"I believe," Thomas said, in his slow, deliberate style, "that our team would have been capable of competing against some of the great teams."
That was then. Now, the Pistons that take the floor at the Baltimore Arena against the Washington Bullets can barely compete with the NBA's worst.
The Pistons had lost 14 straight games before beating the Miami Heat, 118-98, last night. Detroit's 9-27 record is the second worst in the league. The backcourt of Thomas and Joe Dumars are still intact, but the departures of the players that provided the physical style -- Rick Mahorn, Dennis Rodman and Bill Laimbeer -- have left the Pistons just slightly better than the lowly Dallas Mavericks.
"It's very frustrating to go from where we've been to where we are," Thomas said. "You try to handle it as professionally as you can, you try to work it out and stay true to your craft. How long it'll take the Pistons to get back to a .500 basketball team? I don't know."
It's been an up-and-down season for Thomas, who earlier this season broke his hand from punching Laimbeer. But despite the drop in his scoring and assists numbers (14.2 points and 8.1 assists, down from the 19.5 points and 9.4 assists average going into this season), Thomas was recently named to Dream Team II, which will play in the World Championships this summer.
"I look forward to the experience of playing and representing my country again," said Thomas, who was a member of the 1980 Olympic team. "I don't think this was owed me. The selection committee chose me, and I'm honored to play."
That selection on Jan. 10 capped a hectic seven-day period for Thomas who, on the verge of being traded to the New York Knicks the week before, agreed to a reported $55 million package with the Pistons that would give him part ownership of the team and control of basketball operations when he retires.
"I can't discuss it," said Thomas, when asked about the details of the agreement. "I don't know what I'll do three, four or five years from now. I have opportunities available, but it's not set in stone I'll go that way. I have other things I may be doing."
If Thomas moves to the front office, many feel it would put coach Don Chaney in an awkward position -- going from coaching Thomas, to working under him.
"We just go out and play basketball," Thomas said. "Once you get on the court, nobody is thinking that way -- at least I'm not."
There's also been concern whether being in management would affect Thomas' current role as president of the players association. As a player, Thomas is against the salary cap.
"As of now, that's something I'll discuss with the members of the board of the players association," Thomas said, who's presidency runs through next month. "I think the players understand over the past year that I won't allow myself to be compromised."
As far as Thomas retiring at the end of the season, he said that is not entirely clear.
"I'll just wait to see at the start of next year if I feel like playing," Thomas said. "Now, I still wake up every morning wanting to practice. When I don't, that's when I'll step down."
Opponent: Detroit Pistons
Site: Baltimore Arena
Radio: WXZL (103.1 FM), WTEM (570 AM)
Outlook: The teams have split their two meetings. Washington won in Auburn Hills, Mich., on Nov. 9, and Detroit won at the USAir Arena on Dec. 16. Detroit ended its 14-game losing streak by beating the Miami Heat last night. G Joe Dumars (16.6 ppg) and F Terry Mills (15.8 ppg) lead the Pistons in scoring. With leading scorer Rex Chapman sidelined with an injured right ankle, F Don MacLean (17.9) assumes a bigger scoring responsibility. Rookie G Calbert Cheaney scored 19 points Wednesday in his first start at shooting guard, and will need to provide the same steadiness for the Bullets to be competitive.