Bulls–Pistons rivalry

Bulls–Pistons rivalry
Chicago Bulls
Detroit Pistons
First meeting October 28, 1966
Latest meeting April 2, 2016
Next meeting December 6, 2016
Meetings total 285 meetings
All-time series 143142 (DET)
Regular season series 126124 (CHI)
Postseason results 1916 (DET)
Longest win streak
Current win streak CHI W1
Post-season history

The Bulls–Pistons rivalry is an NBA rivalry between the Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons. The rivalry began in the late 1980s and was one of the most intense in NBA history for a couple of years, when Michael Jordan evolved into one of the league's best players and the Pistons became a playoff contender.


1988–90: The Bad Boys & Jordan Rules

The rivalry started in the 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals after the Pistons and Bulls beat the Bullets and Cavs in the first round 3-2. The aggressive Bad Boys, as Detroit became known, were the rising power in the Eastern Conference. Michael Jordan, on the other hand, was league MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and the ultimate challenge for the Pistons' top-notch defense. In a nationally televised game in Detroit on Easter Sunday, Jordan torched the Pistons for 59 in a 112-110 Bulls victory (He burned them for 61 in a 125-120 OT victory in 1987). This angered Chuck Daly, who vowed never to allow him to light them up again. Despite Jordan's individual skills, the Bulls lacked the talent and mental toughness to beat Detroit, who ravaged Chicago in 5. The Pistons went on to beat Boston in 6 and won their first Conference title since they moved from Fort Wayne.

In 1989, the Pistons were stronger than ever, having posted a season-best record of 63-19. They reached the Conference Finals by sweeping the Celtics and Bucks. The 6th-seeded Bulls (47-35) had surprising success in the playoffs by upsetting the Cavs 3-2 with The Shot and Knicks 4-2. The Bulls met Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals. Their success continued as they took a 2-1 series lead. But the Pistons clamped down and employed the "Jordan Rules" (which consisted of solely targeting Jordan) which worked so well for them the year prior. While they remained mum about them when asked by the media, many Pistons today say that it was just another psychological ploy they made up to throw the Bulls off their game. According to Pistons forward Rick Mahorn,

We were just throwing stuff out there. It was just a joke. Chuck throws it out there that we had some secret plan to stop Jordan, and everybody just jumped on it. Everybody was writing stories about this strategy. When we kept reading about it, Isiah told us that we had gotten in their heads, and that's how we had them beat.[1]

The Pistons took a stand and won 3 straight and went on to win their first NBA title.

While both teams intensely disliked each other, there was particular animosity between Michael Jordan and Pistons star Isiah Thomas. Thomas, who was a Chicago native and basketball legend in the city, felt that Jordan was taking the city away from him and getting unearned attention. Thomas was accused of leading a so-called "freeze-out" in the 1985 NBA All-Star Game that involved Thomas and other NBA veterans keeping the ball away from Jordan. In retaliation, when the 1992 United States men's Olympic basketball team was being formed Isiah was not part of the team, which people attribute to Jordan and Scottie Pippen stating that they did not want to play if Thomas was on the team, with Pippen going as far to label him as a "cheap shot artist".[2]

For the 1989-90 season under new coach Phil Jackson, the Bulls sought to subvert the "Jordan Rules" by focusing on the triangle offense refined by assistant coach Tex Winter. By sharing responsibility rather than shouldering it, Jordan led Chicago to the second-best record in the East at 55-27 behind the defending champion Pistons, who finished 59-23. The rematch was set up when Detroit swept Indiana in the opening round, then ousted New York in 5. The Bulls beat the Bucks in 4 and 76ers in 5. In an Eastern Conference Finals rematch, Chicago pushed Detroit to the limit. But the Pistons showed their dominance and won Game 7 at home. The Pistons went on to win their 2nd straight NBA title against the Blazers.

1991: The Bulls finally break through

The Game 7 loss resulted in a stronger Bulls team the following season. With greater concentration on teamwork, they posted the best record in the East at 61-21 and Jordan regained the MVP award after years of being called a selfish player. The Pistons would drop to third in the East with a record of 50-32. Both teams meet in the Conference Finals for the third straight year, with Chicago holding home-court advantage for the first time. The Bulls reached the Conference Finals by sweeping the Knicks and beating the 76ers in 5, while the Pistons disposed of Atlanta in 5 and beat Boston in 6. While some still doubted Chicago and maintained that Detroit's psychological edge and bench strength would loom over the series, the Bulls' 3 years of growing pains gave them the drive that inspired the greatness necessary to defeat the Pistons. Proving their growth, Chicago swept Detroit. Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and Mark Aguirre, in their last show of defiance, walked off the court with 7.9 seconds left so as not to congratulate them. Only Joe Dumars and John Salley shook hands with any of the Bulls.[3][4] In the NBA Finals, the Bulls defeated Magic Johnson's Lakers to win their 1st NBA title.[5]


The Pistons and Bulls would never meet in the playoffs again during the Bulls dynasty, although they came close in both 1992 and 1997; had the Pistons won their first round series in both years, they would have met in the Conference Semifinals.

