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Chevette to Corvette No. 47: The 1958-59

Facts

  • Actual record: 28-44
  • Pythagorean record: 33-39
  • Points per game: 105.1 (6th of 8)
  • Opponent points per game: 106.3 (3rd of 8)
  • Arena: Detroit Olympia
  • Head coach: Red Rocha

Leaders

  • Points per game: George Yardley (20.8)
  • Rebounds per game: Walter Dukes (13.3)
  • Assists per game: Dick McGuire (6.2)

Top player

George Yardley

Yardley, an explosive scoring forward, was the Pistons’ first legitimate star. One year after leading the Pistons to the Finals by leading the league in scoring and becoming the first player in NBA history to score 2,000 points in a season, Yardley once again was Detroit’s top offensive player much of the 1958-59 season. The secrets to his success as a player are described in his New York Times’ obituary:

… the 6-foot-5 Yardley was an outstanding leaper and one of pro basketball’s early jump-shot artists.

”He had probably the quickest release of anybody in the N.B.A.,” Bill Sharman, the former star guard of the Boston Celtics, once told The Los Angeles Times. ”He was a deadly shooter and one of the only ones dunking the ball back then.”

Yardley, in the book ”From Set Shot to Slam Dunk,” told Charles Salzberg that he was probably the best jumper in the league. ”There might have been others who were good jumpers,” Yardley recalled, ”but I could move my body well to either side while in the air and still control my shot.”

Yardley was an All-Star in six of his seven NBA seasons. He was also an intelligent player off the court, starting his own engineering firm after his playing career ended. According to his biography on his company’s website, Yardley is the only player in league history who was a teammate of all three of the league’s first three black players — Nathaniel ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton, Chuck Cooper and Earl Lloyd. Yardley sounds exactly like the type of franchise player a team would want to keep around for a long time …

Key transaction

Pistons trade George Yardley to Syracuse for Ed Conlin

I already alluded to the fact that the Pistons traded one of their early iconic players, Dave DeBusschere, in a previous post. Well, it appears that shipping off the team’s best players was a common occurrence in the early history of the team. Yardley was traded during the season to Syracuse for Ed Conlin, a journeyman wing who averaged just 11 points per game in parts of two seasons with Detroit. Yardley, meanwhile, would go on to become an All-Star once again the following season in Syracuse before retiring at age 31 to allow his daughter to start kindergarten in his native California. His bio states that he had other opportunities to play, but contract constraints prevented him from doing so:

He retires as an All Star, averaging over 20 points a game in his final season. He does this in order to allow his daughter, Marilyn, to enter kindergarten in California.

Added note: Syracuse/Philadelphia retains George’s rights. The Lakers try to sign George repeatedly, but Syracuse/Philadelphia insists on the rights to Jerry West or Elgin Baylor in return. No deal is ever consummated.

Now, it’s obvious why the Lakers wouldn’t give up West or Baylor for Yardley, but it does speak to how highly thought of Yardley was at the time that a team would even have the gall to ask for either player, both among the greatest NBA players of all time, in return.

Trend watch

The quest for .500

The 1958-59 season, the second the franchise was in Detroit, also happened to be the second worst record the Pistons had in franchise history. Fortunately, six teams in the eight-team league made the playoffs, so the Pistons’ streak of playoff appearances was extended to 10 straight. But the Pistons were on a more elusive quest: returning to the .500 mark. This was the team’s third straight sub-.500 finish and — without giving too much away — this streak will stay alive for some time.

Why this season ranks No. 47

After trading Yardley, the Pistons found themselves in an identity crisis. The key remaining players were Gene Shue, Phil Jordon, Walter Dukes and Dick McGuire, but McGuire was 33-years-old. Dukes was a good rebounder, but it’s a bit of a problem when your center is a 37 percent shooter. Jordon was traded to Cincinnati in the offseason. The Pistons continued to be competitive enough to sneak into the playoffs, but as we’ve seen throughout the team’s history, recovering from trading a franchise player for less than equal value is no easy task.

Previously

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