Heads or Tails?

In pre-lottery days, coin flip was a 50-50 deal for Pistons

The Pistons netted Dave Bing in the 1966 draft by pure chance.
Dick Raphael/NBAE/Getty Images
In the 19 years before there was the lottery, there was the coin flip. Starting in 1966, the NBA decided that the No. 1 pick wouldn’t automatically go to the team with the league’s worst record, but would be decided by a coin flip between the worst teams in each conference.

The Pistons, speaking to their aimlessness at the time, participated in the first two. When they lost, they won; and when they won, they lost – evaluation miscalculations that also spoke to their status as a league doormat for too many of their early seasons in Detroit after moving from Fort Wayne, Ind.

In 1966, the Pistons lost a coin flip to the New York Knicks. It stung deeply, because the Pistons – Detroiters for less than a decade and fighting for their share of a winter market the Red Wings had been grooming for 40 years at that point – hoped to get an instant boost of public recognition by drafting University of Michigan All-American Cazzie Russell, an enormously popular player.

The Knicks grabbed Russell, leaving the Pistons their consolation prize: Dave Bing.

Maybe that should have made the Pistons wary the following season when they won a coin flip with the Baltimore Bullets. But they went ahead and took the consensus No. 1 player in the draft anyway, Jimmy Walker of Providence College, leaving the Bullets to pluck a small-school wonder, Earl Monroe.

Where might a Bing-Monroe backcourt have taken the Pistons through the late ’60s and early ’70s? And especially where might they have gone if they hadn’t foolishly traded Dave DeBusschere to the Knicks during the 1968-69 season?

The Pistons won the flip and won the draft the next time they were in the flip, 1970, when they got the call over the then-San Diego Rockets. Interestingly enough, the Pistons this time passed on another headline-grabbing, high-scoring Michigan star, Rudy Tomjanovich, grabbing St. Bonaventure center Bob Lanier despite concerns over a serious knee injury suffered during the NCAA tournament just a few months earlier.

The real debate, though, might have involved another player: Pete Maravich. Pistol Pete had just carved out a legendary career at LSU, averaging 44 points a game over his three-year career – and, remember, that was before the 3-point shot. With his floppy hair, magical ballhandling skills and flair for showmanship, the temptation to draft a potential box-office dazzler like Maravich had to be overwhelming. They could have built a dynamic marketing campaign around Piston Pete.

The Pistons lost the 1981 coin flip but won the draft when Dallas took Mark Aguirre – after Isiah deliberately sabotaged his predraft visit to Dallas and owner Donald Carter. It turned out Isiah wasn’t thrilled to be coming to the Pistons, either, hoping to play instead for his hometown team, the Chicago Bulls, who would become his fierce rival later in the decade.

The Pistons’ climb to elite status would have been accelerated had they not traded out of the chance to be involved in the 1980 coin flip. Dick Vitale traded his No. 1 pick in the ’80 draft to Boston, which won the flip but traded the pick to Golden State for a young Robert Parish and the Warriors’ pick at No. 3 – which they spent on a gangly kid from Minnesota, Kevin McHale.

The most celebrated coin flips, given the stakes involved, came in 1969 (Milwaukee got Lew Alcindor, soon to become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, while poor Phoenix settled for Neal Walk), 1974 (Portland got Bill Walton over notorious loose cannon and future Piston Marvin “Bad News” Barnes), 1979 (the Lakers, using a pick from the Jazz for aging guard Gail Goodrich, stole Magic Johnson; Chicago settled for David Greenwood at No. 2) and 1983 (Houston won and got Ralph Sampson over Steve Stipanovich, who went No. 2 to Indiana).

Portland and San Diego/Houston share the distinction of participating in the most coin flips – five, which the Pistons would have matched had they not traded the 1980 pick before the flip.

The Trail Blazers’ legacy includes two of the worst decisions of the coin-flip era. In 1972, they took LaRue Martin with the No. 1 pick – against the wishes of new head coach Jack McCloskey, the architect of the Pistons Bad Boys champions – instead of Bob McAdoo. And in 1984, the final coin-flip season, the Blazers lost the flip and, after Houston took hometown hero Hakeem Olajuwon (Akeem at the time) No. 1, Portland went with Kentucky 7-footer Sam Bowie at No. 2 over some guy named Jordan. In fairness, Bowie likely would have had a very strong NBA career if foot injuries hadn’t degraded his health so thoroughly – but he was never going to approach the impact Michael Jordan delivered.

Houston had the incredible good fortune of winning consecutive flips in drafts that featured the elusive “franchise” big man – Sampson and Olajuwon. But that only involved having 50-50 odds go in the Rockets’ favor – nothing compared to the feat Orlando would pull off a decade later, winning the lottery in successive seasons to wind up with Shaquille O’Neal and Chris Webber.