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Looking back: Would the Detroit Pistons have still won a NBA title if they didn’t trade Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre?

Periodically, I’m going to start trying to mix in some Pistons history posts. Because hey, it beats talking about sour stomachs, right?

My mom doesn’t watch sports much, but because she was forced to live in a house with basketball-obsessed men most of her life, she eventually grew some passing interest in the game, particularly when the Pistons were at their peaks in the late 1980s and the mid 2000s.

As the 1980s Pistons were growing into title contenders, there was one player who she loved and rooted for more than all of the others: Adrian Dantley.

Looking at Dantley’s game, it’s easy to see why someone who is not really a sports fan would love him. His game transcended basketball, not because he was flashy or physically more talented, but because he got every ounce of ability out of his body. An undersized power forward, Dantley consistently shot better than 50 percent from the field despite the fact that he did most of his damage in the paint against much taller players.

And unlike some of the undersized PFs of today — think Paul Milsap or even Jason Maxiell — Dantley didn’t have the advantage of explosive athleticism to make up for his lack of height. Dantley could barely get off the ground. Who couldn’t root for a player who, despite looking out of place among the gigantic men at his position, still went out and routinely dominated them offensively using simply craftiness and intelligence?

Dantley was the king of the jab-step. He spoke at a camp I attended when I was 15, and he tried to put a bunch of junior high and high school kids through an intense series of footwork drills that featured initial moves, counter-moves, pump-fakes, pull-ups and an array of different ways to score out of the face-up position. I scored my first (and one of only three I would make all season … I was terrible) rec-league basket by employing a weak version of Dantley’s jab-right, sweep the ball through to create space, elevate and bank it in from just outside the block move.

Dantley was a huge part of the Pistons becoming a title contender in the 1980s. In Detroit’s first NBA Finals appearance, Isiah Thomas’s sprained ankle/25-point third quarter is understandably the lasting memory from a heart-breaking seven-game loss to the Lakers. But a forgotten element of that series is that Dantley had an unreal performance of his own, scoring 34 points on 14-of-16 shooting in the Pistons’ game one win in L.A.

When Dantley was traded during the following season, my mom was devastated, as were many fans. She even named my younger brother, who was born in 1990, ‘Adrian’ because she had grown to love Dantley and what he represented so much.  I was still a bit too young to realize all of the off-court controversy created by the trade, which netted the Pistons Isiah Thomas’s boyhood friend Mark Aguirre from Dallas.

And although Pistons fans still remember, probably in great detail, just how upset many were about the trade, the fact that the team won a title after the trade healed a lot of those wounds.

I think it’s interesting to look back at one of the most controversial trades in Pistons history, considering the current Pistons are still reeling after another controversial trade (Billups for Iverson) that, uh, wasn’t followed up by quite so much on-court success.

After the deal was made, Mitch Albom recounted just what Dantley had meant to the team:

Farewell to the Teacher. Farewell to that body, hard and strong, and that face, which always seemed halfway between amusement and anger. Adrian Dantley came in with a bad reputation, and, ironically, he leaves in exchange for one. Known as selfish, moody and a ball-hog when he arrived in Detroit, he proved critics wrong, leading the Pistons to their best season ever, playing a role, muscling against giants, spinning and whirling and desiring his way to the hoop. He even sent himself to the hospital once diving for a basketball. Diving? Adrian Dantley? And now, suddenly, he has been traded to Dallas for a guy named Mark Aguirre, who has a reputation for being . . . selfish, moody and a ball-hog.

Go figure.

Now, Dantley had a well-documented prickly reputation at times, so he was not necessarily beloved by all of his teammates in Detroit. But one, in particular, was Joe Dumars. SI’s Jack McCallum wrote this after the trade:

Thomas’s backcourt mate, Joe Dumars, was deeply saddened that Dantley, who had been his best friend among his teammates, was gone, but he held his tongue about the deal. In a gesture of respect, Dumars requested a DANTLEY 45 jersey as a keepsake.

Dumars also told SLAM a few years ago that, “Adrian is my favorite teammate ever.”

