The Best of Trader Jack: Part III
McCloskey’s numbers, gut told him Laimbeer had the stuff of winners
Long before “Moneyball” and its basketball equivalent flooded the sport with statistical analysis, Jack McCloskey devised his own numbers-based system for player evaluation. He rated them on a 10-point basis across 10 different categories. After a while, he discovered that players who merited a composite score of 80 or above, almost invariably, turned into good NBA players.
And his numbers told him that Bill Laimbeer was going to be a very good NBA player.
The rest of the world thought that Kenny Carr was the object of McCloskey’s desire when he engineered a multiplayer deal with Cleveland at the trade deadline in February 1982. Carr, 26 and in his prime, was averaging 15.2 points and 10.3 rebounds when McCloskey sent his first- and second-round picks that year, plus journeyman center Paul Mokeski and 1979 first-rounder Phil Hubbard to the Cavs for Carr and a throw-in, Bill Laimbeer.
“I saw him play when we played Cleveland,” McCloskey recalls of his initial interest in Laimbeer. “We beat them pretty good that night, but I saw him compete until the last whistle goes. We didn’t have too many big guys then. I said, ‘I’ve got to try to get him. He doesn’t have fancy footwork or anything like that, but he wants to win.’ ”
When you were dealing with Cleveland back then, you went straight to owner Ted Stepien. The NBA rule that prohibits teams from trading away first-round draft picks in consecutive years today is unofficially dubbed “The Stepien Rule” for the many ruinous trades the Cavs made in that era, including sending a No. 1 pick to the Lakers for a modestly talented forward named Don Ford, averaging 6.7 points and 3.4 rebounds at the time of the deal. With the draft pick the Lakers took back, they added James Worthy four months later.
Stepien at first rebuffed McCloskey’s trade proposal – one that didn’t include Mokeski. When somebody pointed out to McCloskey that Stepien, of Polish descent, had an affinity for Polish players, he called Stepien back to make one final pitch for Laimbeer using Mokeski as the bait.
“I said, ‘Ted, you ought to have a Polish guy on your team.’ He asked me who I meant and I told him Paul Mokeski, so we put him in that trade.”
They just beat the midnight deadline of the time for agreeing to the trade and phoning it in to the league.
“People thought we made that trade because of Kenny Carr – and I thought he was a good player – but Laimbeer was the guy,” McCloskey said. “As soon as I got Carr, Portland called and offered their first-round pick for him.”
McCloskey held on to Carr for the rest of that season, then dealt him to the Trail Blazers on draft day for Portland’s first-rounder. McCloskey spent that pick wisely, too, drafting Rickey Pierce with the No. 18 pick. But after a rookie season in which Pierce barely played, stuck behind Vinnie Johnson as a scoring guard off the bench, McCloskey traded Pierce to the Clippers for two second-round choices. Pierce would go on to a 16-year NBA career whose best seasons were spent with Milwaukee. He averaged 23 points a game in the 1989-90 season when the Pistons would win the second of two straight NBA titles.
That was the year they beat Portland in the Finals, the team to which McCloskey sent Carr. Carr retired after averaging 10 points and 10 boards a game in the 1986-87 season; Laimbeer, meanwhile – the guy McCloskey had targeted in that trade all along – always will be remembered for the way he willed the Pistons to three straight wins at Portland, a place they’d lost 20 straight games over 16 years.
In Steve Addy’s 1997 book, “Four Decades of Motor City Memories,” Laimbeer’s role in setting the tone for their sweep in Portland was defined.
“Getting set to fly West that afternoon,” Addy wrote, “the Pistons and their coaches were meeting in the locker room when someone pointed out that they had to win at least once at Portland to bring the series back to Detroit. Laimbeer sprang to his feet and his angry voice sliced the stale air.
“ ‘Dammit,’ he yelled, slamming his first into his palm. ‘I’m going out there to win three games! And anybody who doesn’t think we can sweep can get the hell out of the locker room!’ No one stirred. The challenge had been made. ‘It wasn’t that we didn’t think we could win all three, but we were waiting for someone to say it,’ Vinnie Johnson said. ‘Bill stepped up and said it in such a forceful way, we believed it.’ Assistant coach Brendan Suhr said, ‘That told me all I ever needed to know about Bill Laimbeer. He has an iron will.’ ”
McCloskey saw those traits at the end of a blowout loss Laimbeer endured in Cleveland. And his numbers told him Laimbeer would blossom into a highly effective player, above and beyond what he thought about his emotional fire. The ability to see the whole picture of a player set McCloskey apart. Next time, we’ll look at his ability to spot the coach who could bring it all together – and, in that, there’s another link to Ted Stepien and Cleveland.