All for one, one for all: Thomas-led Pistons guard trio was the best

May 12, 1994|By Rob Parker | Rob Parker,Knight-Ridder News Service

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Isiah Thomas' career can stand alone.

With all that he accomplished in 13 seasons with the Detroit Pistons, Thomas -- who officially announced his retirement yesterday -- doesn't have to be linked to a team.

Or to teammates.

Not many who have played pro sports can say that.

Still, it would be nearly impossible to talk about Thomas and not about the backcourt he led.

Thomas, Joe Dumars and Vinnie Johnson made up what many consider the best

backcourt in NBA history.

Given the many great guard trios who have played on the hardwood, that's saying a lot. Still, the others would be hard-pressed to produce rings from back-to-back NBA championships. And be able to claim that they won it all without a dominant center.

The only reason the Pistons were able to dispel the myth that NBA championships can't be won without a center was because of Thomas, Dumars and Johnson.

The three guards worked together perfectly. They were interchangeable parts. They could either play the point or two-guard. And all three could take over a game in a hurry.

Sometimes all three played together. In those cases, Dumars or Johnson would play the small-forward role.

The three pushed each other to the highest level. You had to be good to belong. If not, the best two that night played and the other watched. Not many players would have been able to deal with such a system. The willingness to bend and give for the team and the respect all three had for one another's game allowed this thing to work.

So much so that even longtime Los Angeles Lakers announcer Chick Hearn called them "the greatest three-guard rotation in the history of basketball."

Hearn was right. And most who really know basketball will tell you the same thing.

"It's probably the all-time greatest backcourt," said Will Robinson, Pistons assistant to the director of player personnel. "The same as Boston's frontcourt of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.

"Not individually, but collectively."

If any backcourt came close to this one it was the New York Knicks' famous Walt "Clyde" Frazier, Earl "The Pearl" Monroe and Dick Barnett. They won a championship in 1972-73.

"That was a great trio, too," Robinson said. "They both achieved the same success, but this one had more charisma."

As a kid who grew up in New York during the Knicks' championship season, I always thought the Frazier-Monroe-Barnett threesome was the best -- until 1985-86, when the Pistons' trio was formed.

But after I saw what the Pistons were able to do without a center, I realized how much the guards meant to Detroit. The Knicks were led not by the guards, but by Willis Reed. The guards were a major part of the Knicks, but the main man in the middle made their job a lot easier.

In many ways, Thomas was like Reed. His toughness and competitiveness made Dumars and Johnson better.

"Isiah was the spark plug, the general of it," Robinson said. "And the other two were the parts that made it go.

"They believed in what he said. And he made them come to the level that it took for it become the greatest."

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