Albom quoted John Salley on the trade as well:

“Bleep!” said John Salley, when informed of the news Wednesday morning. “How could they trade The Teacher? He was my mentor. A lot of the guys felt that way. I like Mark (Aguirre). He’s OK. But AD did a lot for us.”

(Part of me hopes that Salley actually said ‘Bleep!’ rather than an actual swear word).

There were certainly other opinions on the trade however.

Bill Laimbeer, for instance, wasn’t opposed to it:

“He (Dantley) came in during a transitional period when we were moving from being a free-wheeling offensive team to a more methodical defensive-oriented team, and he fit right in to a disciplined offensive structure. But I think our team just outgrew Adrian Dantley. Joe D was about to come into his own, and it was important that we had more ball movement, and that was not Adrian’s strength.”

Laimbeer’s reasoning lays out the basketball side of it, expounded on by a Detroit Bad Boys reader in 2007:

I remember Michael Jordan saying that without Dantley, the Pistons had no go-to scorer. We all loved “The Teacher”, and the trade saw many fans turn against Isiah Thomas, as he was scapegoated for bringing in Mark Aguirre. The arrival of Aguirre ceded playing time to Dennis Rodman, whose ability to limit Scottie Pippen and roam so aggressively on defense was key to suppressing the Bulls for another season.

Although the trade did make basketball sense — who could argue that finding more minutes for Rodman wasn’t a good thing? — there were persistent rumors that Thomas was the driving force behind the trade, largely because Dantley believed that to be the case, according to Albom:

Here is the way Dantley saw it: “It’s Isiah’s team. He calls the shots. That guy (Aguirre) is his friend and he wants to play with his friend. If Chuck has to make a call, who do you think he’s gonna side with?”

And Dantley’s opinion didn’t change with time. Here’s what he told SLAM just a few years ago:

“I know he was behind the trade,” Dantley says. “It’s not a question; it’s a fact.”

In that same SLAM article, Thomas issued a strong denial while — in true Isiah fashion — saying the trade was in the best interest of the team even though he wasn’t pushing for it.

Thomas flatly and inconclusively denies that he orchestrated Dantley’s trade. “Go back and look in the books,” Thomas says. “When that trade was made, we were in second place in our division, six games behind the Cavaliers. After Aguirre came, we went 37-4 and went from a team struggling to score 92 points to a team averaging almost 103. And we got our ring. So it was a good trade, but it wasn’t my decision. I was a player, not the GM.”

To be fair (kind of) to Thomas, Dantley’s relationship with Chuck Daly played a role in the decision to trade him as well:

The Pistons went just 8-6 in January while Dantley’s relationship with head coach Chuck Daly had begun to deteriorate, according to Steve Addy of the Oakland Press: “There was tension between Daly and Dantley; the coach felt he was holding the ball too long, leaving the offense scrambling for last-second shots. The Pistons also felt A.D. wasn’t getting to the foul line enough.”

It’s difficult to second-guess a trade that helped the Pistons go on a major second half run and win a championship, even if conspiracy theories about Thomas orchestrating the deal are true. But it’s also difficult to fault Dantley for being bitter about the situation. His presence in Detroit made the Pistons a contending team, and had he not been traded, it’s possible he would’ve won a title, something that eluded him his final few seasons as he played on non-playoff teams before retiring.

23 Comments

  • Dec 20, 20104:17 pm
    by Kevin

    Reply

    In the 80′s I hated Detroit –me being a Laker fan.  But, when this trade went down, I felt so sorry for AD.  I just remembering him destroying AC Green or anyone else that was on him in the playoffs.  It seemed like the Pistons were going to win the title with him and was pretty upset that they traded him to a Dallas team that wasn’t really in the running.  I felt that AD deserved a chance.  I remember how upset he was after the trade.  I think Dallas said they’d charter flights like the Pistons had been doing.

