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Looking back: Sean Elliott-for-Dennis Rodman doesn’t get nearly enough credit for being one of the worst trades the Detroit Pistons ever made

Last time I did one of these Pistons history posts, I looked at an extremely controversial trade, Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre.

The Dennis Rodman for Sean Elliot trade, however, is not remembered controversially at all. A lot of Pistons fans probably don’t even remember it or have conveniently blocked it out.

I always like to think about historical transactions and apply how our current media landscape would’ve covered them, particularly from an advanced statistical perspective. And when it comes to Rodman for Elliot, I’m pretty sure the heads of some very talented statistically-inclined writers would’ve exploded had they been writing in the early 1990s when the trade went down. It was a terrible trade on many levels.

It’s not that Elliot was a bad player. He’s just the classic case of an over-valued role player. Elliot was a traditional wing. He had range, he could get to the basket a little and he was a good compliment for David Robinson in San Antonio. His numbers were good — he averaged 17 points per game on 49 percent shooting and made the All-Star team the season before he became a Piston. People love All-Star appearances. They love a healthy looking scoring average. They love youth. And Elliot had all of those things going for him, so reaction to unloading a player in Rodman who was becoming a headcase for a player pegged as a future star in Elliot was largely deemed a success. As we know now, it was anything but. The Pistons were fleeced.

Elliot didn’t produce statistically in Detroit. His shooting percentage went down 4 percent without Robinson creating open looks for him out of double-teams. He averaged 13 points per-36 minutes, lower than his total his rookie season. His Player Efficiency Rating went from 15.6 the previous season to 11.3 in Detroit. He had 6.1 win shares the previous season in San Antonio and that number fell to 1.4 in Detroit. Elliot also was a below average defensive player, and even with Rodman gone, the Pistons still had Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Bill Laimbeer (briefly at least … Laimbeer only played in 11 games before retiring), so they weren’t exactly completely abandoning their roots, but Elliot simply did not fit the Bad Boys mold.

A player capable of doing the things Rodman did would’ve certainly potentially fetched more value than Elliot (no offense to trade throw-in David Wood, but he wasn’t exactly much of a sweetener to the deal). The Pistons were trying to shed a player whose attitude they’d become tired of. Sometimes subtracting an abrasive personality, even a talented one, infuses some chemistry into a team so the other players and the coaches don’t have to deal with non-basketball issues all the time.

But Elliot, even if he didn’t bring the … uh … persona … Rodman did into the locker room, he also didn’t exactly foster a perception among his new teammates that he was happy to be a Piston. Dave Berri from Wages of Wins (and also a Pistons fan) wrote this last year:

Various explanations were offered at the time. Apparently Isiah and Sean Elliott didn’t get along; consequently, Elliott’s scoring average dropped.

Isiah strikes again! But it wasn’t just ‘fit’ and ‘production’ (or a lack of both) that made this a bad trade. Check out what Elliot once told SLAM’s Alan Paul about the trade:

SLAM: In ’93, your trade from Detroit to Houston was voided when you flunked the physical. Is that how you learned you had kidney disease?

SE: No. I knew way before that. Detroit knew I had a kidney condition before they got me, but they just wanted to get rid of Dennis Rodman. The Spurs didn’t know if I was going to be able to play more than another year or two, so this was a chance for them to get something in return. Midseason, we told Detroit I wanted to go somewhere out West, because things were not working out. The Pistons had told Houston I had something going on but when they tested me out, all the doctors had different opinions and everyone was in limbo. They sent me back to Detroit, which eventually sent me back to San Antonio.

I mean … read that quote again. There’s a lot to process in there. The Pistons traded arguably their best overall player at that point in Rodman for a one-dimensional scorer who they knew had a kidney condition. Then, when they were trying to trade Elliot midseason, they TOLD THE TEAM WILLING TO TRADE FOR HIM THAT HE HAD A CONDITION! Of course Houston would nix that trade!

The Pistons would ultimately wait until the offseason to trade Elliot, sending him to … San Antonio!? For Billy Curley and a second round pick that became Charles O’Bannon?

To recap: the Spurs trade a player in Elliot who had a kidney condition. Spurs aren’t even convinced Elliot will be able to play another two or three years. They acquire an All-Star player for him in Rodman. Elliot goes to Detroit and has the worst season of his career, ruining his value. Detroit tells potential suitors about his kidney condition, further ruining his value. Then, the Spurs give up a crappy pick and and crappy player to get Elliot back in the offseason. Elliot promptly returns to form, as his PER, win shares, points per game and shooting percentage all go right back up to his All-Star season levels.

