Looking back: Would the Detroit Pistons have still won a NBA title if they didn’t trade Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre?


Periodically, I’m going to start trying to mix in some Pistons history posts. Because hey, it beats talking about sour stomachs, right?

My mom doesn’t watch sports much, but because she was forced to live in a house with basketball-obsessed men most of her life, she eventually grew some passing interest in the game, particularly when the Pistons were at their peaks in the late 1980s and the mid 2000s.

As the 1980s Pistons were growing into title contenders, there was one player who she loved and rooted for more than all of the others: Adrian Dantley.

Looking at Dantley’s game, it’s easy to see why someone who is not really a sports fan would love him. His game transcended basketball, not because he was flashy or physically more talented, but because he got every ounce of ability out of his body. An undersized power forward, Dantley consistently shot better than 50 percent from the field despite the fact that he did most of his damage in the paint against much taller players.

And unlike some of the undersized PFs of today — think Paul Milsap or even Jason Maxiell — Dantley didn’t have the advantage of explosive athleticism to make up for his lack of height. Dantley could barely get off the ground. Who couldn’t root for a player who, despite looking out of place among the gigantic men at his position, still went out and routinely dominated them offensively using simply craftiness and intelligence?

Dantley was the king of the jab-step. He spoke at a camp I attended when I was 15, and he tried to put a bunch of junior high and high school kids through an intense series of footwork drills that featured initial moves, counter-moves, pump-fakes, pull-ups and an array of different ways to score out of the face-up position. I scored my first (and one of only three I would make all season … I was terrible) rec-league basket by employing a weak version of Dantley’s jab-right, sweep the ball through to create space, elevate and bank it in from just outside the block move.

Dantley was a huge part of the Pistons becoming a title contender in the 1980s. In Detroit’s first NBA Finals appearance, Isiah Thomas’s sprained ankle/25-point third quarter is understandably the lasting memory from a heart-breaking seven-game loss to the Lakers. But a forgotten element of that series is that Dantley had an unreal performance of his own, scoring 34 points on 14-of-16 shooting in the Pistons’ game one win in L.A.

When Dantley was traded during the following season, my mom was devastated, as were many fans. She even named my younger brother, who was born in 1990, ‘Adrian’ because she had grown to love Dantley and what he represented so much.  I was still a bit too young to realize all of the off-court controversy created by the trade, which netted the Pistons Isiah Thomas’s boyhood friend Mark Aguirre from Dallas.

And although Pistons fans still remember, probably in great detail, just how upset many were about the trade, the fact that the team won a title after the trade healed a lot of those wounds.

I think it’s interesting to look back at one of the most controversial trades in Pistons history, considering the current Pistons are still reeling after another controversial trade (Billups for Iverson) that, uh, wasn’t followed up by quite so much on-court success.

After the deal was made, Mitch Albom recounted just what Dantley had meant to the team:

"Farewell to the Teacher. Farewell to that body, hard and strong, and that face, which always seemed halfway between amusement and anger. Adrian Dantley came in with a bad reputation, and, ironically, he leaves in exchange for one. Known as selfish, moody and a ball-hog when he arrived in Detroit, he proved critics wrong, leading the Pistons to their best season ever, playing a role, muscling against giants, spinning and whirling and desiring his way to the hoop. He even sent himself to the hospital once diving for a basketball. Diving? Adrian Dantley? And now, suddenly, he has been traded to Dallas for a guy named Mark Aguirre, who has a reputation for being . . . selfish, moody and a ball-hog.Go figure."

Now, Dantley had a well-documented prickly reputation at times, so he was not necessarily beloved by all of his teammates in Detroit. But one, in particular, was Joe Dumars. SI’s Jack McCallum wrote this after the trade:

"Thomas’s backcourt mate, Joe Dumars, was deeply saddened that Dantley, who had been his best friend among his teammates, was gone, but he held his tongue about the deal. In a gesture of respect, Dumars requested a DANTLEY 45 jersey as a keepsake."

Dumars also told SLAM a few years ago that, “Adrian is my favorite teammate ever.”

Albom quoted John Salley on the trade as well:

"“Bleep!” said John Salley, when informed of the news Wednesday morning. “How could they trade The Teacher? He was my mentor. A lot of the guys felt that way. I like Mark (Aguirre). He’s OK. But AD did a lot for us.”"

(Part of me hopes that Salley actually said ‘Bleep!’ rather than an actual swear word).

There were certainly other opinions on the trade however.

Bill Laimbeer, for instance, wasn’t opposed to it:

"“He (Dantley) came in during a transitional period when we were moving from being a free-wheeling offensive team to a more methodical defensive-oriented team, and he fit right in to a disciplined offensive structure. But I think our team just outgrew Adrian Dantley. Joe D was about to come into his own, and it was important that we had more ball movement, and that was not Adrian’s strength.”"

Laimbeer’s reasoning lays out the basketball side of it, expounded on by a Detroit Bad Boys reader in 2007:

"I remember Michael Jordan saying that without Dantley, the Pistons had no go-to scorer. We all loved “The Teacher”, and the trade saw many fans turn against Isiah Thomas, as he was scapegoated for bringing in Mark Aguirre. The arrival of Aguirre ceded playing time to Dennis Rodman, whose ability to limit Scottie Pippen and roam so aggressively on defense was key to suppressing the Bulls for another season."

Although the trade did make basketball sense — who could argue that finding more minutes for Rodman wasn’t a good thing? — there were persistent rumors that Thomas was the driving force behind the trade, largely because Dantley believed that to be the case, according to Albom:

"Here is the way Dantley saw it: “It’s Isiah’s team. He calls the shots. That guy (Aguirre) is his friend and he wants to play with his friend. If Chuck has to make a call, who do you think he’s gonna side with?”"

And Dantley’s opinion didn’t change with time. Here’s what he told SLAM just a few years ago:

"“I know he was behind the trade,” Dantley says. “It’s not a question; it’s a fact.”"

In that same SLAM article, Thomas issued a strong denial while — in true Isiah fashion — saying the trade was in the best interest of the team even though he wasn’t pushing for it.

"Thomas flatly and inconclusively denies that he orchestrated Dantley’s trade. “Go back and look in the books,” Thomas says. “When that trade was made, we were in second place in our division, six games behind the Cavaliers. After Aguirre came, we went 37-4 and went from a team struggling to score 92 points to a team averaging almost 103. And we got our ring. So it was a good trade, but it wasn’t my decision. I was a player, not the GM.”"

To be fair (kind of) to Thomas, Dantley’s relationship with Chuck Daly played a role in the decision to trade him as well:

"The Pistons went just 8-6 in January while Dantley’s relationship with head coach Chuck Daly had begun to deteriorate, according to Steve Addy of the Oakland Press: “There was tension between Daly and Dantley; the coach felt he was holding the ball too long, leaving the offense scrambling for last-second shots. The Pistons also felt A.D. wasn’t getting to the foul line enough.”"

It’s difficult to second-guess a trade that helped the Pistons go on a major second half run and win a championship, even if conspiracy theories about Thomas orchestrating the deal are true. But it’s also difficult to fault Dantley for being bitter about the situation. His presence in Detroit made the Pistons a contending team, and had he not been traded, it’s possible he would’ve won a title, something that eluded him his final few seasons as he played on non-playoff teams before retiring.