  • Dec 20, 20104:48 pm
    by Jonas Snow

    Reply

    It’s been a while since I read the book The Franchise by Cameron Stauth but the GM Jack McCloskey goes into great detail about why he made that trade. It wasn’t Isiah or Chuck Dalys idea, McCloskey knew he had to make the trade to put the team over the top.
     
    You should check out that book it’s one of the best NBA books out there, you can pick it up for a penny on Amazon.

  • Dec 20, 20105:27 pm
    by Steve_Stipanovich

    Reply

    You can never convince me otherwise that the team couldn’t have won the title WITH AD instead of Aguirre.

    Whether or not it was true, the perception was that Isiah got his Chicago boy in.  And no matter how McCloskey tries to sell it, that’s how it was and is still remembered.

  • Dec 20, 20106:18 pm
    by Gregory Orfalea

    Reply

    I have nothing but respect for Adrian Dantley, a kind, friendly, and knowledgeable man about baseball, not to mention basketball.  We raised our kids together.  Before our DC team was going to the Little League World Series Quarterfinals, he counseled “mental toughness.”  (We had some, but not enough–New Jersey beat us and went on to win it all).  AD put on a little spontaneous exhibition at our send-off barbeque; his son Cameron, our stellar third baseball, hit 7 of 10 twenty-footers at a backyard hoop.  Old Dad hit 10 of 10, at the age of 49!  He’s been a fine coach for Denver.  And whatever went down in Detroit, let’s not forget who was singlehandedly responsible for breaking the all-time win record (72) of the UCLA Bruins, locking down Bill Walton in the process–Notre Dame’s Adrian Dantley.

  • Dec 20, 20107:15 pm
    by detroitpcb

    Reply

    like your Mom i loved AD but……the real key is that very last sentence in the quote from Steve Addy. The refs had stopped giving AD his calls and he was not getting to the line. And yes, AD was a much worse version of Tay – all ball movement stopped when he has the ball. But they had lived with that. It was the fact that he was no longer producing at the same level because the refs stopped blowing the whistle for him that got him shipped out of town.

  • Dec 20, 20107:47 pm
    by Jimmy

    Reply

    Bill Simmons discussed this in his Book of Basketball. From the sound of it, Dantley had been bristling with the coach and/or other players. This disrupted the team chemistry. Aguirre wasn’t as good a player as Dantley, but he was more willing to defer to Dennis Rodman and cooperate with the team and coahc. It was that increase in team chemistry and cohesiveness that got the Pistons over the top.

  • Dec 21, 20103:08 am
    by frankie d

    Reply

    dantley got screwed.
    the team could have won with him, as it did with aguirre, but isiah started sabotaging the team.  he would simply refuse to pass the ball to dantley.  dantley would often be wide open, posted low, with great position and thomas would obviously ignore him and rotate the ball to the other side.
    it was one of the most amazing periods of watching nba ball that i’ve ever seen.  and the sight of that kind of open, childish, on court conflict soured me on isiah forever.
    so, yes, it is true that the team was not playing particularly well when the trade was made.  but to anyone watching the team play, the reason was obvious: zeke was letting his rivalry with dantley impact on the way he played on the court.  and because he was the point guard, and because he had the ball in his hands most times, and because he was such a strong leader, he had a huge impact on how every player on the court performed.
    at a certain point, zeke decided that he was going to run dantley out of town and he was ultimately successful.  imho, it was not because he wanted aguirre, though aguirre ended up being the beneficiary.  he just hated dantley, for a number of reasons, and because he was the biggest dog on the block, he ultimately got his wish, and dantley got exiled, right on the verge of achieving his dream of winning a title.
    life aint fair, and it is not the biggest deal in the world, or even nba history.  but that entire situation revealed everything you need to know about zeke: the good, the bad and the ugly.

  • Dec 21, 20109:08 am
    by Patrick Hayes

    Reply

    @Jonas:
    I’ll check it out. Thanks for the head’s up!

  • Dec 21, 20109:15 am
    by Patrick Hayes

    Reply

    @Gregory:

    Dantley has been a phenomenal player at every level, starting in high school at the legendary DeMatha Catholic.

