Editor’s Note: The modern era of the NBA is generally accepted to have begun with the 1979-80 season, the advent of the 3-point line in the NBA. The lists to follow—one for each of the NBA’s 30 teams—will only consider seasons since 1979-80. We continue the series today with the best of the Detroit Pistons.
The Detroit Pistons are one of the NBA’s oldest franchises, tracing their roots back to the old National Basketball League in the 1940s.
The Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons were born in the NBL in 1941 and were one of the league’s most successful franchises, founded by Fred Zollner, who was—coincidentally (or not)—the owner of Zollner Pistons, a top supplier of automotive pistons to Ford, General Motors, International Harvester and John Deere.
The team was successful, too, making the playoffs in all seven seasons they played in the league and winning NBL titles in 1944 and 1945.
Zollner moved his team to the Basketball Association of America in 1948, making the jump along with the Rochester Royals, Minneapolis Lakers and Indianapolis Kautskys (who changed their name to the Jets).
The Pistons dropped the owner’s name from the title and stumbled to a 22-38 record in year one before embarking on a run of eight straight playoff appearances, including back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals in 1955 and 1956, where they lost to the Syracuse Nationals and Philadelphia Warriors, respectively.
But competing in small-town Fort Wayne against franchises in major cities such as Boston, New York and Philadelphia wasn’t feasible and in 1957, Zollner moved the club to Detroit.
The Pistons were a playoff team in their first six seasons in Detroit, but never posted a winning record and won just two playoff series.
That gave way to an era during which the team made the playoffs just once from 1963-64 through 1972-73, a period marked by great individual players such as Dave Bing, Dave DeBusschere and Bob Lanier coupled with very little team success.
Detroit returned to the postseason in 1973-74 behind Coach of the Year Ray Scott, marking a string of four straight postseason appearances that included just one series win.
In 1974, Zollner sold the franchise to glass magnate Bill Davidson, who owned the team until his death in March 2009. It was under Davidson that the team left downtown Detroit for suburban Oakland County, playing first in the cavernous Silverdome in Pontiac before moving into The Palace of Auburn Hills, the team’s current home.
The Pistons flopped into the 3-point era, finishing 16-66 under coach Dick Vitale (it’s fun to remind people that, yes, Dickie V. once coached in the NBA). Actually, Vitale was fired after a 4-12 start.
But with the arrival of the expansion Dallas Mavericks, the Pistons weren’t in the coin flip for the No. 1 overall pick. Instead, they lost the flip to the Utah Jazz. It’s not as if it mattered; during a disastrous 18-month stint as general manager, Davidson not only hired Vitale, but he traded both of his 1980 No. 1 picks to Boston for Bob McAdoo, who played a total of 64 games for Detroit. The No. 3 overall pick in 1980, however, was some stiff named Kevin McHale, so it’s not like the Pistons missed out.
But under general manager Jack McCloskey, the Pistons began to acquire some solid assets and by the time Chuck Daly came on board to coach in 1983, Detroit was ready to win.
The Pistons would make the NBA Finals for the first time since leaving Fort Wayne, losing in seven games to the Lakers in 1988. Detroit went on to win back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990 before having to rebuild again.
By the early 21st century, the Pistons were competitive again and under coach Larry Brown, won the franchise’s third title in 2004 and went back to the Finals in 2005, losing to San Antonio in seven games. That was part of a run of six straight appearances in the conference finals.
But it’s been another downswing lately. The Pistons haven’t made the postseason since 2009 and have gone through five coaches in five seasons.
Tom Gores took over ownership of the club in April 2011 and longtime team president Joe Dumars recently resigned and was replaced by former Miami and Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy.
Interestingly, for most of the 3-point (modern) era, the Pistons have either been very good or very bad, with little middle ground. Only six times in 35 seasons has Detroit finished within 10 games of .500 in either direction.
But the Pistons have won at least 50 games 13 times and have lost at least 50 nine times (and would have a 10th were the lockout shortened 2011-12 season prorated).
The franchise’s high- and low-water marks were each set during the modern era. The team won 64 games in 2005-06 and lost 66 in 1979-80.
Daly is the franchise’s winningest coach at 467-271; no other coach has more than 176 victories for the Pistons. Detroit has had several long-serving personnel decision-makers, including Edwin Coll (October 1965-June 1975), McCloskey (December 1979-June 1992) and Dumars (June 2000-April 2014).
And here are the best players, by position, for the Detroit Pistons in the modern era, beginning in 1979-80. Players had to have played 200 games for the franchise.