Enduring Mystery

Absolute truth on why Dantley had to be traded might never be revealed

Fans may never know what prompted Jack McCloskey to trade Adrian Dantley 22 years ago.
Andrew D. Bernstein /NBAE/Getty Images
Patience is usually rewarded, but not always. The truth often bubbles to the surface over time, but not every time. Someday, we’ll all know whether Carly Simon was talking about Mick Jagger or Warren Beatty or somebody else flying to Nova Scotia for a total eclipse. But my guess is Pistons fans bedeviled for 22 years as to why Adrian Dantley was really traded will be eternally so. If Jack McCloskey swears he doesn’t know why he had to make the trade – only that he knew he had to do it – then there is no absolute truth to the story, only everybody’s version of their perspective at the time.

The principles are Dantley, McCloskey, Chuck Daly and Isiah Thomas. Isiah flatly denied at the time that he exerted any influence over the situation and McCloskey emphatically backed him up on that point, as I wrote in the final installment of the Trader Jack series that concluded this week on Pistons.com.

Dantley clearly believes – or believed at the time, at least, with no reason to think he’s softened – that Isiah was at the root of it. Dantley was enormously prideful – I can’t think of another athlete who came through Detroit in the last 25 years who took his craft more seriously – and I don’t know that he’s ever going to say anything more on the matter.

He wouldn’t tell McCloskey 22 years ago what was bothering him, despite McCloskey making it clear that not opening up would force him to be traded. Dantley knew that meant he was almost certainly losing his last best shot at an NBA championship. If that didn’t motivate him to speak – even though there was every chance the conversation never would have left the room where he and McCloskey huddled, and might have opened an avenue for him to stay – what could possibly motivate him to ever disclose the matter today?

Dantley’s pride might have played a bigger role than anyone has ever imagined. When the Pistons got Dantley, they desperately needed him to do what he was best at: taking those feeds in the low and mid-post area and going to work, causing defenses to react to him. For all of his 2½ seasons with the Pistons, Dantley led the team in scoring. That suited Dantley’s skills – he was a scorer, not a defender or a rebounder or a facilitator.

But at least two really significant things had happened to the Pistons since acquiring Dantley in trade after the 1985-86 season: Joe Dumars was blossoming – he was going into his second year when Dantley was acquired, and while promising, there was no expectation at the time he was a future Hall of Famer – and Dennis Rodman had been drafted and proven how much of an impact he could have. McCloskey had also acquired James Edwards, who gave the Pistons a legitimate low-post scorer.

In the natural progression of things, Dantley would have assumed a gradually decreased role – ceding possessions to allow Dumars to exploit his matchup advantages, ceding minutes to allow the Pistons to exploit Rodman’s defensive impact.

But consider Dantley’s pride. He came to the Pistons after a first-round blowout loss to Atlanta. The next year, with him as the focal point of the offense, they’re pushing the Celtics to seven games in the conference finals – and very likely would have won if he and Vinnie Johnson hadn’t knocked each other out of the game by banging heads in pursuit of a loose ball. Now they’re asking him to be the third option and to sit out closing time so Rodman can run down rebounds and smother go-to scorers?

That would only make sense to Dantley if there was some dark force conspiring against him. Isiah might have been the easy scapegoat, in his mind. And just because Isiah never made overtures to McCloskey doesn’t mean there wasn’t friction between him and Dantley or that Isiah wasn’t in favor of moving him out – making it easy for Dantley to leap from Point A to Point C: My role is being reduced, I’m feeling the brunt of the face of the franchise’s frustration, ergo, he must be steering me out of town.

Daly, ever the diplomat, stayed above the fray publicly. Off the record, it has since been written, Daly was frustrated by Dantley’s tendency to dominate the ball. The Pistons, on the surface, were playing well. There was no reason to believe they weren’t headed back to the Finals – they had clearly separated themselves from Boston, by this point, and nobody thought the Bulls were yet ready to overtake them, though everyone recognized the threat they represented. But Daly was concerned about the fits and starts of the team’s half-court offense. If it wasn’t apparent at the time that he thought Dantley was at the root of the inconsistency, it became so in the ensuing months and years.

The bottom line is this: Whatever or whoever influenced Jack McCloskey to trade Adrian Dantley, there can’t be much debate that it was the right move. The Pistons would go 46-8 the rest of that season, including the postseason – they were 32-13 at the time of the deal – and would win two straight NBA titles over a field that included some of the greatest stars and teams in NBA history.