Detroit Pistons Made Michael Jordan the GOAT, Says Magic Johnson

Magic Johnson believes the intense rivalry between the Detroit Pistons and the Chicago Bulls at the turn of the 1990s was the making of Michael Jordan and transformed him into the greatest basketball player ever.

The Bulls made the playoffs in Jordan's first three seasons in the NBA but fell at the first round each time, before eventually reaching the Eastern Conference semifinals in 1988. Here, however, the Bulls and Jordan—who had just captured the first of his five MVP titles—were defeated in five games by the Pistons, in the first instalment of a bitter feud that would define the next three seasons in the NBA.

Detroit went on to lose the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, but swept the Lakers in a rematch 12 months later after coming back from 2-1 down to defeat the Bulls 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The same outcome unfolded 12 months later, when the Bulls fell to the Pistons in seven games as Detroit ultimately defended its title, beating the Portland Trail Blazers 4-2 in the NBA Finals.

A year later, the Bulls swept the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals en route to defeating Magic's Lakers 4-1 in the NBA Finals, to bring the Larry O'Brien Trophy to Chicago for the first time.

"The Bulls kept trying to go through the Pistons and Isiah [Thomas] denied them but it made the Bulls the championship-winning team that they were," Magic told NBC's Today on Monday morning.

"They [the Pistons] took a lot of cheap shots. I can understand why Michael was so upset. The great thing is that the Pistons made Michael Jordan be the GOAT [greatest of all time]. The reason he became the GOAT is because he had to go through the Pistons."

The rivalry between the Bulls and the Pistons was the focus of Episode 3 and 4 of The Last Dance, ESPN's 10-part documentary chronicling Jordan's final season with the Bulls in 1997-98.

Thomas and Dennis Rodman—who was part of both Pistons title-winning teams before moving to the Bulls in 1995—lifted the lid on the so-called "Jordan Rules," Detroit's bruising style aimed at limiting Jordan.

"[Pistons coach] Chuck Daly said this is the Jordan Rule: Every time he go to the f***ing basket, put him on the ground," Rodman, the league's Defensive Player of the Year in 1990 and 1991, said.

"When he goes to the basket, he ain't gonna dunk. We're gonna hit you and you're gonna be on the ground. We were trying to physically hurt Michael [Jordan]."

Thomas acknowledged the Pistons were prepared to do all they could to stop Jordan.

"We knew Michael Jordan is the greatest player, and we tried to use it as a rallying cry to come together," he explained in Episode 3. "We had to do everything from a physicality standpoint to stop him."

For his part, Jordan made clear how brutal a challenge facing the Pistons was.

"They made it personal," Jordan explained. "They physically beat the s*** out of us."

The six-time NBA champion also admitted his feelings for Detroit haven't changed, despite the fact three decades have passed since the last instalment of the rivalry.

"I hated them," he said. "And that hate carries even to this day."

Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson
Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan (L) guarding the Los Angeles Lakers' Magic Johnson during the first quarter of Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals at the Chicago Stadium in Chicago, Illinois. Bettmann/Getty

Magic, who faced the Pistons in the 1989 and 1990 NBA Finals acknowledged the Pistons often walked a fine line with their confrontational approach and that he wasn't surprised by Jordan's reaction.

"It was always going to happen," he explained. "They still hate the Pistons today. That was a bitter rivalry. [...] You got to give the Pistons credit, they learnt from the [Boston] Celtics and you've got to learn how to win a championship before you win one."

The Pistons all but ended the Showtime Era that had delivered the Lakers five titles in eight years. Magic and the Lakers returned to the NBA Finals for a final hurrah in 1991, but were comprehensively beat by the Bulls.

The former Lakers star joked that when Jordan met him and Larry Bird—whose Celtics had won the three titles not captured by the Lakers during the 1980s—when the Dream Team gathered ahead of the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, he made clear the NBA had entered a new era.

"He [Jordan] told Larry [Bird] and I: 'Hey there's a new sheriff in town. That's me and the Bulls,'" Magic added. "We had to start laughing and said: 'Michael you're right.' And man he did not disappoint either."