Following their 1991 sweep, James Edwards and Vinnie Johnson would leave the Pistons as free agents, and the team would see a steady decline. Chuck Daly would resign as head coach after the 1991-92 season. Following Daly's departure, the Pistons went through a lengthy transitional period, as key players either retired (Laimbeer in 1993 and Thomas in 1994) or got traded (John Salley, Dennis Rodman among others). They would bottom out in the 1993-94 season, finishing only 20-62.

With the arrival of Grant Hill (drafted 3rd overall in 1994), the Pistons once again became a playoff team in the latter half of the 1990s. While they would enjoy some success, including a 54-28 record in the 1996-97 season, they never became title contenders until Joe Dumars was hired as President of Basketball Operations. Dumars eventually formed a team similar to his own: a group of players who played a hard-nosed, defensively strong, fundamentally sound, team-oriented style of play.

Meanwhile, the Bulls proceeded to win 6 titles in 8 years, including two three-peats, with an early retirement and return of Michael Jordan in between. Former Piston Dennis Rodman, would be traded to the Bulls in 1995 and play an integral part in the second three-peat (John Salley and James Edwards were also on the team during the record-breaking 72-win 1995-96 season). After the 6th title, the Bulls were dramatically dismantled: Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Rodman, and coach Phil Jackson all left.

The Bulls had five losing seasons and did not yield a competitive squad until former Bull John Paxson (who was a member of the first 3 title teams) became the GM and acquired players to form a team with efficient perimeter offense and strong interior defense.

The rivalry returns

The rivalry was restored in the 2006 offseason when the Bulls signed free agent Ben Wallace, the cornerstone of the Pistons' defense. The addition of Wallace was immediately felt when the Bulls won the first regular season game in a blowout against the defending champion Miami Heat, the team that defeated the Pistons in the 2006 Eastern Conference Finals.

The move of Ben Wallace stymied the Pistons early in the season, as the team sought to look for consistency without him. Dumars took the initiative and signed Chris Webber, who was just released from the 76ers. Soon, the Pistons regained their edge, proving that their vaunted defense that took them to the Eastern Conference Finals for four straight seasons was not dependent on Ben Wallace alone.

The teams met in the Eastern Conference Semifinals after the Pistons swept the Magic and the Bulls swept the Heat. The Pistons dominated the early parts of the series, stifling the Bulls' guards to sub-40% shooting to win not only the first two games at home, but also the first game in Chicago, in which the Pistons came back from a 17-point deficit in the second half. The Bulls shut down the Pistons' offense in the next two games to win Games 4 and 5. However, the Pistons won Game 6 in Chicago, winning the series 4-2.

Another Dormant Period

The Pistons made it back to the Conference Finals in 2008. Chauncey Billups was traded early in the 2009 season, and they steadily declined. The Cleveland Cavaliers swept them in 2009. The Pistons signed free-agents Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, and welcomed back Ben Wallace that offseason. However, injuries demoted them from an Eastern Conference power, winning only 27 games in the 2010 season, thus a rebuilding period for the team began. The team did manage to make it to the playoffs once again in 2016, once again losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a four-game sweep.

After missing the playoffs in a dismal 2008, the Bulls earned the first pick in the 2008 NBA Draft. They selected Chicago native Derrick Rose. The Bulls steadily rose to one of the NBA's elite teams; after a pair of 41-win seasons in Rose's first two seasons, the Bulls signed free-agent forward Carlos Boozer, and with the development of Joakim Noah to one of the best centers in the league, the Bulls rose the ranks in the Eastern Conference.



  1. Sharp, Drew (December 25, 2007). "The best of Pistons-Bulls rivalry". Detroit Free Press.
  2. "SportsCentury: Isiah Thomas". Youtube. May 10, 2013.
  3. Stone, Mike; Regner, Art (2008). The Great Book of Detroit Sports Lists. Running Press. p. 103. ISBN 978-0-7624-3354-4. Retrieved February 2, 2012.
  4. Banks, Lacy J. (March 12, 2011). "Amid Bulls celebration, Scottie Pippen has no regrets". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on February 2, 2012.
  5. Sachare, Alex (March 12, 2003). "PISTONS: Reliving the Pistons-Bulls rivalry". NBA.com. Archived from the original on 2005-09-27. Retrieved 2009-09-02.
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