You can’t tell the story of Michael Jordan without the Detroit Pistons. In the years leading up to his first NBA championship, the “Bad Boys” crushed his dreams repeatedly. Detroit beat the Chicago Bulls in five games in the second round of the 1988 playoffs, in six games in the 1989 Eastern Conference finals and in seven in the 1990 ECF.
The Pistons were the two-time defending-champions when Chicago famously vanquished them in a sweep en route to the 1991 title. By then they were aging, and Jordan’s Bulls had evolved mentally, physically and tactically. Before that, though, it seemed like Detroit, coached by Chuck Daly and led by Isiah Thomas, was in possession of some secret formula for beating them: The Jordan rules.
In Episode 3 of “The Last Dance,” the 10-part ESPN/Netflix documentary, then-Pistons assistant coach Brendan Malone explains the Jordan rules succinctly: “On the wings, we’re going to push him to the elbow and we’re not going to let him drive to the baseline. No. 2, when he’s on top, we’re going to influence him to his left. When he got the ball in the low post, we were going to trap him from the top.”
Director Jason Hehir follows up: “What happens when he does make it baseline?”
“That’s when Laimbeer and Mahorn would go up and knock him to the ground,” Malone says.
In that brief exchange lies the outline of the enduring debate about the Jordan rules. Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn are legends in Detroit and hated elsewhere for their roughneck approach to defense. If you were a Pistons fan, then their strategy was brilliant — they coaxed Jordan outside of his comfort zone, and they did anything they could to get in the Bulls’ heads. If you were a Jordan fan, then “The Jordan rules” were far from revelatory — all Detroit did was swarm him and beat him up. Here’s how “The Last Dance” handled this, and what it does and doesn’t tell you about the Pistons’ approach:
A matter of perspective
The documentary is respectful of the Pistons’ success against Jordan. Then-Bulls John Paxson, Bill Cartwright and Jordan himself acknowledge that Detroit had their number. But as it is Jordan’s story, not theirs, it leans toward the latter interpretation.
In fairness, some of the voices saying the Jordan rules were about smacking him around belonged to the people doing the smacking.
“As soon as he steps in the paint, hit him,” John Salley says.
“Chuck Daly said, This is the Jordan rule: Every time he goes to the f—in’ basket, put him on the ground,'” Dennis Rodman says. “When he comes to the basket, he ain’t gonna dunk. We’re going to hit you and you’re going to be in the ground. We tried to physically hurt Michael.”
It is worth contrasting “The Last Dance” with “Bad Boys,” the documentary in which the Pistons are heroes, or at least antiheroes. “It was us against the league,” Mahorn says in the 2014 film. Thomas says that they were tired of trying to fight the perception that they were playing dirty and their style wasn’t good for the NBA, so they embraced it. From their perspective, the up-and-coming Bulls, led by a marketable megastar with the most aesthetically pleasing game imaginable, were villains.
In January 1988, Mahorn fouled Jordan hard and threw him to the floor, leading to a fight that involved just about everybody on the court, Chicago coach Doug Collins included. “Bad Boys” uses this incident as a precursor to the Pistons accepting their identity — Jordan was criticizing them in the media, and they decided they would use the negative press as a way to intimidate opposing teams. Thomas says they even wanted opposing teams’ fans to fear them.
In that documentary, then-Pistons assistant coach Brendan Suhr explains the Jordan rules essentially the same way as Malone: They wanted to force him left and make him deal with double-teams. Laimbeer adds that they wanted to “hit him on screens every time to wear him down,” and that it was all about stopping him even if that meant leaving other Bulls open.
“Anybody but him,” Laimbeer says. “He was not going to beat us. That was the Jordan rules. We didn’t even think about Scottie Pippen. It was Michael Jordan and the Jordanaires. And you can’t win championships like that, with only one player.”
The origin story
“The Last Dance” does not get into how the Jordan rules came to be. The story, as Daly told Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum in a 1989 feature, is that in April 1988 the Pistons were fed up with Jordan getting the best of them. Jordan had scored 59 in a nationally televised Bulls win, and “we made up our minds right then and there that Michael Jordan was not going to beat us by himself again,” Daly said.
Daly and assistant coaches Ron Rothstein and Dick Versace came up with the game plan, and they used it against the Bulls from then on, with Joe Dumars serving as his primary defender. Dennis Rodman and occasionally Vinnie Johnson spent time guarding him, too.
The theory, as described in “The Jordan Rules,” Sam Smith’s seminal book: “Jordan’s teammates wouldn’t beat you, and Jordan didn’t think they could anyway, so he wouldn’t pass to them.”
Before the 1989 playoffs, though, Daly’s coaching staff changed course, concerned that Pippen and Horace Grant would get going. Jordan scored 46 points on 16-for-26 shooting in Game 3, giving Chicago a 2-1 series lead, and, according to McCallum, Thomas urged Daly to put the rules back in effect.
In “Bad Boys,” Thomas says he and Dumars discussed “23 in red” on the phone for two hours after the loss, and Suhr says Thomas called him at 2 a.m. to talk tactics. Curiously, the 2014 documentary treats this as the genesis of the Jordan rules, not Jordan’s 59-point game more than a year earlier.
