Andrew D. Bernstein (NBAE/Getty)
by Ryan Pretzer
Former Pistons GM Jack McCloskey has been applauded for building the Pistons 1989 and 1990 NBA championship teams with shrewd moves like the deals for Vinnie Johnson, Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn - in which the Pistons gave up little in return - and drafting little-known Joe Dumars in the first round and diamonds in the rough like second-rounder Dennis Rodman.
But McCloskey’s astute management style could only bring the Pistons so far. After missing the NBA title in 1988 by the slimmest of margins in a seven-game NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, McCloskey realized during the 1988-89 season that one last move would be necessary to put the Pistons over the top.
He delivered the biggest trade-deadline deal in Pistons history.
By trading the Pistons’ leading scorer, forward Adrian Dantley, for Dallas Mavericks’ misfit Mark Aguirre, McCloskey put a decade’s worth of work on the line. All of the Pistons’ championship hopes hinged on this deal. It would not take long for the biggest gamble in franchise history to deliver the ultimate award.
Trader Jack’s big surprise
The Dantley-Aguirre swap, which also included the Pistons’ 1991 first-round pick, was stunning in many regards. It was not just one 20-point scorer for another; both forwards were among the best scorers of their generation. Dantley led the NBA in scoring (30.7 ppg) in 1980-81 and again in 1983-84 at 30.6 points per game - with Aguirre right behind him at 29.5 points.
The deal triggered a sharp reaction from the Detroit fans who adored Dantley, the team’s leading scorer in his two full seasons with the team. Trading for Aguirre, a disgruntled Dallas employee in his eighth season, made fans even more skeptical.
The most surprising aspect, however, was that McCloskey had made any kind of move at all. The Pistons had come so close to the championship in the ’88 Finals that the champagne was literally on ice in the locker room. Conventional wisdom said the Pistons would stand pat with their core and make another run in the ‘89 playoffs.
’I’m going to trade you’
The fact the Pistons were not even leading the Central Division in the two months prior to the deal only reinforced the notion that the Pistons were on cruise control. But to McCloskey, it confirmed his own belief that the team was regressing. The Pistons went just 8-6 in January while Dantley’s relationship with head coach Chuck Daly had begun to deteriorate, according to Steve Addy of the Oakland Press: “There was tension between Daly and Dantley; the coach felt he was holding the ball too long, leaving the offense scrambling for last-second shots. The Pistons also felt A.D. wasn’t getting to the foul line enough,” Addy wrote in his book, Four Decades of Motor City Memories.
McCloskey coveted Dantley’s low-post scoring presence; it was why he traded popular forward and McCloskey draft pick Kelly Tripucka for Dantley before the 1986-87 season. Trading a productive Dantley was not McCloskey’s preferred course of action, but no alternative presented itself.
“I sat down and talked to him and said, ‘You’ve got to sit down with Chuck and whatever problem you have, work it out.’ He refused to do that,” McCloskey said. “So I said, ‘If you don’t do it, I’m going to trade you.’ And we got a heck of a player for him. Adrian was an outstanding player too, but our chemistry was not good.”
A reversal of fortunes
Aguirre was so pleased to be out of Dallas and reunited with his childhood friend, fellow Chicagoan Isiah Thomas, that he accepted a less prominent role. After averaging 21.7 points in 44 games with Dallas, he averaged 15.5 points in 36 games with Detroit. Aguirre’s statistical sacrifice - ‘88-89 was the last of six straight seasons in which he averaged at least 20.0 points - was the Pistons’ gain. Following the deal, the team’s scoring increased from 105.0 to 108.4 points per game. And after a six-loss January, Detroit lost only eight games the rest of the year, including the playoffs. The Pistons went 44-6 with Aguirre in the starting lineup as they won the franchise’s first NBA title. It is still hard to believe what the Pistons accomplished by trading away their leading scorer.
Dantley had the green light in Dallas - his shot attempts per game went up from 11.7 in Detroit to 14.8 - and he averaged 20.3 points over the last 31 games of 1988-89. But the Mavericks finished 38-44 and missed the playoffs. The next season, Dantley was averaging a career-low 14.7 points when he suffered a broken leg. Sidelined for a full year, Dantley signed as a free agent with the Milwaukee Bucks the last 10 games of the 1990-91 season. In less than two years, Dantley went from the leading scorer on an NBA championship front-runner to out of the league. The NBA’s 18th all-time leading scorer never raised the Larry O’Brien Trophy in 15 seasons.
In Detroit, Aguirre had been a model teammate and embraced by the fans for his contributions to back-to-back NBA titles. As the Pistons geared up for their 1990 title defense, Aguirre accepted a reserve role midway through the season. He averaged 14.1 points off the bench as the Pistons clinched their second championship.
Technically, the Dantley-for-Aguirre swap was not a true “deadline” deal. The trade was announced on Feb. 15, about a week before the Feb. 23 deadline. Ironically, in Dantley’s last game with the Pistons, on Feb. 14, 1989, the Pistons defeated the Lakers at the L.A. Forum, 111-103. In the same building nearly four months to the day, June 13, the Pistons completed their Finals sweep of the Lakers. The coincidence begs the question: Could the Pistons have won the 1989 NBA championship without the trade?
All we know for sure is that McCloskey did not dare to find out.
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