Great Deadline Deals

Pistons 3 NBA titles all influenced by last-minute trades

Bill Laimbeer and Rasheed Wallace
George Blaha recalls past Pistons trades including those that acquired Bill Laimbeer and Rasheed Wallace.
Nathaniel S. Butler/Garrett Ellwood (NBAE/Getty)
For all the anticipation surrounding the NBA trade deadline every February, I can’t help but look backward a little bit while everybody else looks forward. Some of the biggest trades the Pistons have ever made have come at or very near the trade deadline and all three of their NBA championships came only after some of those trades.

The first deadline trade I remember was one that those of us who were friends of Bob Lanier worried about – and it did happen. Jack McCloskey figured that if he was going to rebuild the team, he almost needed to start from scratch. Bob was sent to Milwaukee for Kent Benson and a No. 1 pick and Kent turned out to be a rock-solid player for the Pistons. He was part of the rebuilding process through the early ’80s and the fact he wasn’t a Hall of Famer like Bob was something nobody held against him.

Kent was good for team chemistry. He was a tireless worker and I think his teammates over the years really appreciated what he did. What that trade did for me was let me know that if you have a friend in this business, thicken your skin because he could be traded. That’s probably the first time I started looking at every box score for another team to see how my buddy did.

It turned out to be a good trade for Bob, as well. It was hard for him to leave Detroit and he always feels as if he bleeds Pistons blue, but joining Don Nelson over there and playing with a group of guys who became an elite team and competed for conference championships, at least, opened some doors for him at the end of his career. He’s had his number retired in Detroit and Milwaukee. It wasn’t all bad for Bob, either.

Those trades shock you early in your career. They don’t shock me as much any more.

I remember the Pistons getting Bill Laimbeer a few years after that and what a remarkable trade that was by Jack McCloskey – probably his best. You’re getting an all-time great Detroit Piston, one of the best competitors this game has ever seen and an all-time great teammate who basically was the definition of a winner. They traded him for a group of guys who could play, but Bill had really not had the opportunity in Cleveland, believe it or not, that he was going to get in Detroit. Once he got the opportunity to play major minutes, he made Jack look like a genius. That trade helped the Pistons win two titles.

People thought Kenny Carr was the main guy in the deal for the Pistons and I think Jack was going to give Kenny a chance in Detroit. But I think he felt, all the way through it, that Bill Laimbeer was his diamond in the rough and clearly he turned out to be. Carr was dealt away a couple of months after and Bill retired as a Piston and as an all-time great.

Fast forward a couple of years, when the Pistons were now one of the very few elite teams, and I’ll never forget the trade that sent Adrian Dantley to Dallas for Mark Aguirre. I think the two people that were hit hardest by that trade were probably yours truly and Joe Dumars, who was AD’s best friend on the team. Those two were huddled up together after it happened at the hotel in Los Angeles.

Nobody thought a player who clearly had punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame was going to be traded by a team that nearly won the championship the year before. And, as a matter of fact, if the Pistons had hung on to win in seven games against the Lakers despite Isiah’s horribly sprained ankle and the phantom foul call on Bill Laimbeer to end Game 6, Adrian Dantley would have been MVP of the Finals. As a friend of AD’s, I felt like it had to be a painful for him. It cost him an NBA championship.

What the trade did for the Pistons was allow Chuck Daly to finish games with his new defensive stopper at small forward, Dennis Rodman. That was going to be hard to do with one of the great finishers of the decade, Adrian Dantley, on your team. AD was never afraid of the big shot and was happy to go to the free-throw line with the game on the line. Those things never bothered him.

Chuck would have been forced to make some tough decisions. Mark Aguirre was a heck of a player. We all know that, and he fit in beautifully with the team, but he also was not the kind of guy who would have been as difficult to take out late in the game for Dennis Rodman. It’s interesting. The Pistons had two future Hall of Fame small forwards on their team before that trade was made: Adrian Dantley and Dennis Rodman.

I don’t think there’s much question that the two guys who put together championship rosters in Detroit made their most significant deals around trade-deadline time. We’ve already talked about Jack McCloskey. And let’s not forget one other big deal Trader Jack made at the deadline, the one in 1988 for James Edwards who became such a big part of the two Bad Boys titles.

The crown jewel in Joe Dumars’ career as Pistons president of basketball operations is another trade-deadline deal for a big man. It has to be the deal in 2004 for Rasheed Wallace.

Everybody that knew anything about Rasheed personally knew that this guy, who was very misunderstood, was a very good teammate and a guy who would do whatever it took to win. Despite gasps from around the league that bringing in Rasheed was rolling the dice, I think Joe knew better.

John Hammond, who is now GM in Milwaukee and doing a very good job with the Bucks, told me later that if there was any selfishness on a very unselfish team, it all went away the day Rasheed came in – because he never, ever cared about his own numbers. He only cared about the final score. You could make the case for Rasheed being one of the most talented players in the entire league. When you can add him at the trade deadline, you make your team incredibly better. They needed all five of those great starters to win a title and before they got Rasheed, they only had four of them.

The trade didn’t really stop with getting Rasheed, although clearly he was the centerpiece. The Pistons also ended up getting Lindsey Hunter back and Mike James comes in the deal and those two were dogged defenders off the bench. It added more ammunition for a team that already played very good defense.

When you look back, that team had such great chemistry. We shouldn’t have been surprised they wound up going all the way, but the whole nation felt the Lakers were top-heavy favorites in the Finals. Those of us who thought the Pistons had a chance – and I would count myself as one of them – would never have predicted what we now call the “five-game sweep.” But I did think with their team chemistry and those really young legs and Larry Brown coaching, even a Phil Jackson team that had Kobe and Shaq and aging veterans like Karl Malone and Gary Payton might have trouble with the Pistons in a seven-game series. It was wild that it didn’t taken seven – and it barely took five.

It’s exciting, as I watch this young Pistons team come together around talented players like Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond and Brandon Knight, to think that over the next few seasons, they’ll be in a position to again have a chance for Joe D to pull the trigger on a deal at the deadline that might lead to another championship run.