What If: The Pistons shocked the NBA with a blockbuster trade; would they have won back-to-back titles if they’d kept Adrian Dantley?

(EDITOR’S NOTE: While the NBA season is in limbo amid the coronavirus pandemic, Pistons.com will periodically look back at some of the great “what if” moments in franchise history. Next up: The shocking trade midway through the 1988-89 season.)

To an outsider’s eye, there was nothing amiss about the Pistons in early 1989. They were on pace for 60 wins, battling Cleveland for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and looking very much as if they’d get their chance to avenge the bitter Game 7 loss to the Lakers in the 1988 NBA Finals.

But Jack McCloskey’s perspective told him otherwise. The body language of the Bad Boys was worrisome. Chuck Daly tipped him off that Adrian Dantley had become sullen and both men were concerned his mood threatened to make for a toxic locker room.

McCloskey pulled Dantley aside one day after a Pistons practice. They met in the tiny officials locker room at The Palace, off the tunnel entrance, and McCloskey pressed for an explanation. Dantley demurred.

McCloskey finally told him bluntly: “Adrian, if you don’t want to talk about it, I’m going to trade you, and I’m not kidding you. I’m going to trade you. I’m not going to have you break up this team. I’m not saying you’re at fault, but you know something that I don’t know. I told him, flat out, ‘I’m going to trade you,’ and I think it was just two days later we flew down to Dallas and made the trade.”

The Feb. 15 deal stunned the NBA. There had been no rumblings that the Pistons were shopping Dantley or intent on doing anything to alter the mix of a deep and versatile roster that came within one outrageous call – the phantom foul on Bill Laimbeer in Game 6 of the ’88 Finals – of winning its first league title the previous spring. Speculation centered on a rift between Dantley and Isiah Thomas. When Dallas – to which Dantley was traded in exchange for Mark Aguirre – visited The Palace the month following the trade, Dantley spent several fraught seconds before the opening tip whispering something into Thomas’ ear as a full house watched, transfixed.

It later was reported that Dantley admitted to saying, “I’ll never forgive you for what you did to me.”

But McCloskey flatly rejected the notion that Thomas pushed for a Dantley trade.

“No. God no,” McCloskey told me in 2011. “If a player ever said that to me … no. No.”

And Thomas also doused rumors of his involvement, telling reporters at the time, “People didn’t give me credit for trading Paul Mokeski for (Bill) Laimbeer and I’m not the one who traded A.D., either.”

Pistons fans reacted angrily to the deal. Dantley had come to the Pistons prior to the 1986-87 season and helped them take the next step. After being eliminated in the first round by Atlanta in 1986, the Pistons pushed Boston to seven games in the 1987 Eastern Conference finals. He led the Pistons in scoring that season (21.5 points a game), again in 1987-88 (20.0) and was leading them again (18.4) at the time of the trade.

If McCloskey doubted how fondly Dantley was viewed by Pistons fans, he got a stark reminder as he was driving near The Palace with his wife, Leslie, one day soon after the deal went down.

“We stop at a red light and there were two guys in the other car. They both looked and saw me, then they pointed their finger toward me with their thumb up – like they were going to shoot me for making the trade. I told Leslie, ‘You made that trade; I didn’t.’ ”

It’s fair to assume the collective temperature of Pistons fans cooled as the results of the trade played out. The Pistons closed the regular season on a 30-4 run and blew through the playoffs with a 15-2 record, sweeping the Lakers to win the first NBA title in franchise history. With Aguirre in the starting lineup, the Pistons went 44-6 that season.

There’s no definitive way to know how it would have played out if the Dantley-Aguirre trade hadn’t been made, but McCloskey doesn’t equivocate.

“It was going to get worse,” he said. “It was not a risk. I went to Chuck and said, ‘He didn’t communicate with me; he’s not communicating with you. I’m going to trade him.’ We just had to move Adrian. And I really liked Adrian. But something happened there. And I still don’t know.”