The Best of Trader Jack: Part VII
McCloskey makes a tough call: Tripucka goes, Dantley arrives
For practically every championship celebration, there is a near-miss story of a player who did much of the heavy lifting but wasn’t around to feel the sweet sting of champagne in the eye.
Kelly Tripucka was twice removed from Detroit by the time the Pistons he helped make respectable through the mid-’80s had been dubbed Bad Boys and won their two NBA titles in 1989 and ’90. It was almost cruel that Tripucka, the 12th pick in the same 1981 draft that saw Jack McCloskey pluck Isiah Thomas with the No. 2 pick, spent those two Detroit championship seasons toiling for the expansion Charlotte Hornets, winning a total of 39 games.
There were a handful of reasons the Pistons went from a 46-win team in 1985-86 and an easy first-round knockout for Atlanta in the playoffs to a 52-win team a season later that would push Boston to the final seconds of an excruciating seven-game series in the conference finals.
Among them were the maturation of Joe Dumars, the continuing evolution of Isiah Thomas, the emergence of Rick Mahorn as the answer at power forward and the contributions of athletic rookies Dennis Rodman and John Salley. But nothing got more attention at the time, at least, than the high-profile swap of small forwards McCloskey executed in August 1986, less than two weeks before the opening of training camp, when the Pistons shipped Tripucka and Kent Benson to Utah for Adrian Dantley.
It’s often overlooked just how much Tripucka meant to the Pistons. When he arrived in 1981, they were verging on irrelevance. The team had experienced scant success since relocating from Fort Wayne, Ind., 24 years earlier, advancing past the first round of the playoffs just three times and never past the second. The Pistons had won 21 games the previous season and it was a constant struggle to put fans in the seats in the cavernous Silverdome.
Even in his rookie class, Tripucka was second banana to Thomas. But it was Tripucka who gave the Pistons the scoring punch that enabled them to win their share of games. His 21.6 points per game as a rookie – when Tripucka, like Thomas, was named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team – was just three-tenths of a point behind John Long for the team scoring lead, and the next season Tripucka averaged 26.5 points a game to finish No. 4 in the league.
Yet after the Pistons went from 37 wins to 49 in 1983-84 – Chuck Daly’s first after McCloskey hired him to replace Scotty Robertson – they seemed to plateau, winning 46 in each of the next two seasons. And when Atlanta crushed them in four games of the best-of-five first-round series, Isiah led the call for change.
Defense was the Pistons’ Achilles heel. Everyone knew as much. It was a significant reason behind McCloskey’s change from Robertson to Daly. But when Atlanta averaged 130 points in its three wins in the series, it was clear that it was more than just mind-set that undermined the Pistons’ defensive efforts; it was also personnel. And nobody did more damage to the Pistons in that ’86 playoff series than Dominique Wilkins, who averaged 37 points in Atlanta’s three wins.
“We needed to get better defensively, no doubt about it,” McCloskey said. “We traded Kelly to Utah for Dantley because we needed a little bit more inside scoring. We had Laimbeer, but we needed more scoring inside. Kelly was a very good player, but he really did most of his scoring from the perimeter.”
It wasn’t an easy call for McCloskey to make. For one thing, Tripucka was just 27 and Dantley 30 – about the same age as Dan Roundfield was when McCloskey thought he’d solved his longstanding problem at power forward by acquiring the Detroit native from Atlanta in 1984. Roundfield had little left in the tank when he came to the Pistons. For another, well … McCloskey had a soft spot for Tripucka, who played himself to the point of exhaustion and had meant so much to the Pistons when they most needed a jolt.
“I hated trading Kelly,” McCloskey said. “I really did.”
But there is no disputing that the trade was a huge success for the Pistons. Dantley would play in 81 games in his first season in Detroit and lead them in scoring for all of his 2½ seasons as a Piston. Tripucka, meanwhile, would struggle in his two seasons in Utah, averaging 10.1 and 7.5 points and clashing with Jazz coach Frank Layden.
He was then chosen by Charlotte in the expansion draft and coached there for two seasons by Dick Harter, who had been Daly’s assistant in Detroit. With minutes and shots plentiful on a thin expansion roster, Tripucka rallied to score 22.6 points a game in 1988-89 with Charlotte, then dropped to 15.6 the following year and to a career-worst 7.0 in 1990-91, which would be Tripucka’s last season in the NBA.
Ironically, or perhaps merely coincidentally, that also was the year the Bad Boys ceased to exist, losing to Chicago in the conference finals in a four-game sweep. The big difference: the Bad Boys had two championships to their names.