When the Pistons started the season losing nine of their first 11 games under new coach Ron Rothstein, whispers grew to loud growls in Detroit that the once-fearsome Bad Boys, NBA champions in 1989 and 1990, were now just the sad, old boys of 1992.
Sensing the start of a downward spiral, Chuck Daly, who had coached the Pistons to three trips to the NBA Finals in nine years, defected to New Jersey, and general manager Jack McCloskey moved to Minnesota.
All the key players, except for guard Joe Dumars, have passed their 30th birthdays. Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman and Mark Aguirre were seemingly running on empty, and John Salley had been traded.
But just when rivals were rejoicing in their collapse, the Pistons returned to form.
Tonight, when they play the Washington Bullets at the Baltimore Arena, the Pistons are again walking tall, having won 10 of their past 12 games to climb back into playoff contention in the Eastern Conference.
"Dumars has been great, and Isiah is playing like a spring chicken," said Rothstein, a former Daly aide who also coached the expansion Miami Heat from 1988 through 1991. "According to [assistant coach] Brendan Malone, this is the best Isiah has played in three years."
Dumars, who has scored more than 20 points in nine of the past 13 games, is averaging a team-high 23.0. And Thomas again has asserted his leadership role, averaging 17.6 points and 8.6 assists.
Laimbeer, 35, on the final year of a contract worth close to $2 million, is not going out like a lamb. His rebounding (5.8) and scoring (9.7) have dipped precipitously, but the Piston most fans love to hate is as feisty as ever.
The bellicose center was up to his old tricks in Charlotte on Wednesday night, when he got into a bumping match with Hornets rookie Alonzo Mourning in the fourth quarter of the Pistons' 107-95 loss. The two soon began swinging, leading to twin ejections. Laimbeer was fined $6,500 and Mourning $5,000. Neither player received a suspension.
But the primary reason for the Pistons' turnaround has been the rebounding and upbeat presence of Rodman, who, after an early-season suspension, has regained his All-Star form.
"It's like one of the kids' puzzles where you have a lot of small pieces and one big piece," said Thomas. "Well, Dennis is our real big piece."
A complex individual with wide emotional swings, Rodman had balked on returning to the Pistons because of his strong relationship with Daly and the trade of Salley.
After missing five games because of suspension and injury, the lanky, 6-foot-8 forward has averaged just under 20 rebounds since returning Nov. 24, and leads the league (18.2) by a significant margin over the Orlando Magic's 7-0 rookie center, Shaquille O'Neal (14.8).
Rodman, reportedly no longer on the trading block, sees a psychiatrist once a week, trying to sort out the personal problems that led to his suspension last month.
During that troublesome time, he told the Detroit Free Press: "It wasn't just my marriage breaking up. It was everything happening to me. Losing my daughter [Alexis, who is living with his ex-wife in Sacramento, Calif.], Daly leaving and Salley leaving.
"It was like everything you worked for goes at once, like somebody said, 'OK, load it all in the wagon and take it away.' You come home and say, 'Where did my life go?'
"I was all screwed up, twisted, turned around. If the marriage thing had happened when everyone else was still here with the Pistons, I could have handled it. But all this stuff happened at once. I was trying to find something to stand up on, to hold against, and I couldn't."
Rodman skipped training camp. In a sense, he blamed Rothstein, a Pistons broadcast analyst last season, for Daly's departure.
But peace has been restored.
"Dennis has been just fine," said Rothstein. "He's doing a great job since he's come back."
Said Rodman, who now sports a tattoo of his daughter on his arm: "I'm just trying to make people happy now. I'll do anything I can to help make up for the slow start, but they can't expect miracles."
The rebirth of the aging Pistons is already considered a minor miracle. If Dumars and Thomas can keep from wearing down playing close to 40 minutes a game, the Bad Boys could be flexing their muscles in the playoffs again.
NOTES: Rothstein acknowledges the Pistons' aging process is a real concern, but adds, "We've got two No. 1 draft picks next June -- ours and Miami's [from the Salley deal]." On why he waived former Bullets guard Darrell Walker, "Darrell was so concerned about renegotiating his contract, it began to affect his play. Besides, we needed more scoring off the bench, and we get that now from Danny Young." . . . For the negative-minded, the Bullets, with eight straight losses, are still five shy of the franchise mark set by the 1966-67 Baltimore Bullets who finished 20-61. Since moving to Washington, the team has twice lost nine in a row. . . . All fans 16 and under attending tonight will receive a life-size growth chart of rookie Tom Gugliotta, who leads the team in rebounds (9.9) and is averaging 16.0 points.