Detroit Pistons Need Another Adrian Dantley in the Low Post

Greg Eno@@GregEnoSenior Analyst IFebruary 9, 2011

1988-1989:  Adrian Dantley of the Detroit Pistons moves the ball during a game. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel  /Allsport Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel  /Allsport
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

They used to call it, both in jest and with some annoyance, “The Black Hole.”

The Pistons were the team, and they sometimes ran a funny kind of offense.

The basketball would get dumped into the low post—an area that today’s Pistons are totally unfamiliar with—and then it was like someone pressed pause on a DVD player.

Three, four seconds would go by while the recipient of the ball decided what to do with it.

Passing the ball to Adrian Dantley was akin to tossing it into a black hole. Hence the nickname.

The reference was made also because once the ball went to Dantley, no one else was getting it back, except for the other team.

Dantley was 6′5″, a Lilliputian among the giants who played in the paint, basketball for “I can see the basket without binoculars.”

The Pistons got Dantley from the Utah Jazz in the summer of 1986 in pretty much a one for one swap for Kelly Tripucka, though there were supporting players involved in the trade.

Dantley was a scorer, through and through. Defense was a dirty word to A.D. He was as one-dimensional as a toenail clipper.

But oh, how he could score—and in different ways.

Sometimes Dantley would be given the ball on the wing, some 18-20 feet from the basket. Point guard Isiah Thomas and the rest of the Pistons would gather in another area code on the floor, partisan observers, waiting for Dantley to make his move.

Dantley would look at the basket, look at his defender, look at the basket again. The ball was held to the side of his body and away from the defender, like a child with a cookie playing keep away with his mother.

As the shot clock drained, Dantley would pump fake a shot, sometimes twice. Then, it was time.

The choices were: set shot (not a jumper), or drive to the hoop.

That was it. One or the other. Notice that “pass” wasn’t on the short list.

But it worked a lot. Dantley could hit that 18-footer. If he didn’t shoot, he drove, and he had the uncanny ability to either lay the ball into the basket or get fouled. And Dantley was a superb free throw shooter.

Or, Isiah or some other bit player would lob the ball to Dantley, planted just outside the key in the low post.

Again the other Pistons beat it, some to fetch a drink of water.

Meanwhile, Dantley, his back to his defender and the hoop, evaluated his options.

A turnaround jumper from 8-12 feet?

A spin move and a drive to the basket in the paint?

A spin move and a drive to the basket on the base line?

Once again, “pass” not an option.

The Pistons adjusted to Dantley pretty well at first. Where Tripucka had been an up-and-down the court guy who relied mainly on jump shots, Adrian Dantley lumbered, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Often 10 seconds of the shot clock was gone by the time Dantley reported for duty on offense.

The Pistons went to the Eastern Conference Finals in Dantley’s first year with the team. Had he not infamously butted heads with Vinnie Johnson diving (!) for a loose ball in Game 7 against the Celtics, knocking both Johnson and himself unconscious, the Pistons might have made four straight trips to the NBA Finals instead of three.

In Dantley’s second year, the Pistons lost to the Lakers in a heartbreaking Game 7 defeat in the Finals.

Midway through year three, the marriage between Dantley and the Pistons became strained.

Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and others grew tired of the offense coming to a grinding halt just because Dantley was given the basketball.

Dantley, in turn, became paranoid and felt everyone was out to get him. It was hardly the first time in his long NBA career that he had become a distraction for his teammates and coach.

GM Jack McCloskey told me last year that, in early 1989, he tried to encourage Dantley to talk to coach Chuck Daly.

Dantley wanted no part of a meeting with Daly.

So McCloskey traded Dantley in February, to the Dallas Mavericks for Mark Aguirre, straight up. I maintain it was the gutsiest trade in Detroit sports history—because of its timing, mainly.

There was tremendous pressure on the Pistons to finally win an NBA title. After the near misses of 1987 and 1988, and with their sparkling record of 1988-89, nothing less than a championship was deemed acceptable.

Yet McCloskey made the trade anyway, dealing for another player for a reputation of petulance—Mark Aguirre.

The trade could have torpedoed the Pistons’ chances for the brass ring, but McCloskey made it. Few GMs, if any, would have pulled the trigger. They would have kept Dantley in Detroit, in the hopes that things could be patched up come playoff time.

The Pistons won the next two championships.

The Pistons of 2004 had Rasheed Wallace, the combustible power forward/center who could score from just about anywhere, though the three-point shot was his dagger of choice.

But Wallace could also post his man up, near the spot where Dantley had his office. Wallace scored many a point with turnaround, fadeaway jumpers after he got the ball in that area.

The Pistons won the title in 2004 and came close to winning it again a year later.

My impression of today’s Pistons, after watching them give the San Antonio Spurs a good effort but losing Tuesday night, 100-89, is that they play offense as if there’s a force field surrounding the key.

They have no player who can post up. They don’t seem to even have any plays designed to score from in the paint.

No one flashes across the key. No one looks for the ball down low.

The Pistons take jump shot after jump shot. Statistics show that you’re going to miss at least 55% of those shots in any given game. On average.

The missed jump shot killed the Pistons last night, as they struggled to stay close to the 43-8 Spurs. The game situation cried, at times, for the Pistons to lob the ball inside and let someone do their thing.

The ball stayed on the perimeter, where the Pistons live and (mostly) die.

The rookie Greg Monroe might be that down low guy someday, as he works on his game. But Monroe might be better suited to be a big man with big range, making him that much tougher for other big men to defend.

The lack of inside scoring is killing the Pistons.

Where is today’s Adrian Dantley?


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