The Best of Trader Jack: Part V

(Editor’s note: Jack McCloskey made every move in building the Bad Boys from his hiring in December 1979 to their winning consecutive NBA titles in 1989 and ’90. looks at the 10 biggest moves he engineered, continuing with his quest to plug a big hole in the Pistons’ lineup at power forward. Up next: Striking gold in the 1985 draft.)

When Jack McCloskey came to Detroit in December 1979, free agency was the least likely implement in a general manager’s toolbox to spur a turnaround. So unless the draft coughed up a lineup solution, trades were the avenue to pursue to plug holes.

The Pistons had many holes when McCloskey took over for Dick Vitale. But in his first few years on the job, McCloskey performed yeoman’s work in plugging a few big ones. He drafted Isiah Thomas with the No. 2 pick in 1981 to play point guard and Kelly Tripucka at No. 12 as his small forward, swung a trade for sixth man extraordinaire Vinnie Johnson a few months later and went to the wire at the February 1982 trade deadline to snare Bill Laimbeer to play center.

But power forward? That position haunted the Pistons as they tried to inch closer to the top in the East. McCloskey inherited Bob McAdoo, whose disinterest in playing for the Pistons was so apparent that the media and fans quickly dubbed him “McAdon’t.”

Phil Hubbard manned the position for most of the next two seasons, a game but undersized player who never fully recovered from a college knee injury. Terry Tyler, more suited to small forward, did his best when called upon to start 56 games in 1982-83. After Laimbeer was acquired, the Pistons tried to milk minutes out of Kent Benson at power forward, but Benson was clearly better suited to playing center.

McCloskey spent No. 1 picks in consecutive drafts on Wichita State teammates Cliff Levingston and Antoine Carr, both athletic tweeners. Levingston started 24 games in his second season, sharing power forward with Benson, but Carr never suited up for the Pistons, signing to play in Italy when he and McCloskey couldn’t agree on a contract.

McCloskey thought he’d hit his home run after the 1983-84 season, packaging Levingston and Carr to Atlanta in exchange for Dan Roundfield, who’d played at Detroit Chadsey and Central Michigan and came to the Pistons as a three-time All-Star who had been voted to the All-Defense first or second team six times. He’d put up six straight seasons of double-double numbers in points and rebounds for the Hawks, and his most recent averages of 18.9 points and 9.9 rebounds a game nearly made it seven.

“It seemed like the perfect fit,” McCloskey says to this day.

The teams the Pistons had to beat in the East – Boston, Philadelphia and New York – were all bigger and more physical than they were. Boston’s Kevin McHale, in particular, bedeviled the Pistons. Roundfield appeared the perfect McHale antidote. Instead, he struggled from day one with the Pistons. In an early-season game at Boston, fittingly enough, allergies – the circus had recently come through Boston Garden – shut him down, then a calf injury cost him six games, and later still knee surgery knocked Roundfield out of the lineup for 20 games.

He wound up averaging 10.9 points and 8.1 rebounds, but more than the steep decline in numbers, Roundfield simply didn’t supply the defensive presence the Pistons felt they would be getting – nor the low-post scoring presence Roundfield had always represented.

“For some season, he didn’t complement the rest of the team,” McCloskey said. “There was something lacking there. I didn’t anticipate that. You put somebody in with a team and either the team is holding him back or he’s holding the team back. We had a lot of pretty good players then and maybe the fact that he was an exceptional player … maybe we had too many players.”

Instead of sticking stubbornly to what his vision for what Roundfield could provide, McCloskey acted swiftly. One day short of a year after acquiring Roundfield, McCloskey shipped him to Washington for Rick Mahorn.

Mahorn wasn’t an immediate panacea. He would start 12 games in 1985-86 – a season that ended with the Pistons deeply frustrated after getting overpowered by Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs – and only six the following season. McCloskey was so underwhelmed by Mahorn’s first season with the Pistons that he sent yet another spare power forward, Earl Cureton, plus a 1987 second-rounder to Chicago for Sidney Green, who started 69 regular-season games in 1986-87.

But by the time that season ended with the Pistons losing to Boston in an incredibly intense seven-game series that ended with Vinnie Johnson and Adrian Dantley banging heads and spilled over into Dennis Rodman and Isiah Thomas’ postgame suggestion that Larry Bird was overrated, Mahorn had convinced Chuck Daly and McCloskey that he could be the answer.

“I thought I was getting a tough guy,” McCloskey said of the Mahorn he remembers with Washington early in his career, when he and Jeff Ruland were dubbed “McFilthy” and “McNasty” by Boston radio voice Johnny Most. “He and Laimbeer, I don’t know if there have been two tougher guys on one team in all of basketball.”

Except Mahorn wasn’t thrilled to come to the Pistons at the time – he was an East Coast kid who’d played his college basketball near Washington at Hampton University – and showed up out of shape.

“He comes in my office and he said, ‘I don’t understand why I don’t get any time,’ ” McCloskey recalled. “I told him, ‘If I were coaching, you wouldn’t get 20 seconds.’ ”

“What do you mean?” Mahorn asked.

“Hell, you’re too heavy,” McCloskey answered. “I know you can do things around the boards but you’ve got to be able to play a little defense and you can’t do it. You’re not going to play until you look like you’re ready to play.”

McCloskey found a weight-loss program for Mahorn, he got himself whipped into playing shape, and locked down the power forward spot for the 1987-88 season. Mahorn averaged 10.7 points and 8.4 rebounds that year, but his contributions went deeper than the numbers. Mahorn was an intimidating presence, but his reputation as a bully overshadowed his keen basketball IQ. Mahorn didn’t mute McHale, but he frustrated McHale often enough – Mahorn’s trademark “pull the chair” maneuver victimized McHale more than anyone – to win his share of battles and allow the Pistons to exploit matchup advantages elsewhere.

One of those matchup advantages came by virtue of a draft choice McCloskey couldn’t believe he was fortunate enough to make. We’ll look at that in Part VI of the Best of Trader Jack.