1/6/10 - unselfishness

In today's excerpt - the world champion 1989 Detroit Pistons, (along with their predecessor champions the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers) demonstrated yet again that talent alone was almost never enough to bring a championship—that unselfishness was almost always an indispensable ingredient too. To make the 1989 season work, the Pistons traded a highly talented but selfish player for a less talented player who was willing to be unselfish:

"After coming so close to the NBA Championship for two straight postseasons, the chemistry for the '89 Detroit Pistons was off for reasons that had nothing to do with talent. Chuck Daly needed to give Dennis Rodman more playing time, only the Teacher (Adrian Dantley's nickname, in an ironic twist) wasn't willing to accommodate him. And that was a problem. Rodman could play any style and defend every type of player; he gave the Pistons a uniquely special flexibility, much like John Havlicek's ability to play guard or forward drove Bill Russell's last few championship Boston Celtics teams. There was also a precedent in place from when Piston players John Salley and Joe Dumars came into their own in previous seasons; [Piston starters] Isiah Thomas and Vinnie Johnson gave up minutes for Dumars, and Rick Mahorn gave up minutes for Salley. But when Rodman started stealing crunch-time minutes from Dantley, the Teacher started sulking and even complained to a local writer.

"You couldn't call it a betrayal, but Dantley had undermined an altruistic dynamic—constructed carefully over the past four seasons, almost like a stack of Jenga blocks—that hinged on players forfeiting numbers for the overall good of the team. The Pistons couldn't risk having Dantley knock that Jenga stack down. They quickly swapped him for the enigmatic Mark Aguirre, an unconventional low-post scorer who caused similar mismatch problems but wouldn't start trouble because Isiah (a childhood chum from Chicago) would never allow it. Maybe Dantley was a better player than Aguirre, but Aguirre was a better fit for the 1989 Pistons. If they didn't make that deal, they wouldn't have won the championship. It was a people trade, not a basketball trade.

"And that's what [players] learned while following those championship Lakers and Celtics teams around: it wasn't about basketball.

"Those teams were loaded with talented players, yes, but that's not the only reason they won. They won because they liked each other, knew their roles, ignored statistics, and valued winning over everything else. They won because their best players sacrificed to make everyone else happy. They won as long as everyone remained on the same page. By that same token, they lost if any of those three factors weren't in place. The '75 [San Francisco/Golden State] Warriors self-combusted, a year later because of Rick Barry's grating personality and two young stars (Jamal Wilkes and Gus Williams) needing better numbers to boost their free agent stock. The '77 Blazers fell apart because of Bill Walton's feet, but also because Lionel Hollins and Maurice Lucas brooded about being underpaid. The '79 Sonics fell apart when their talented backcourt (Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams) became embroiled in a petty battle over salaries and crunch-time shots. ... Year after year, at least one contender fell short for reasons that had little or nothing to do with basketball. And year after year, the championship team prevailed because it got along and everyone committed themselves to their roles. That's what Detroit needed to do and that's why Dantley had to go."


Bill Simmons


The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy


ESPN Books


Copyright 2009 by Bill Simmons


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