    At the camp I went to where Dantley was one of the speakers, he was the only one of the pro/college coaches who actually stayed all day. The others just kind of gave a quick talk, signed a few autographs and left. AD stayed for about four hours, and he drilled footwork into every player. His techniques in individual drills are unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and I’ve shared a bunch of his drills with some of the HS coaches I know over the years.

  • Dec 21, 20109:29 am
    by Patrick Hayes

    Reply

    @Jimmy:

    I don’t know how much Aguirre was “willing” to defer. I think he really had no choice. He was called a malcontent in Dallas and he was known for playing half-assed. In Detroit, before he’d even played a game, Isiah and Laimbeer took him out to dinner and basically told him flat out that the team wouldn’t stand for that here, so he fell in line. I think that Isiah/Laimbeer culture was too much for anyone to stand up to. Like it or not, they set the tone for the team, and as Dantley proved, if you weren’t lock-step with what they wanted, you were out.

    • Dec 1, 20118:10 pm
      by Ben

      Reply

      I don’t understand why you’re focusing on the word “willing” regarding Mark Aguirre’s play in Detroit; are you implying that he didn’t want to give up shots or cede playing time to Dennis Rodman, and only did so out of fear that Isiah and Bill Laimbeer would turn on him? The only reason for that argument I can see is to undercut the facts: a player who didn’t fit in or win titles in Dallas did both in Detroit. Aguirre deserves credit for making the trade work, not blame for sins he never committed, and for doing what he needed to do.

  • Dec 22, 20106:11 am
    by Dan Feldman

    Reply

    I think the Pistons still would have won with Dantley, but they were better with Aguirre for the precise reason you mentioned — Rodman had a bigger role.

  • Mar 16, 20138:09 am
    by David Jonas

    Reply

    I think the Pistons would have won with Dantley, but can’t argue against the trade as it worked out well for the Pistons.  I do feel bad for Dantley as he helped turn the Pistons from a playoff team into a championship contender and then didn’t get to reap the rewards.  I do believe that Isiah was behind the trade as although he was “just a player” as he claimed, he was the franchise player and team leader and you can bet that he would have strong influence over any trades that were made involving key players just like any other team leader would.

  • Mar 21, 20133:20 pm
    by Darryl Wright

    Reply

    I commented yesterday on a blog regarding the impact Len Bias had on the Washington, DC basketball fan.  Having grown up in Southwest Washington, DC I remember vividly watching AD work hard to become the player that rightly should had been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.  When at home from Notre Dame, he would regularly work on his moves and shot on the basketball court at Jefferson Jr. High School, where I was a student and basketball player. I remember it like it was yesterday.  I remember vividly also the CLASSIC High School championship game that pitted AD and Kenny Carr against Larry Wright and a host of talented players, who I had the privilege of learning how to play the game from, Chester Baxter, June Lightly, John Smith, Stan Mayhew, Reggie Newby etc.  The competition that included some of the best pros, college players, and high school players from all across the city, in the Jefferson Jr. High School gym over the summer’s were memoriable.  AD went on to Notre Dame and had a stellar ALL-AMERICAN career and became the key component on the ’76 Olympic squad.  From there I followed his career blossom in the NBA as one of the leagues most consummate professionals, not to mention one of the leagues most prolific scorers.  I have disliked Isaiah Thomas since the time he orchestrated the trade that sent AD to the Jazz, costing him what I believe would have d resulted in him being an NBA Champion. I was to young to remember with clarity the Elgin Baylor and Dave Bing careers, but I’m definitely grateful as a basketball fan and Washingtonian to have watched Adrian Dantley, who in my mind outside of Lenny Bias  was the Best to have come out of DC.  My opinion!!!!!  Had AD stayed in the DC area to play collegiately before accomplishing what he did on the professional level, he would have had a street named after him.  I’m all for an Adrian Dantley Drive in DC! Definitely and AD fan……..

