25 Years Ago

As ’86 Pistons prepared for camp, Trader Jack’s makeover continued

John Salley and Dennis Rodman
John Salley and Dennis Rodman were both rookies 25 years ago in 1986.
Butler/Capozzola/NBAE/Getty Images
The first Pistons training camp I covered was getting ready to open 25 years ago. They held it at the University of Windsor back then. Chuck Daly was entering his fourth season as Pistons coach, Isiah Thomas his sixth as a player.

Joe Dumars had emerged from a three-way battle midway through the previous season – his rookie year – to land the starting job next to Isiah. Vinnie Johnson had pretty much settled in as a super sub by then.

The real news from that training camp was the radical makeover Jack McCloskey had just engineered. It was less than two weeks before camp opened – August 21, 1986 – when McCloskey made the daring move of shipping Kelly Tripucka and Kent Benson to Utah in exchange for Adrian Dantley.

Maybe it was the fact Tripucka’s career dropped off after leaving the Pistons – he went from a 20-point scorer in his last season with the Pistons to a 10-point scorer with Utah the following season – but removing the guy who’d been their most consistent scorer five years running was a long way from the no-brainer it seemed in retrospect.

There were two lean and gangly rookies in camp, too – John Salley and Dennis Rodman. If the Pistons were going to get help from one of them amid a deep bunch of young veterans, Salley seemed the far likelier to provide it. He was the 11th pick to Rodman’s 27th and coming off a high-profile four years at Georgia Tech in the highly competitive ACC of the day.

The NBA salary cap that year? Players were happy because in its third year it had skyrocketed to $4.9 million. Last season, the average player made more than $5 million.

Yeah, 1986 was a long time ago.

A few of the things that jumped out at me in that week in Windsor:

  • Dantley’s diligence. There weren’t exactly any slackers on the roster. I didn’t have anything else to compare it to – it was my first camp, remember – but the way Dantley went about his business struck me as the far end of the scale.

    When practices end, to this day, there will be a group of players who head to the showers, another group that lingers but engages in trick-shot challenges or other competition that isn’t likely to improve their game skills, and a third group that puts in relevant work.

    Even among that third group, Dantley stood out to me. I can still see him, covered in sweat, wordlessly working on his dizzying array of face-up moves from the elbows and the mid-post area.

    Dantley didn’t seem to enjoy talking to reporters, but he was always cordial and cooperative. I think he just wasn’t comfortable with the process, especially talking about himself.

    I’m still not convinced the Pistons wouldn’t have won their two titles with Dantley if they had never made the February 1989 trade with Dallas that brought in Mark Aguirre.

  • The words Isiah uttered to me when I asked him what improvement he expected out of Joe D in his second season: “You all don’t know it yet, but Joe can do everything I can do.”

    I started seeing Dumars through a different lens after that. I think history worked out exactly the way it was supposed to for Dumars, but it would have been interesting if he’d have gone to a team that needed him to play point guard. Early in his career, at least, I think that might have been at least as good a fit for him.

    In fact, he did play point guard when Isiah was out of the game and Joe D played alongside Vinnie. Dumars played the point differently than Isiah, of course, but I think his experience on that team helped shape his opinion of guards that extends to today: He likes versatile guards, bigger guards, that give a coach lineup flexibility and doesn’t expose a team to defensive matchup problems.

    It was later that season – and maybe it was the epic seven-game series against the Celtics – when Dumars stamped himself as a foundation piece going forward. Years later, Joe D told me that his agent told him that McCloskey had actually come close to trading him in the middle of that season – to Phoenix, for Jay Humphries.

    Humphries had been the No. 13 pick in the 1984 draft and had a very good 11-year career. He wasn’t nearly the scorer or shooter Joe D was, but he was athletic, good in the open court and a superb defender. In fact, when Humphries played with Milwaukee later in his career, he usually played well against Dumars and the Pistons.

    But it has to rank among the better trades McCloskey didn’t make.

  • The way Rodman ran. Hadn’t seen anything like it. Still haven’t. I’m not the first to wonder about this, but it would have been intriguing to see what might have happened if Rodman had spent three months one summer working with an Olympic-level track coach.

    I don’t know what his specialty might have been – the 400 or 800 or the high hurdles, probably – but it wouldn’t have surprised me if Rodman would have been a world-class runner at the end of that summer.

    On the basketball court – against athletes who in their own right had to rank among the top tenth of a percent in the world – everybody looked like a plodder next to Rodman, whose shoes never contributed to the clomp-clomp-clomp you’d hear during the full-court layup and conditioning drills Chuck Daly would run.

And you wonder what the NBA will look like 25 years from today.