That’s the argument ender of all-time for whether Jack McCloskey – or Chuck Daly, or Isiah Thomas, or all of the above – was right to trade Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre on Feb. 15, 1989. It was a stunning trade to all but the handful of people at the eye of the storm who felt a championship team was at risk of falling short of its perceived destiny because of … well, what, exactly?
Dantley fit Pistons needs perfectly when McCloskey packaged Kelly Tripucka and Kent Benson to Utah in August 1986, a few months after the Pistons were pretty convincingly drummed out of the playoffs by Atlanta in the first round.
They needed his low-post scoring and his ability to draw fouls. On another level, they needed his professionalism and devotion to detail.
What did they need 2½ seasons later? Not many thought anything more than a healthy roster and the avoidance of the crazy misfortune – Isiah’s sprained ankle, a phantom foul call on Bill Laimbeer, Bird's steal or Dantley and Vinnie butting heads – that had prevented them from winning the 1987 and ’88 titles.
They were 32-13 after a road win against the Lakers on Feb. 14, the first game coming out of the All-Star break, when McCloskey decided to pull the trigger on a trade he’d been discussing with Dallas for about a month.
Aguirre, whom Dallas had taken No. 1 eight years earlier after Isiah had intentionally sabotaged his own chances of being the first pick, wanted out despite the fact he was averaging 22 points a game on a team many thought was on the verge of overtaking the Lakers in the West.
Dantley didn’t want out of Detroit, but there were forces at work that did. There had been news reports that Dantley and Daly had snapped at each other after a January practice, with Daly ending the argument by allegedly saying, “that’s why we’re trading your butt” – denied by Daly after it was reported.
But it’s fair to say that Daly, for certain, and Thomas, most likely, had concerns about Dantley’s tendency to dominate possessions. (Dantley’s mother told Detroit reporters that it was Isiah who orchestrated the trade. Dantley, famously, whispered into Isiah’s ear at tipoff when Dallas visited The Palace in late March, and reportedly told him, “I’ll never forgive you for what you did to me.” Isiah never budged off his contention that the trade was strictly a basketball decision made by management.)
Dantley was among the most unique players of his era. At 6-foot-5, he was considerably undersized at a time elite small forwards – Larry Bird, James Worthy, Dominique Wilkins, Dr. J, et al – made it the “it” position of the day. But nobody was a craftier inside scorer. Dantley was uncanny with his back to the basket, using head feints, leverage and unorthodox timing and angles to get shots off.
All of those moves took time to develop, though, and that could be grating on teammates and coaches on those possessions when Dantley’s patience wasn’t rewarded and the shot clock ticked inside of five seconds.
(The trade caught a lot of NBA people off-guard. I recall placing a call to the Lakers to gauge Jerry West’s reaction. Remember, the Pistons had just whipped the Lakers on the road and had pushed them to seven games in the most recent NBA Finals. West had to know the Pistons were the biggest threat to a Lakers’ three-peat. Amazingly enough, West’s secretary put my call through immediately. More amazingly, West started to answer my questions. Halfway through his answer, as he was formulating his own thoughts on the trade, he decided it wasn’t prudent for him to be assessing the trade of his closest pursuer, swore at me and abruptly ended the call. My one and only conversation with “The Logo.")
In a vacuum, it might have been something that all concerned – management, coaches and teammates – would have accepted, on balance, happy for all that Dantley brought to the table. But the presence of Dennis Rodman could not be ignored or denied.
Daly was a defense-first coach in the era when the NBA gradually began to trend that way – in large measure, due to the influence of the Bad Boys. In his heart of hearts, he probably would have been happy to sit Dantley and hand that spot to Rodman. As it was, he was already looking for more ways to use Rodman, more opportunities to give him minutes – and to finish games.
And I think McCloskey and Daly were smart enough to know that the enormously prideful Dantley would have seethed at sitting during the final five minutes of close games while Rodman closed out. And I think they believed that Aguirre, a longtime buddy of Isiah from their days as Chicago schoolboy legends, could be controlled better by Isiah and – after wanting out of Dallas – would be unlikely to make waves at a second NBA stop.
Let’s say all of the principles who’ve been assigned a share of blame/responsibility for trading Dantley – McCloskey, Daly and Isiah, or Isiah as representing a widespread team sentiment – were on board. Their motivations might not have meshed perfectly – McCloskey to get younger and to appease other factions, Daly to give a broader role to the emerging Rodman, Thomas to take back more control over the offense he orchestrated – but there was no conflict among them, either.
(The lone key member of the Pistons known to disapprove of trading Dantley was Joe Dumars, and Joe D was never critical of the basketball logic – however he might have felt about it. With Joe D, the disapproval came on a personal level. He and Dantley were kindred spirits. When Dantley came to the Pistons, Dumars was going into his second season. Dumars was never going to be an irresponsible pro, but it hastened his maturity into stardom to see the way Dantley applied himself to the job of professional basketball player. Beyond that, they were the most constant of road companions, the Pistons likeliest to share dinner or catch a movie before heading back in for the night.)
All of their agendas were met by trading Adrian Dantley. The Pistons traded for him at the precise moment they needed what he could offer. The reasoning behind their decision to trade him away 30 months later is subject to far more debate, but the evidence suggests that, too, was a move executed at just the right time.