A Big Deal: Pistons beat midnight deadline to swindle Cavs out of Bill Laimbeer

Bill Laimbeer
Bill Laimbeer badly wanted out of Cleveland during the 1981-82 season and his wish was granted minutes before the February trade deadline
Andrew D. Bernstein (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Pistons.com continues its periodic look at some of the most significant personnel moves – trades, free-agent signings, draft picks – in Pistons history. Next up: The Pistons barely beat the midnight deadline to land Bill Laimbeer from the Cleveland Cavaliers in February 1982.)

Bill Laimbeer didn’t become brash after a little success with the Bad Boys gave him the latitude to do so. He arrived brash. He came out of the womb brash.

Languishing on the NBA’s laughingstock and playing behind another future Piston, James “Buddha” Edwards, Laimbeer – 24 and in his second NBA season – openly wished out of Cleveland as the February 1982 trade deadline approached: “I’ve got my fingers crossed, my toes crossed, everything that will cross crossed that they trade me,” he said.

The Pistons granted his wish, beating the midnight deadline by 15 minutes on Feb. 16, sending Phil Hubbard, Paul Mokeski and that year’s first- and second-round picks to the Cavaliers, 11-40 at the time of the deal, for Laimbeer and Kenny Carr. Carr seemed the real prize, a 26-year-old power forward averaging 15.2 points and 10.3 rebounds. But Pistons general manager Jack McCloskey wanted Laimbeer.

Long before the word “analytics” seeped into the sports landscape, McCloskey had devised his own numbers-based formula to support his gut hunches on players. He graded players on a 1-10 basis across 10 categories and determined over time that any player who scored 80 or better would become a desirable addition. Laimbeer passed muster both on McCloskey’s scale and in his gut.

“I saw him play when we played Cleveland,” McCloskey would say nearly 30 years later. “We beat them pretty good that night, but I saw him compete until the last whistle goes. We didn’t have too many big guys then. I said, ‘I’ve got to try to get him. He doesn’t have fancy footwork or anything like that, but he wants to win.’ ”

Cleveland was a popular trade partner for NBA rivals of that era with owner Ted Stepien known as an easy mark. It was Stepien whose ineptitude forced the NBA to institute the so-called “Stepien Rule” barring teams from trading future first-round draft picks in successive years.

“We have literally been talking to them about various possibilities since last summer,” Pistons coach Scotty Robertson told the Detroit Free Press. “I walked in my apartment at 15 minutes before midnight Tuesday and it was (Cavs executive) Bill Musselman. I told him to call Jack and it was a deal.”

The clincher was McCloskey discovering a little intelligence nugget and making a last-minute twist in his proposal. When somebody informed him that Stepien, of Polish descent, had an affinity for Polish players, he made a final pitch.

“I said, ‘Ted, you ought to have a Polish guy on your team.’ He asked me who I meant and I told him Paul Mokeski, so we put him in that trade.”

Mokeski, 25 and in his third season, spent 12 years in the NBA as a backup journeyman. He was averaging 3.2 points in 13 minutes a game for the Pistons while playing behind Kent Benson at center.

The Pistons didn’t keep Carr for long, McCloskey dealing him to Portland at season’s end for a No. 1 pick. But Laimbeer immediately became their starting center and remained that for the rest of a decade that would culminate with the Bad Boys winning the first title in franchise history.

At the time of the trade, Laimbeer was averaging 6.7 points and 5.5 rebounds in 18 minutes a game for the moribund Cavs, who were on their third of four coaches that season – some guy named Chuck Daly, who was fired after going 9-32. Daly was so sure his stay in Cleveland would be short that he lived at the Holiday Inn near the Richfield Coliseum where the Cavs played their home games.

Laimbeer had been a third-round pick of Cleveland in the 1979 draft after four years at Notre Dame. The Cavs took his Irish teammate – Bruce Flowers, a highly recruited player out of the Detroit suburb of Berkley – in the second round and didn’t get around to offering Laimbeer a contract until August. By that time, reading the tea leaves, Laimbeer had signed for $45,000 plus a car and an apartment to play in Italy, where he spent one season before the Cavs offered a three-year deal.

So the NBA didn’t automatically chalk up the Pistons-Cavs trade as another in a long line of Stepien’s missteps, though one anonymous NBA executive had an inkling. “Yeah, it was a great trade,” he told Peter Vecsey of the New York Post, “but McCloskey had to go to Cleveland to make it. That doesn’t count.”

It didn’t take long for the Pistons to be seen as lopsided winners. Laimbeer went in the starting lineup two nights after the trade in his Pistons debut and gave them nine points and 16 rebounds in a loss at San Antonio.

The next time out, he put up 20 points and 14 rebounds as the Pistons upset the Indiana Pacers. That began a string of nine straight double-doubles. Laimbeer averaged 15.1 points and 14.6 rebounds over his first nine games and 12.8 and 11.3 with the Pistons over the final 30 games after the trade.

Two years later, with the Pistons playing the Knicks in a first-round playoff series, their first-year coach had this to say about Laimbeer: “He comes to win every game. Frankly, Bill is a blue-collar worker and he knows his limitations. It takes an intelligent player to understand that. Bill knows what he can do and does it consistently. That’s a sign of a professional. You don’t get too many Laimbeers that come to play every night.”

That first-year coach: Chuck Daly, another escapee from Ted Stepien’s Cleveland “Cadavers.”

And he meant that quite literally. Laimbeer would go on to play in a then-record 685 consecutive games. Laimbeer ranks third in franchise history – behind only his Hall of Fame teammates Joe Dumars and Isiah Thomas – in games played (937), first in rebounds (9,430) and fifth in scoring (12,665).

Oh, and No. 1 in fouls, 3,131.

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