  • Jul 31, 20131:19 am
    by DSC

    Reply

    No way Detroit wins with Dantley.  Dantley was selfish, didn’t pass, couldn’t shoot 3-pointers, couldn’t post up much.  Aguirre could post up (OK, he was great at it!), was an effective passer, had a 3-point shot.  And who was the better rebounder?  Aguirre, oddly.
    Dantley would get the ball, and if he got an assist it was because he didn’t think he could score, he was great at shot selection and holding the ball.  Aguirre got assists because he passed the ball to the right guy, not just the nearest guy.  I’d take Aguirre on my team over Dantley any day, just because he’d pass the ball and not freeze out teammates.  And Aguirre made every team he played on better (Dallas was a contender until they dealt him, then fell to 9th and made the playoffs only once in 6 years; Detroit went up in winning % when Aguirre joined, dropped when he left; even the Clips saw an uptick with Aguirre, a drop without him).  Plus his awesome DePaul career (If Sampson gets in the HoF for Virginia, Aguirre gets a lot for DePaul).

    I’ve heard Aguirre for years talk about how he saw offence, passing, spacing as important, and I hear so many people say that Detroit won twice because  their passing and spacing improved.  That wasn’t Rodman.  Stats show that when Aguirre was on the floor Detroit was a superior team in all ways to when Dantley was on the floor.  YOu can find the proof easily enough.

  • Aug 14, 20135:07 pm
    by John

    Reply

    I was a huge NBA fan in the 80s, (never missed a televised game;especially playoffs!), and pretty much everyone covering the games on TV noted that it was the trade for Aguirre that led to the Pistons’ back-to-back titles (or rather, “put them over the top”).  However, I noticed year by year during the Pistons’ battles with the Celtics (I seem to remember SI pics of Kent Benson trying to post up, his expression looking like he’d just been shot or something), through the Bulls 3-peat in ’93 that the physical, defense-focused game of the Eastern Conference teams was glorified and allowed to flourish by what seemed to be tacit approval of a more brutal style of play, by the NBA, or the officials who refereed the games, or both.  Sadly, to me, the game from the late 80s throughout the 90s gradually turned into more of a “low-scoring brawl”.  Who remembers the Knicks-Heat rivalry (ha, more like MMA) of the 90s?  My interest in the beautiful game I played in 4th-12th grades competitively started to wane.  I try to catch 80s games on NBA TV when I can.  If you were around then like me, don’t you miss the Hawks, Sonics, Mavericks, Celtics, Lakers, even the Alex English-led Nuggets of the 80s?  Before-the-injury-Bernard King!?  Even the Bucks had great scorers like Moncrief, Pierce, Cummings, etc.  There were only 23 teams, but almost all of them could score, A LOT!  And the NBA wasn’t going to try to stop the artistry we were watching, by allowing guys to get increasingly physical without calling the fouls.  It wasn’t uncommon to look in the paper and see final scores of 124-121, if not higher.  As I noticed the game changing, I didn’t understand why the fouls were not being called, and offensive players were subjected to constant contact. How the game has changed.  Not just the NBA.  Who wants to watch that UCONN-Butler final from a few years ago again?  I’ve heard it being called “the WORST important game of all time”.  Toward the end of the game, the guys calling it for CBS were commenting on it (basically saying something has to be done; the offensive players can’t move freely; can’t take a shot without being hacked; can’t dribble the ball while moving without being hand & body-checked to death; and fouls are rarely called).  To me, the difference in the two eras of basketball is much like hockey.  I don’t claim to watch it very much.  But in the last 20 years, I’ve watched a fair amount of NHL & Olympic hockey.  You can see the difference in style of play (& what’s allowed).  I know which one I want to watch.

  • Sep 19, 20131:32 am
    by harry

    Reply

    I saw Chuck Daly being interviewed years back (I believe by Dick Schapp) and Daly said he and his coaching staff wanted the trade. Isiah was a scoring point guard and Joe Dumars was drafted because he was a good enough ballhandler to handle point responsibilities when isiah was on a scoring streak. Chuck said the coaches wanted to see Dumars handling the ball more but Dantley was not going to stand for being a third option behind Thomas and  dumars. AD was already bristling about having to play second fiddle to Thomas. So both the GM (McClosky) and the coaching staff were on the same page, he had to go.

