back when needed. LeBron should hate this current team for all the same reasons.
In game one of these 2016 NBA playoffs, the #8 seed Pistons played a hard-nosed game, led most of the way, and saw rookie Stanley Johnson stand his ground and play well against the King of the NBA. They lost that game, but they also proved that the regular season (where they went 3-1 against the Cavs) wasn't a fluke. In game two, the Pistons collapsed in the third quarter and lost by 17 points. But in the game, Johnson again stood up to LeBron, and did seem to get under his skin a bit.
LeBron with the love tap on Stanley Johnson pic.twitter.com/RapCvM4Qtn— Steve Noah (@Steve_OS) April 21, 2016
#Pistons Stanley Johnson on bump from LeBron: "It’s (fake) as hell...I don’t take anything from it, but a cheap ass shot, a cheap ass bump."— Rod Beard (@detnewsRodBeard) April 21, 2016
"He jabbers, he moves his mouth sometimes. Their whole team does, kind of like their little cheerleaders on the bench. Every time you walk in the right corner. They're always saying something like they're playing basketball, like they're actually in the game. There's only seven or eight players who play, I don't see why the other players are talking. They might as well just be in the stands, in my opinion."
In all likelihood, the Cavs are going to go on to win this series, but for a young Pistons team playoff experience can be invaluable. And creating friction with a division rival certainly makes things more interesting. Just think back a few years, what was more enjoyable - The Pistons and Pacers battling out their hate for each other on the court, or Sheed's pre-game hugging of Kevin Garnett before the Celtics eliminated Detroit in 2008? Stanley Johnson is a competitor, he's a gamer, and he's fearless - as so many 19 year olds are. Perhaps with age will come some wisdom on his part and he'll talk less, but I sure hope that's a long way off. Right now, that fire is good for this team. Critics have told him to be careful not to poke the bear, don't wake the giant - but this is the playoffs. Was LeBron not already invested? Morris, Jackson, Aron Baynes, and Stanley Johnson all have an attitude, and SVG clearly brought them together for a reason. He's cultivating a change in culture around here, and we should be so lucky if he could harness the spirit of those old teams. Keep it up young gun. Show some backbone, become a cornerstone.