Who was Bill Laimbeer’s sidekick when the Pistons started flexing their muscles and throwing scares into East bully Boston before finally overthrowing the Celtics? Why, Rick Mahorn, of course.
Except it took Chuck Daly quite a while to come to that conclusion. You know how many regular-season games Mahorn started in the 1986-87 season – the one that ended with the Pistons losing to Boston in seven games in the Eastern Conference finals?
The power forward position had bedeviled the Pistons as they were building to challenge the NBA’s best. Jack McCloskey had found his point guard (Isiah Thomas) in the 1981 draft, his shooting guard (Joe Dumars) in the draft four years later, his center (Bill Laimbeer) in a brilliant trade-deadline deal in February 1982 and his small forward (Adrian Dantley) in a 1986 trade that involved his first crack (Kelly Tripucka) at a remedy there.
But power forward … McCloskey was burning through them at a feverish rate. He was giving Daly lots of options, but nobody really staked their claim to the spot.
The home run for McCloskey – he thought so, everybody thought so – was Dan Roundfield. Roundfield was a local kid, a Detroit Chadsey grad who was lightly recruited and wound up at Central Michigan. He was a star there – Mid-American Conference MVP as a senior in 1975 – and spent a year with Indiana of the ABA before the merger the following season.
Roundfield came to the Pistons, at 31, off of a season in which he averaged 18.9 points and 9.9 rebounds a game for Atlanta. Coming up one-tenth of a rebound shy of 10 snapped a six-year streak of averaging a double-double. He was exactly what the Pistons needed next to Laimbeer – a mobile defender (a four-time All-Defense pick) who could block shots and score around the basket.
For whatever reason, Roundfield flopped. Maybe he’d just grown suddenly old, maybe the pressure of playing in his hometown got to him, maybe he just didn’t fit the way everyone had imagined. He also seemed snake-bitten that year, undergoing minor knee surgery, revealing an allergy to cats exacerbated by the circus having passed through Boston Garden, and suffering a calf strain. He missed 26 games and didn’t start 13 others.
So on June 17, 1985 the Pistons dealt him to Washington in what appeared a fire sale: Rick Mahorn and Mike Gibson. It was one day short of a year since McCloskey had paid a steep price – 1982 No. 1 pick Cliff Levingston and ’83 first-rounder Antoine Carr, athletic forwards who’d been college teammates at Wichita State, plus two second-rounders, to get Roundfield.
Mahorn, 26 at the time, had been a second-rounder out of Hampton, and he was coming off a 6.3 point, 5.9 rebound season. Whatever notoriety he had attained to that point came courtesy of iconic Celtics radio voice Johnny Most, who dubbed Mahorn and equally burly and brutish Jeff Ruland “McFilthy and McNasty” for the way the Washington teammates roughed up Boston’s All-Star frontcourt.
In that, there was a glimmer of hope for the Pistons. Because the one player in the NBA who vexed the Pistons as much as anyone was Kevin McHale. Larry Bird might have been the ultimate closer, but it was McHale who punished the Pistons. Roundfield was supposed to be McHale’s kryptonite; he wasn’t. Perhaps Mahorn could be.
But Mahorn – who would later admit to being less than thrilled with coming to the Pistons and reported out of shape – couldn’t fight his way past the other contenders for the job in his first season in Detroit. Kent Benson started 51 games at power forward, Earl Cureton 19 and Mahorn 12.
McCloskey eased the logjam after Mahorn’s first season, sort of, by packaging Benson with Tripucka in the acquisition of Dantley and also shipping out Cureton – but bundled him with a second-rounder in a deal that was, in essence, another stab at upgrading at power forward, taking back Chicago’s Sidney Green, the No. 5 pick in the 1983 draft. Green was a tough Brooklyn kid who helped Jerry Tarkanian establish what would become a dynamo at UNLV, and in going after him it was clear McCloskey and Daly were less than sold that Mahorn offered any long-term solutions.
It was the most influential off-season the Pistons ever experienced, sparked by Atlanta’s physical dominance of the Pistons up front in their first-round playoff series, which ended with Isiah Thomas vowing that “something has to change.”
That was also the off-season McCloskey spent the No. 11 pick in the draft on John Salley. (Footnote: The reason the Pistons were picking that high after a 46-win season relates to yet another Pistons power forward. When Terry Tyler, a remnant of the Dick Vitale era, signed as a free agent with Sacramento, the teams agreed that the compensation – yes, teams needed to work out compensation for free agents in that era; failing that, the league would impose an agreement upon them – would be swapping first-round picks in either 1986 or ’87. McCloskey pounced at his first opportunity, moving up six spots to take Salley.)
So instead of Benson and Cureton, Mahorn had Salley and Green to fend off in the fight for minutes at power forward. Salley got first crack, but that lasted two games, in which he went scoreless. Then Green moved in and wound up starting 69 games. Before Daly would turn to Mahorn for the season’s final four games, he gave yet another candidate a shot.
McCloskey had sent his 1987 first- and second-rounders to the Clippers in January for free spirit Kurt Nimphius. (The only conversation I recall having with Nimphius: his curiosity about nude beaches.) Nimphius drew five starts late in the season before Daly gave Mahorn his turn for the final four games of the regular season.
By the time the 1987 playoffs were over, Trader Jack’s never-ending search for an answer at power forward had been laid to rest. More on that in the next True Blue Pistons.