The Jordan Rules: What The Last Dance Doesn’t Say About The Pistons’ Defense Against Michael Jordan


You can’t tell Michael Jordan’s story without the Detroit Pistons. In the years leading up to its first NBA championship, the “Bad Boys” repeatedly crushed their dreams. Detroit defeated the Chicago Bulls in five games in the second round of the 1988 playoffs, five games in the 1989 Eastern Conference finals and seven games in the 1990 ECF.

The Pistons were two-time defending champions when Chicago defeated them in a sweep towards the 1991 title. By that time, they were aging and Jordan’s Bulls had evolved mentally, physically and tactically. Before that, however, it seemed that Detroit, coached by Chuck Daly and led by Isiah Thomas, had a secret formula for beating them: Jordan’s rules.

In episode 3 of “The Last Dance”, the 10-part ESPN / Netflix documentary Brendan Malone, assistant coach of Pistons, succinctly explains Jordan’s rules: “On the wings, we’ll push him to the elbow and we’re not going to let him drive to the bottom line. No. 2, when he’s at the top, we’ll influence him to his left. When he got the ball in the bottom post, we were going to trap him from the top. “

Director Jason Hehir continues: “What happens when it arrives at the start? “

“That’s when Laimbeer and Mahorn came up and threw him to the ground,” says Malone.

In this brief exchange is the outline of the ongoing debate on the rules of Jordan. Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn are legends in Detroit and hated elsewhere for their crude approach to defense. If you were a fan of the Pistons, then their strategy was brilliant – they brought Jordan out of his comfort zone, and they did everything they could to get in the minds of the Bulls. If you were a fan of Jordan, then “The Jordan rules” was far from revealing – all Detroit did was to spin it and beat it. Here’s how “The Last Dance” handled this, and what it does and doesn’t tell you about the Pistons approach:

A question of perspective

The documentary respects the success of the Pistons against Jordan. Then Bulls John Paxson, Bill Cartwright and Jordan himself recognize that Detroit had their number. But since this is Jordan’s story, not theirs, it leans toward this latter interpretation.

In all honesty, some of the voices saying that Jordan’s rules were aimed at slapping him belonged to the people who slapped him.

“As soon as he gets into the paint, hit him,” says John Salley.

“Chuck Daly said, that’s Jordan’s rule: whenever he goes to the f – in the‘ basket, put him on the floor, “says Dennis Rodman. “When he gets to the basket, he won’t soak. We’re going to hit you and you’re going to be in the ground. We tried to physically hurt Michael. “

It is worth comparing “The Last Dance” with “Bad Boys”, the documentary in which the Pistons are heroes, or at least anti-heroes. “It was us against the league,” said Mahorn in the 2014 film. Thomas says they were tired of trying to fight the perception that they were playing badly and that their style was not good for the NBA , so they adopted it. From their point of view, the promising Bulls, led by a marketable megastar with the most aesthetic game imaginable, were bad guys.

In January 1988, Mahorn severely hit Jordan and threw him to the ground, leading to a fight that involved almost everyone on the field, including Chicago coach Doug Collins. “Bad Boys” uses this incident as a precursor to the Pistons’ acceptance of their identity – Jordan criticized them in the media, and they decided they would use the negative press as a means of intimidating opposing teams. Thomas says they even wanted fans of opposing teams to fear them.

In this documentary, assistant Pistons coach at the time, Brendan Suhr, explains Jordanian rules in much the same way as Malone: ​​they wanted to force him out and make him face double teams. Laimbeer adds that they wanted to “hit him on the screens every time to tire him out” and that it was a question of stopping him even if that meant leaving the other Bulls open.

“Anyone but him,” says Laimbeer. “He was not going to beat us. These were the rules of Jordan. We haven’t even thought about Scottie Pippen. It was Michael Jordan and the Jordanaires. And you can’t win championships like that, with one player. “

The original story

“The Last Dance” does not go into detail on Jordan’s rules. The story, as Daly told Sports IllustratedJack McCallum in a 1989 feature film was that in April 1988, the Pistons were fed up with Jordan making the most of it. Jordan had scored 59 points in a Bulls win on national television, and “we decided at that point in time that Michael Jordan was not going to beat us again by himself,” said Daly.

Daly and assistant coaches Ron Rothstein and Dick Versace developed the game plan, and used it against the Bulls from there, with Joe Dumars as their main defender. Dennis Rodman and sometimes Vinnie Johnson also spent time keeping it.

The theory, as described in “The Jordan Rules,” the founding book of Sam Smith: “Jordan’s teammates wouldn’t beat you, and Jordan didn’t think they could anyway, so he wouldn’t pass them. “

Before the 1989 playoffs, however, Daly’s coaching staff changed course, fearing that Pippen and Horace Grant would start. Jordan scored 46 points on a 16-26 shot in Game 3, giving Chicago a 2-1 lead and, according to McCallum, Thomas urged Daly to reinstate the rules.

In “Bad Boys”, Thomas says he and Dumars discussed “23 in red” on the phone two hours after the loss, and Suhr says Thomas called him at 2 am to talk about tactics. Curiously, the 2014 documentary treats this as the genesis of Jordan’s rules, not Jordan’s 59-point game more than a year earlier.