I know the Pistons have made their share of poor moves under Joe Dumars’ leadership, and he’s (sometimes fairly, sometimes not) taken a beating online from fans and writers, especially of late. But think about this trade for a minute and compare eras. Some of Dumars’ moves took a couple of seasons at least to materialize into bad moves — not everyone thought trading Billups for cap space was horrible until Villanueva/Gordon were terrible last year, for example. In the Elliot-Rodman trade, everything unfolded so quickly. Elliot was bad off the bat. He was shopped, traded, then failed the physical a few months into the season. He was traded right when the season ended for 10 cents on the dollar to the team they’d acquired him from.

I’m not sure a GM in today’s media landscape could survive having a high profile deal play out like this.


  • Jan 6, 20119:57 am
    by brgulker


    As soon as I saw this in my Google Reader, I thought of Berri’s article. I’m glad to see you read it.
    Here’s an article written from a similar perspective to Dr. Berri that emphasizes the importance of Rodman to the 72-win season in Chicago, which further illustrates how awful the Rodman – Elliot trade was:

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Patrick Hayes. Patrick Hayes said: From @PistonPowered: Looking back: Sean Elliot-for-Dennis Rodman doesn’t get nearly enough credit for being one … http://bit.ly/gpfazy [...]

  • Jan 6, 201110:06 am
    by Patrick Hayes


    Thanks for the link. I hated the Rodman trade because he was always my favorite player as a kid. I didn’t understand that statistical aspects to it, obviously, but Berri’s piece last year really cemented that.
    Then I just happened to randomly find that old interview with Elliot. That quote is just insane to me.

  • Jan 6, 201110:21 am
    by herm


    Just to toss it in, the Elliot trade to Houston was for a young, exciting Robert Horry.  Son of a bitch.

  • Jan 6, 201110:27 am
    by Patrick Hayes


    You’re right. And taking that even further, perhaps if Horry was traded to the Pistons, his career trajectory is changed and he never ends up in San Antonio, hitting a certain wide open three in the 2005 Finals …

  • Jan 6, 201112:49 pm
    by gordbrown


    The thing that always bothered me was how he came to the Pistons without a physical or somehow passed a physical that missed such an obvious problem (and it was clearly affecting his performance, the problem seemed to me to be more than just fit). Re Rodman in Chicago I always felt one of Jordan’s finals MVPs really belonged to Rodman, but Rodman lost out strictly because of off court behaviour. That’s David Stern’s NBA for you.

  • Jan 6, 20111:13 pm
    by brgulker


    herm, that’s just dirtay.

  • Jan 6, 20116:50 pm
    by detroitpcb


    yes, i was elated when we got rid of Elliot for Horry. Then that trade was rescinded.

    But you are right Patrick – that was one of the worst trades ever made by management. There is another story behind it that had to do with Dennis Rodman and Vinnie Johnson but I’ll let someone else who remembers tell it. 

  • Jan 6, 201110:00 pm
    by gmehl1977


    If the Horry/Elliot trade wasn’t rescinded then there is no guarantee we win it all in 2004. Didn’t you see the Butterfly Effect. I guess we might not of drafted Darko then either :-)

  • Jan 7, 20118:16 am
    by Glenn


    I seem to remember a story about Rodman sitting in the rafters at the stadium with a shotgun all day… Or maybe it was in his truck in the parking lot… or maybe both!  Either way, doesn’t really surprise me that they just wanted him out.  Being a headcase is one thing, walking around with loaded guns is another.  Look at the Arenas/Crittenton situation and think how Rodman would have been ostracized if he had done that in the present day.

  • Jan 7, 20118:42 am
    by Patrick Hayes


    It was reportedly in his truck. And you’re right, Rodman would’ve been out of the league had he done the equivalent today.
    My point isn’t necessarily that hte Pistons were wrong to trade him. It’s just crazy that they knowingly took a player with a very serious medical condition in return. I can’t imagine a team doing that today. Even the Wizards waited to move Arenas and actually didn’t make a bad deal, since Rashard Lewis’ contract has one less year on it than Gil’s did.

  • Dec 21, 20115:49 pm
    by Woody



  • [...] wasn’t his exuberant self in that final season and the players they received in return for him seemed really terrible. Looking back on what happened, it’s easy to see Rodman became a malcontent and it was necessary [...]

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