The Best of Trader Jack: Part IX
The most unsung of all McCloskey’s moves? Nabbing ‘Buddha’
The wise man takes advantage of every opportunity to nourish his curiosity, filing away seemingly random bits of information for the day they need to be accessed and applied. So it was in the fall of 1977 that an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Lakers couldn’t help but think that the third-round rookie center out of Washington was doing a pretty fair impersonation of the NBA’s most dominant center, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, while the superstar missed the first several weeks of the season due to injury.
More than a decade later, that assistant coach was well down the road toward building an NBA championship contender when that kid center, now 32, became available in trade after the Phoenix Suns, struggling through a 28-54 season, opted for a rebuild.
And that’s how Jack McCloskey made the most overlooked move in the construction of the Bad Boys, who over the next three postseasons would win two NBA titles and come within a horrendous foul call on Bill Laimbeer and a cruelly timed injury to Isiah Thomas of winning all three championships in that span.
James Edwards – “Buddha” for his ever-present Fu Manchu mustache to any Pistons fan old enough to remember that era – came to Detroit at the perfect time for him and for them.
Still fully capable of logging starter’s minutes, content to come off the bench and possessed of both an amiable personality that was a fit in their locker room and a low-post scoring presence that suited their needs, Edwards not only was ideally suited for the Pistons but came at preposterously little cost.
All it took for McCloskey to get the Suns to bite on his request for Edwards was a little-used, little-known 7-foot project, Ron Moore, and a 1991 No. 2 pick. Acquired by McCloskey the previous June from the Knicks, who’d drafted him, for Sidney Green, Moore wouldn’t play in the NBA after that rookie season and wound up with nearly as many personal fouls (34) as career points (38).
“That, to me, was a no-brainer,” McCloskey says today of the Edwards trade. “When I was an assistant coach with the Lakers, we drafted (Edwards) and Kareem was hurt in the early part of the season. You could see, boy, he could score. And he had a great personality – terrific personality, just the nicest guy. So I grabbed him.”
In the first 25 games of his rookie season, Edwards averaged 14.8 points and 7.2 rebounds for the Lakers, who promptly traded him to Indiana upon Abdul-Jabbar’s return as the key piece in a deal that fetched a young Adrian Dantley, coming off a season in which he was Rookie of the Year for Buffalo before being swapped to the Pacers before his second season.
Edwards was more of a luxury, not a necessity, when the Pistons traded for him. They had both Rick Mahorn and John Salley at power forward – and Dennis Rodman to play there when matchups called for it – and the ironman Bill Laimbeer, in his prime, holding down the fort at center.
So Edwards, over the final 26 games that season, played less than 13 minutes a game, averaging 5.4 points and 3.0 rebounds.
His role was expanded the following season, partly because Mahorn was periodically hampered by a nagging back injury and partly because Edwards gave them something nobody else could provide. Blessed with extraordinary length – he was listed at 7-foot-0, but appeared to tower over the next-tallest Pistons, Laimbeer and Salley – Edwards had terrific footwork and a release point on his jump shot that made it unblockable. Edwards, still coming off the bench in 1988-89 when the Pistons won their first title, averaged 7.3 points and 3.0 rebounds in nearly 17 minutes a game.
But when Minnesota grabbed Mahorn in the 1989 expansion draft Edwards was required to start the next season. (The news of Mahorn’s loss was delivered to McCloskey as the Pistons were riding in their victory parade after sweeping the Lakers. McCloskey kept the news to himself until the celebration later that afternoon at The Palace, leaving Mahorn and his teammates devastated.) At 34, Edwards logged 28 minutes a game and scored 14.5 points – third on the team, behind Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars – to go with 4.2 rebounds.
McCloskey wasn’t the only key component of the Bad Boys to have a history with Edwards. When Chuck Daly spent 41 games coaching the 1981-82 Cleveland Cavaliers, he tried to sell owner Ted Stepien on the viability of a Laimbeer-Edwards high- and low-post tandem, only to have Stepien break up the duo by dealing Laimbeer away – to Trader Jack McCloskey.
Daly knew how to draw the best out of Edwards. He would go to him early and often to start the first and third quarters of games, while Edwards was fresh, to soften the defensive interior and give the dynamic Thomas-Dumars backcourt room to flourish, then he would come off the bench with the more athletic Salley.
Edwards would wind up playing 19 NBA seasons, finally retiring at 40 after winning another title with the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. He played with eight franchises, including two stops with the Lakers. But the 3½ seasons he spent with the Pistons were the crowning glory of his NBA run. And about that trade that saw Edwards and Dantley swap uniforms in 1977? It wouldn’t be the last time they would be linked. More on that in the final installment of our Trader Jack series.