Drafter Jack

McCloskey’s 3 Hall of Famers taken in the ’80s set him apart

"Trader Jack" McCloskey repeatedly struck gold in the NBA draft, netting three future Hall of Famers including Isiah Thomas.
File photo
In the NBA of the 1980s, free agency was in its infancy and barely an accessory in the toolbox of a general manager. The draft and trades were the dominant means of fixing a broken team or transforming a contender into a champion. Jack McCloskey’s nickname was Trader Jack, so it can be safely assumed he mined the trade route pretty effectively in building the Pistons from the ragtag 16-win bunch he inherited in 1979 to the team that won two NBA titles – and nearly two more – a decade later.

Trades delivered Bill Laimbeer, Vinnie Johnson, James Edwards, Rick Mahorn and Adrian Dantley – who was subsequently traded for Mark Aguirre – to the Pistons in their formative years, all deals McCloskey engineered.

But what about the draft?

Well, consider this: In the 10 NBA drafts of the ’80s, there were a total of 18 future Hall of Famers drafted. McCloskey picked three of them.

It gets better. Two of the 18 were European players, Arvydas Sabonis and Drazen Petrovic, both elected to the Hall of Fame for reasons that went beyond their NBA accomplishments. Of the other 16, 10 were top-five picks, including Isiah Thomas, the No. 2 pick in 1981. Only two players were drafted below 16th – and both of them were McCloskey’s picks: Joe Dumars, who went 18th in 1985, and Dennis Rodman, the 27th pick in 1986.

Portland was the only other front office that landed three future Hall of Famers in the decade, but that should come with an asterisk. The Trail Blazers took both Sabonis (24th) and Petrovic (60th) in the 1986 draft. Give Portland credit for being a pioneer in scouring Europe for talent, but Sabonis didn’t arrive in the NBA until he was in his 30s and – though still a highly effective player – injuries had taken a deep toll on his mobility, and Petrovic lasted less than two seasons and never played more than 16 minutes a game in Portland before he was traded to New Jersey, where his career took off.

(Both Sabonis and Petrovic were Hall of Fame-worthy talents, but neither would have been remotely considered for the Hall without their broader significance in growing the sport globally. Based solely on their NBA careers, neither would have even gotten on the ballot, let alone won induction, though Petrovic would have had a decent chance had he not been killed in a car accident when he was only 29.)

The biggest draft success for Portland in the ’80s was taking Clyde Drexler with the 14th pick in 1983 after his hometown team, Houston, passed on him not only with the No. 1 pick (Ralph Samson) but also with the No. 3 pick (Rodney McCray).

Two front offices picked up two Hall of Famers apiece over the course of the decade, but only Utah’s achievement of drafting John Stockton with the 16th pick in 1984 and Karl Malone with the 13th pick in 1985 approaches McCloskey’s haul. Dave Checketts was Utah’s president at the time, but he’s conceded credit for both picks to Scott Layden, the man Checketts later hired to run the Knicks.

Two different GMs drafted Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen for Chicago. Rod Thorn drafted Jordan after Houston grabbed Olajuwon and Portland – one more reason to put an asterisk on the Trail Blazers’ draft efforts for the decade – passed on him to draft Sam Bowie.

Jerry Krause took over for Thorn in 1985 and was hands on for the 1986 draft, when McCloskey took John Salley with the 11th pick, two spots after Krause took Brad Sellers, a 7-foot perimeter shooter who would later spend parts of two seasons with the Pistons but was mostly an NBA bust. That was the draft McCloskey hit a grand slam by picking Rodman 27th, which at the time was four picks deep into the second round.

The success Rodman enjoyed as a rookie out of an NAIA school, Southeastern Oklahoma, certainly boosted the NBA draft stock of Pippen, who played at Central Arkansas, another NAIA school at the time.

Bottom line: Nobody played the draft as well as McCloskey during his time with the Pistons.

I spoke with McCloskey at length recently about all three of those draft picks – as well as about the many trades he made to build the Bad Boys – and we’re going to post Trader Jack’s top 10 moves on Pistons.com in the coming days and weeks. Stay tuned.