Between rebroadcasts of classic Detroit Pistons games and the villainous role the Bad Boys Pistons, particularly Isiah Thomas, played in Michael Jordan’s attempt at rewriting basketball history through his eyes on The Last Dance, we have been had the opportunity to survive stay at home orders in the company of some great Detroit basketball moments over the past several weeks.
Several things are striking watching some of the historically good Pistons teams of the past. In true quarantine brain thinking, however, I’ve been trying to imagine some of the Bad Boys-era Pistons recast in today’s NBA. It’s not hard to picture transcendent talents like Thomas, or Joe Dumars, or Dennis Rodman adjusting and becoming stars in today’s game. A heady stretch big who gobbled up boards like Bill Laimbeer would’ve no doubt excelled in modern times, as would an athletic rim-protecting center who could defend and finish like John Salley.
But the player I’ve been most transfixed on watching these games is someone who played a vital, trailblazing role on championship teams but would’ve likely been completely looked over in the league as we know it today.
To understand Vinnie Johnson’s impact on the modern NBA, look no further than Wikipedia. His entry begins, “The Microwave” redirects here.”
Johnson spent most of his career with the Pistons in the 1980s — perhaps the worst destination for any talented guard, getting stuck behind Hall of Famers Thomas and Dumars.
Today, the league is full of microwave scorers who heat up and get buckets off the bench. But the namesake for that model, Johnson, had to create that role not by design but for survival. Despite his talents, he would never replace Thomas or Dumars, so maximizing his minutes became vital. In 13 NBA seasons, Johnson never averaged 30 minutes a game for a season and only averaged 10 shots per game for his career. Still, he finished with a scoring average in double digits.
It’s not like he wasn’t deserving of an expanded role had he been in a less crowded rotation, either. His career per-36 minute numbers were 18 points and 5 assists.
Johnson may have originated the “microwave” model, but he had more responsibilities, less margin for error, and less of an offensive arsenal to impact the game than modern scorers known for their ability to “heat up.” If Jamal Crawford or Lou Williams or any of this generation’s other unrepentant bench gunners are having an off game, chances are, they’re still going to get minutes. Chances are, they’re still one of the two best guards on their team. Chances are, their teams are going to give them ample chances to make mistakes in exchange for their scoring prowess.
Modern era microwaves also have something Johnson didn’t — reliable 3-point shots. The NBA didn’t even adopt a 3-point line until Johnson’s rookie season, and by that point, he was what he was — a bruising guard with a deadly mid-range game and the strength to finish around the basket. Imagine a streaky modern NBA scorer “heating up” without a 3-point shot. Would a player like Johnson even get on the court in today’s NBA?
He also didn’t have explosive athleticism. Current Piston Derrick Rose has settled comfortably into a bench scoring role without a jump shot. But even with his accumulated injuries, Rose is still quick off the dribble and athletic enough to get up and over bigger players inside. Johnson had a below-the-rim game reliant on craftiness.
But what is most remarkable about Johnson’s career is simply ... trust. He backed up two Hall of Famers and, somehow, whether replacing Thomas or Dumars, never let it seem like there was a dropoff. It is why his No. 15 hangs in the rafters alongside Thomas and Dumars.
Thomas, one of the game’s best-known alpha dogs, had a career full of signature moments — who doesn’t remember him scoring 25 of his 43 points in the third quarter of the 1988 NBA Finals, barely able to walk? It’s iconic ... but the Pistons lost that series.
In the second of their back-to-back championships, against Portland in 1990, the signature Thomas moment involved him simply getting out of the way. During game five, Johnson struggled … until he didn’t. He heated up in the fourth quarter and scored 15 points. With the game tied and under 15 seconds left, the ball was in a familiar place — Thomas’ hands. Until it wasn’t.
Thomas didn’t hold for the final shot. He passed to Johnson with four seconds left and got out of the way, never demanding that the ball come back. Johnson calmly dribbled toward the elbow and sank a contested 15-footer with less than a second left to win the championship.
There are a lot of microwave scorers. There’s only one Microwave.