Bulls VS Pistons – A Bloody War

NBA has witnessed many rivalries and Bulls vs Pistons is not the longest of them all, it’s just the most intense of them all. They say tough times give rise to Tough men and this rivalry was short lived because it gave rise to a legend.

This rivalry is from the late 1980’s , it’s actually from the time that I was just 2 yrs old so my interest in the rivalry comes from the Netflix documentary THE LAST DANCE which chronicles the story of the legendary Michael Jordan. By the late 1980’s, Michael Jordan was already a celebrity, drafted by Chicago Bulls in 1984 and won the Rookie of the year in 84-85 at the age of 21. Post an injury he came back and scored 3000 points in the season of 1986-87 and was also named as the Defensive Player of the year in 1988 .

Michael Jordan was easily the MVP (Most Valuable Player) in the game but basketball is a team game and while one great can take you far it can’t get you to win the NBA finals consistently. Having played Basketball myself I know that no matter how aggressive the shooter is,much like Football you need to set up a basket- the pass has to come at the right time and then you need to make sure the defenders do their job well to win the game.


The pistons had 3 decades of struggle before 1981 when they drafted Isiah Thomas and  got Chuck Daly as a coach in 1983 and finally DENNIS RODMAN THE GOAT in 1986. Together the Detroit Pistons devised a defensive strategy. When Bulls met Detroit armed with Jordan he led them to a 112-110 victory having personally score 59 points in a nationally televised game in Detroit on Easter Sunday. This angered Chuck Daly and he vowed to never let Jordan light up his team again.

This gave birth to the famous “JORDAN RULES”- the strategy was crystal, it was devised by Isiah Thomas in 1988- “to play him tough, to physically challenge him and to vary its defenses so as to try to throw him off balance.” Sometimes the Pistons would overplay Jordan to keep the ball from him. The Piston would play him straight up forcing him to go left which was not his favored side and while the strategy was Isiah’s brainchild it was executed by Dennis Rodman and Bill Raimbeer. Even when Jordan was defending Pistons would throw the ball to the guy he was marking to wear him down and render him ineffective on both ends.

The strategy was effective,Detroit beat Chicago four games to one in 1988 then defeated the Bulls in six games in 1989 and seven games in 1990. The Pistons won back-to-back championships after eliminating the Bulls.

The games were full of low blows- elbows, hips, forearms and knees – IT WAS A  BLOODY (pun intended) WAR .


In 1989 Chicago bulls was joined by a new coach Phil Jackson  who employed the Triangle offense – to try and explain the Triangle offense in layman terms I would oversimplify it to say it about creating a triangle where its not clear who is going to take the basket and this element of surprise is what dismisses the opponent.However a lot must be said about how the captain Michael Jordan rallied his boys,Jordan spent the entire 1990-91 season dragging 6’10”, 230-pound rookie power forward Scott Williams onto the floor for post-practice one-on-one sessions with one rule: only post moves allowed.

And finally , Jordan changed the way he played, he knew if he played his traditional game he wont get past the defense so in the Triangle offense there are three players on the string side who are positioned to go for the basket ,Jordan played on the weak side and played the game in 3 dribbles or less.

Meanwhile it was not just the Pistons who targetted Jordan, there were other players who would make the nails be clawed into him leaving him bleeding by end of the game but Jordan realised it was more a mental game now that Physical game , he started acting in a way to show everyone that this didnt effect him, his game was effortless on the field and this meant everyone had to play along so the teammates had strict instructions to not react to someone who would run in to Jordan.Jordan developed an environment where everything about him was guarded, his injuries were not known, his feelings were behind the jersey he would bite with his mouth. Noone was supposed to find any weakness.


Chicago bulls for all set to Play Pistons in the playoff , the rivalry was not just between the teams it was also Isiah who took it personally that his native city of Chicago was swooned by Michael Jordan .

The Bulls finally ended their run of three successive postseason defeats to the Isiah Thomas Dream Team. The Bulls outplayed the Bad Boys Pistons and won each game by at least eight points .With 8 seconds remaining the Pistons walked off the court letting go of the tradition of shaking hands and congratulating winners.

Bulls went on win the NBA title not just in 1991 but for a record breaking 6 times .That was truly the end of the rivalry because from thereon Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls and NBA changed forever.

This rivalry is a fabulous case study and has many learnings for life:-

  1. Glory cant be attained by just the brilliance of one guy, it requires collaboration, grooming talent , making a team , developing a culture. 
  2. The Leader must absorb pressure and not pass it on to the troops, however to gear up the troops the leader must be tight-fisted and work on developing skill making them battle ready.
  3. And most importantly, the art of solutioning – when faced with trouble one must look at multiple combat options and deploy all of them together for one never knows what will work but together there would be a definite impact. To reverse a wave the most important thing is to stop losing ground further and then pushing back till it finally gives way.

Michael Jordan is a champion not just a great individual player but also a great leader and the rivalry with Pistons has a great deal to do with it. Some rivalries make for great fan fights, some make history, this one is one of them!!

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: