Championship Seeds

Larry Drew’s promising rookie season got him traded – because of Isiah

Isiah Thomas
Isiah Thomas landed with the Pistons through then-GM Jack McCloskey's uncanny foresight.
Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images
Jack McCloskey’s first stab at landing a point guard ended with the Lakers’ rejection of his offer to take the entire Pistons roster in exchange for Magic Johnson. He wound up settling for a slightly more modest alternative: Larry Drew.

If you’re ever on “Jeopardy,” the category is “Pistons History” and the answer is “Larry Drew,” then the correct question will be: “Who was Jack McCloskey’s first No 1 draft pick as Pistons general manager?”

That would be Larry Drew, current Atlanta Hawks head coach.

And Larry Drew is at the very core of McCloskey’s go-for-broke mentality.

Drew had a respectable rookie season, starting 16 games and giving every indication he’d be a productive NBA player for a long time. For the most part, that’s what he was. Drew lasted 10 years, mainly as a starter. He averaged 20 points and eight assists as a third-year player – after McCloskey had traded him away.

How did Larry Drew wind up in Detroit for just his rookie season? After all, a lot of folks thought the Pistons had their point guard of the future, and that the GM of a rebuilding team – the Pistons were 21-61 in McCloskey’s first full year – should address something other than that position with the No. 2 pick such a lousy record had earned them.

There were three players considered ahead of the field for that 1981 draft: Mark Aguirre, a born scorer who’d restored his long-dormant hometown DePaul program to national prominence; Buck Williams, an enforcer at power forward in an era when every NBA team was on the hunt for a bruising tough guy; and Isiah Thomas, the quicksilver sophomore point guard out of Chicago who’d just carried Bobby Knight to the second of his three NCAA titles at Indiana.

Dallas had the first pick and obliged McCloskey by drafting Aguirre after Thomas, as he would tell me several years later, intentionally undermined his own chances to be the No. 1 pick with a lackluster predraft interview with Mavericks management. Among other things, when Mavs owner Donald Carter wanted Thomas to pose for Dallas media by wearing a cowboy hat, he refused.

There was no hesitation on McCloskey’s part, despite the appeal to many of drafting the rugged Williams. Thomas clearly turned out to be the right choice, but it would have been tough – even in retrospect – to rip McCloskey had he taken Williams. Williams averaged a double-double for the first seven years of his 17-year career, landing on three All-Star teams. For much of the next decade after that 1981 draft, McCloskey would be hunting for a power forward just like Williams.

But Trader Jack took Isiah and looked for a way to move Drew. Two months later, before the Pistons went to training camp, he shipped Drew to Kansas City for a pair of second-rounders.

McCloskey had found his Magic Johnson. But he was still intent on trading the rest of the roster.

A few weeks into the 1981-82 season – an unusual time for trades to be made, but that’s why they called him Trader Jack – he added what would become the second critical piece of the Bad Boys champions, swapping out Greg Kelser for Vinnie Johnson. He wasn’t yet “The Microwave,” but Johnson had averaged 13 points a game as a 24-year-old for Seattle. It wasn’t a popular trade in Detroit – Kelser, a native son, was the No. 4 pick in the 1979 draft and adored locally for his majestic dunks of Magic Johnson’s lob passes in leading Michigan State to the NCAA championship just two years earlier.

At the trade deadline, McCloskey picked up a third Bad Boys building block. It was a whopper of a trade, the Pistons sending Phil Hubbard, Paul Mokeski and first- and second-rounders that year to Cleveland for Kenny Carr and Bill Laimbeer.

Carr seemed the clear prize for the Pistons, a 25-year-old power forward averaging 15 points and nearly nine rebounds a game. He’d been the No. 6 pick in the 1977 draft, two years before Laimbeer went 65th – undrafted by today’s parameters – and had to spend a year in Italy at a time that was a last resort and an unlikely path to the NBA.

But McCloskey clearly considered Laimbeer the key to the deal, despite modest averages of 6.7 points and 5.5 rebounds for the Cavs. McCloskey turned around and shipped Carr to Portland that summer for a 1982 first-rounder.

McCloskey had devised his own ratings system for players, one he kept closely guarded, but would later tell me the system he trusted had convinced him Laimbeer – and Vinnie Johnson – would have a long and productive NBA career.

More on Isiah and Laimbeer and the early steps of piecing together the Bad Boys in the next True Blue Pistons.