    • Jan 2, 20146:11 pm
      by DSC

      Reply

      True.  A lot of people call Rudy Gay another Dantley, a ball-stopper.  People like Dantley but on the courts he made many nuts with his ball massaging and refusal to make the pass.  Aguirre was a great passer by comparison, only reason his assist totals aren’t higher is that he passed out of the double team, then that guy passed to a better option, points in.  Larry Bird said Mark Aguirre was the only guy Detroit ever had that they had to double team, based on his shooting and passing ability he was too dangerous to leave to one guy.

  • Sep 19, 20131:42 am
    by mark

    Reply

    It is not a question of who is a better player but who is a better fit, what does that individual player bring to the mix. Dantley was not a fast break player. Aguirre was able to get out on the break and make passes on the break. The Pistons were split betwwen non fast break type players (Dantley, Dumars) and fast break guys( Salley, Rodman). When you replaced Dantley with Aguirre you had 5 Guys (Salley, Rodman, Aguirre, Thomas, Johnson) who could get out and run in the fast break. Dumars was not as fleet of foot to call him a fast break type player but Joe D was such a good passer that he could make passes on the break. The deal transformed the team.

    • Jan 2, 20146:13 pm
      by DSC

      Reply

      Yes, true too.  After the trade their average scoring was 106 per game, in the month before 98. scoring allowed went down by 3 points a game.  Team chemistry just got so much better.

  • Jan 18, 20148:16 pm
    by DSC

    Reply

    Looking back at what SI had to say, and they hated the deal, but: “And, meanwhile, maybe Aguirre will be giving the Pistons the extra boost that they need to put those hungry young teams, like the Knicks and the Cavaliers, back in their place.”  I guess he did, plus Boston, Chicago, LA….
    “And he’s (Aguirre’s) in a system that wants, and needs, his varied offensive talents—low-post scoring, perimeter shooting, running the floor, and getting the ball to the open man when double-teamed.”  Those last three things, Dantley couldn’t and wouldn’t do, but Aguirre delivered all his career, and Dallas soon found out how valuable those skills were.

  • Feb 22, 201411:07 am
    by Fennis

    Reply

    AD was one of my favourite Pistons as a child, and I was shocked and disappointed the morning of the trade. But even at that young age, I knew that the Pistons were Isiah, Laimbeer, and Mahorn: you could have brought Ron Artest and Latrell Sprewell on that team and they would have shut their mouths and quietly done their jobs (in fact, I wish those 3 could come back and smack the crap out of half the Pistons current roster).
    Detroit simply wasn’t beating the elite teams before Dantley was traded–they had lopsided losing records against Milwaukee, Cleveland, and New York. Aguirre was one of the best pure scorers in the league, and he would be kept in line by the team’s dominant personalities. The Pistons ball movement and scoring was MUCH more effective after the trade, and the positive effects were evident years later. Who knows how many titles the Pistons would have won if Isiah had been healthy in 1991, or if McCloskey hadn’t made the colossal mistake of replacing Vinnie Johnson with Darrel “slow mo” Walker? For that matter, how many more would they have won if they had protected Rick Mahorn in the expansion draft, or if that asshat David Stern hadn’t gift wrapped the NBA for Jordan by creating the “flagrant foul” rule out of thin air? The trade for Aguirre gave Detroit 2 championships when–mid-way through 1989 amidst a league front office that was unquestionably out to stop the Pistons–there was a very real sense that the Bad Boys would follow the path of Barkley’s Sixers or Wilkins’ Atlanta Hawks: a good team that never won jack.
     

  • Apr 15, 20147:37 pm
    by Bill

    Reply

    Interesting article.  I was in college when this trade was made, and I was extremely disappointed by it.  Here’s the kicker – I’m a Mavs fan.  The Mavs lost their best player, and Dantley wasn’t a good fit for them.  Detroit definitely got the better end of the deal.

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