Demystifying the rules of Jordan

“The Last Dance” shows viewers how the Pistons built a mental advantage over the Bulls, but that doesn’t really illustrate how mysterious Jordan’s rules seemed. In “Bad Boys”, there are clips of Laimbeer and Dumars playing mute when asked about them during media availability.

“It was like the Da Vinci Code, the Coca-Cola formula and the rules of Jordan,” Dumars recalls in the 2014 documentary.

The actual rules weren’t complicated, but the players were determined to follow them. In a recent interview with Chris Broussard of Fox Sports, Thomas said they were trying to take advantage of the fact that Jordan was a less effective passer with his left hand and a reluctant passer in general. Any team could have applied Jordan’s rules, but they wouldn’t have become rules of Jordan if the team didn’t have an extraordinary defensive talent. Dumars and Rodman were both part of the first All-Defense team in 1989.

“Our mental stamina, our mental understanding from 1 to 12, whoever the player is, that’s what made us so good,” said Thomas Broussard. “And that’s why we talked about our mental endurance while everyone was talking about our physical endurance. “

In 2007, when another Defensive Pistons team faced a playoff-oriented superstar-oriented team, McCallum caught up to Daly. The coach, who died in 2009, said there were three principles of Jordan’s rules: no easy shots, shuffle blankets and be physical.

“If Michael was perfect, we forced him to go and overtook him,” Daly told McCallum. “If he was on the left wing, we immediately went to a double team from above. If he was on the right wing, we went in a slow double team. He could also hurt you with one wing or the other – damn it, it could hurt you from the hot dog stand – but we just wanted to vary the look. And if he was on the box, we doubled up with a big guy. “

Were the pistons dirty?

Well, here’s what Daly said to McCallum next: “The other rule was that every time he passed by you, you had to nail him. If it came out of a screen, nail it down. We didn’t want to be dirty – I know some people thought we were dirty – but we had to make contact and be very physical. “

Then-Bulls center Will Perdue recently said he did not think Daly wanted to hurt Jordan, just to wear him out, via Ric Bucher of Bleacher Report. Perdue also said, however, that Detroit aid advocates – usually Salley or Rodman – “run towards him with their hands as if they were playing a ball, except that they were literally crossing Michael’s body “

It shouldn’t surprise you to hear that the Bulls and Pistons were plagued by the way they were refereed. In “The Jordan Rules,” Smith writes that Detroit has sent videotapes to the league office, showing that Jordan is receiving disgusting calls that he does not deserve.

After the Pistons complained about what they considered star calls, the star complained that he was being punished. “Since then, faulty appeals have started to decrease, not just those against Detroit,” says Jordan in the book.

The Bulls said Jordanian rules that caught the public’s imagination have made the situation worse.

“You hear about it quite often – and the referees hear it too – and you start to think they have something different,” said Chicago assistant coach Johnny Bach, via Smith. “It has an effect and suddenly people think they don’t hurt Michael even when they are. “

And then there is this, again via Smith:

The Bulls were so concerned about some of these tactics a few years ago that they focused a camera on Laimbeer throughout the playoffs to see what he was doing and discovered that he was grabbing their pressure points to cushion their arms. They complained to the league, but did nothing.

Detroit may not have seen itself as a dirty team, but its players knew how people felt. They wanted to put themselves under the skin of their opponents, and that means making fun of Jordan for not winning a title or making dangerous fouls, they were delighted to get a reaction.

This rivalry was based on genuine two-way hatred – in addition to the Bulls’ obvious disgust for Detroit, the Pistons felt disrespected by comments from Chicago. As champions, they thought, they deserved better.

The Bulls’ response

“The Last Dance” treats the 1991 Bulls’ triumph over the Pistons in the same way as the Jordan and Bulls personal videos I watched when I was a kid. Detroit was the defining obstacle in Jordan’s early career, and the sweep looked like a championship in itself.

The bottom line is that the Pistons and their Jordanian rules forced Chicago to adapt. Jordan became stronger physically and the team gained collective confidence. When Phil Jackson took over as coach and set up Tex Winter’s triangular attack, Jordan’s sharpening was no longer a viable defensive strategy. This helped Pippen become a full-fledged superstar.

“It was a nice theory,” said Daly of the Jordan Rules in his 2007 interview with McCallum, “but eventually Scottie Pippen became Scottie Pippen, one of the best players in the game. And once that happened happened, we couldn’t beat Michael just found them when we bonded with him. “

The other “rules of Jordan”

Smith’s book is not a practical guide to arresting Jordan. Around the Bulls, the term took on another meaning: a guy didn’t have to play by the same rules as everyone else.

Here’s Smith explaining it in the introduction:

“For several years, the players would tell me something about how Jordan held someone up to ridicule, or skipped some mandatory training. Phil had explained publicly, which was part of his brilliance, that the pretty girl was kissed. In other words In other words, some people just get better treatment because society considers them more special than others. For example, it was mandatory for everyone to listen to Phil’s speech before the game, but Michael never did. to have a saddle while Phil made his pre-game remarks. I don’t think Michael was making some sort of editorial statement. But it became a habit, and luckily for him, he was very consistent. The players told me to write about it. I would tell them to say it and I would quote them. They couldn’t do that, of course. “

Big Book.


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