Demystifying the Jordan rules
“The Last Dance” shows viewers how the Pistons manufactured a mental edge on the Bulls, but it doesn’t quite illustrate how mysterious the Jordan rules seemed. In “Bad Boys,” there are clips of Laimbeer and Dumars playing dumb when asked about them during media availabilities.
“It was like The Da Vinci Code, the formula to Coca-Cola and the Jordan rules,” Dumars recalls in the 2014 documentary.
The actual rules weren’t complicated, but the players were committed to following them. In a recent interview with Fox Sports’ Chris Broussard, Thomas said they were trying to take advantage of Jordan being a less effective passer with his left hand and a reluctant passer in general. Any team could have implemented the Jordan rules, but they wouldn’t have become the Jordan rules if the team didn’t have extraordinary defensive talent. Dumars and Rodman both made First-Team All-Defense in 1989.
“Our mental stamina, our mental understanding 1 through 12, whoever came into the game, that’s what made us so good,” Thomas told Broussard. “And that’s why we talked about our mental toughness while everyone else talked about our physical toughness.”
In 2007, when another defensive-minded Pistons team faced a superstar-oriented squad in the playoffs, McCallum caught up with Daly. The coach, who died in 2009, said there were three tenets of the Jordan rules: No easy shots, mix up the coverages and be physical.
“If Michael was at the point, we forced him left and doubled him,” Daly told McCallum. “If he was on the left wing, we went immediately to a double team from the top. If he was on the right wing, we went to a slow double team. He could hurt you equally from either wing — hell, he 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 with a big guy.”
Were the Pistons dirty?
Well, here’s what Daly told McCallum next: “The other rule was, any time he went by you, you had to nail him. If he was coming off a screen, nail him. We didn’t want to be dirty — I know some people thought we were — but we had to make contact and be very physical.”
Then-Bulls center Will Perdue said recently that he doesn’t think Daly wanted to hurt Jordan, only to wear him out, via Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher. Perdue also said, however, that Detroit’s help defenders — usually Salley or Rodman — would “run at him with their hands up as if they were making a play on the ball, except they’d literally run through Michael’s body.”
It should not surprise you to hear that both the Bulls and the Pistons had gripes with the way they were officiated. In “The Jordan Rules,” Smith writes that Detroit had sent edited tapes to the league office, showing Jordan getting foul calls he didn’t deserve.
After the Pistons complained about what they viewed as star calls, the star complained that he was being punished. “Ever since then, the foul calls started decreasing, not only those against Detroit,” Jordan says in the book.
The Jordan rules entering the public imagination made things worse, in the Bulls’ view.
“You hear about them often enough—and the referees hear it, too—and you start to think they have something different,” then-Chicago assistant coach Johnny Bach said, via Smith. “It has an effect and suddenly people think they aren’t fouling 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 found that he was grabbing at their pressure points to deaden their arms. They complained to the league, but got no action.
Detroit may not have seen itself as a dirty team, but its players knew how people felt. They wanted to get under opponents’ skin, and whether that meant taunting Jordan for not having won a title or committing borderline-dangerous fouls, they were thrilled to get a reaction.
This rivalry was based on genuine hatred both ways — in addition to the Bulls’ obvious distaste for Detroit, the Pistons felt disrespected by the comments coming out of Chicago. As champions, they thought, they deserved better.
The Bulls’ response
“The Last Dance” treats the Bulls’ 1991 triumph against the Pistons the same way as the Jordan- and Bulls-focused home videos I watched as a kid. Detroit represented the defining obstacle of the early part of Jordan’s career, and the sweep felt like a championship in itself.
The takeaway is that the Pistons and their Jordan rules forced Chicago to adapt. Jordan got stronger, physically, and the team collectively built confidence. When Phil Jackson took over as coach and installed Tex Winter’s triangle offense, honing in on Jordan was no longer a viable defensive strategy. It helped that Pippen turned into a superstar in his own right.
“It was a nice theory,” Daly says of the Jordan Rules in his 2007 interview with McCallum, “but eventually Scottie Pippen evolved into Scottie Pippen, one of the best players in the game. And once that happened, we couldn’t beat them anymore. Michael simply found other guys when we ganged up on him.”
The other ‘Jordan rules’
Smith’s book is not a how-to guide for stopping Jordan. Around the Bulls, the term came to have another meaning: One guy didn’t have to play by the same rules as everybody else.
Here’s Smith explaining it in the introduction:
“For several years, players would tell me something about how Jordan had held someone up to ridicule, or skipped a mandatory workout of some sort. Phil had explained publicly, which was part of his brilliance, that the pretty girl gets kissed. In other words, some people just get better treatment because society sees them as more special than others. For instance, it was mandatory for everyone to listen to Phil’s pregame talk, but Michael never did. His pregame habit, or at least one of them, was to have a bowel movement while Phil was making his pregame remarks. I don’t believe Michael was making any sort of editorial statement. But it became a habit, and fortunately for him he was very regular. Players would tell me to write about it. I would tell them to say it and I’d quote them. They couldn’t do that, of course.”