Wednesday, January 06, 2010 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

"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,
Ballantine, Copyright 2009 by Bill Simmons,
pp. 39-41.


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