The new Piston was treated to dinner upon his arrival to the team.

It was a high rollers affair, organized by the high prince of the Pistons and attended by his goon squad.

One of the goons, with a sour puss, looked at the invited, special guest with a highly suspicious eye.

“I have only heard bad things about you,” the goon said, “but Isiah says that you’re OK.”

The goon then reminded the special guest that he’d better mind his Ps and Qs, or else.

Mark Aguirre, by all accounts, didn’t say much at the dinner. But he did a lot of listening. Or else.

It was February, 1989 and Pistons GM Jack McCloskey had just struck what I still believe to this day, to be one of the most courageous trades in Detroit sports history.

Courageous, or foolish!

McCloskey got small forward Aguirre from the Dallas Mavericks for small forward Adrian Dantley, straight up.

McCloskey basically told the Mavericks, “I’ll give you my headache for yours.”

The trade was made when the Pistons were on one of those West Coast jaunts that can make or break a basketball team.

On the surface, things looked like they were going swimmingly for the Pistons, who were 32-13 and dominating their division. Their mission of winning a championship, one year after falling to the Lakers in a heartbreaking, seven-game Finals series, appeared to be on course.

But McCloskey had a headache: Dantley.

And Dallas had one of its own: Aguirre.

It was felt among the Pistons’ inner circle, i.e Isiah Thomas—the aforementioned high prince—that Dantley, with his tendency to hold the basketball while the shot clock drained, was needlessly cramping the team’s style on offense. Passing the ball to A.D. was akin to throwing it into a “black hole.” The words were Isiah’s.

Dantley, for his part, began to feel ostracized by his teammates, who looked at him cross-eyed as the reason why the Pistons offense had a tendency to bog down.

Meanwhile, in Dallas, ownership had had its fill of Aguirre, who the team had selected first off the board in the 1981 draft out of DePaul University, but whose years of petulance were wearing thin on ownership, players and the coaching staff.

By 1987, Dick Motta, Aguirre’s first coach in Dallas and who put up with the small forward’s antics for seven years, had taken to calling Aguirre, at various times, a “coward” and a “jackass.”

So when McCloskey and the Mavericks talked about their respective headaches, you had yourself the makings of a big trade.

McCloskey told me several years ago that he didn’t want to trade Adrian Dantley. His preference was to have Dantley talk to coach Chuck Daly about his concerns, but according to Jack, Dantley didn’t want to have any part of a discussion of detente.

So when the 1989 trading deadline approached, McCloskey made the trade. Dantley for Aguirre, straight up.

My headache for yours.

At the dinner in Sacramento—where the Pistons were on the second leg of their four-game western swing—Bill Laimbeer, Isiah’s no. 1 goon, sneered at Aguirre and let the new guy know that his antics in Dallas were well known in the Pistons locker room.

But Laimbeer told Aguirre that he’d get the benefit of the doubt because of Aguirre’s personal relationship with fellow Chicagoan Thomas.

The first three games of the Mark Aguirre Era in Detroit were rocky; the Pistons lost two of the three contests with no. 23 replacing no. 45 on the floor.

But the Pistons figured it out and finished the season on a 30-4 run, heading into the playoffs with a then-franchise best record of 63-19.

Two months later, the Pistons finished a sweep of the Lakers to capture their first-ever NBA championship.

Aguirre, at the ballyhooed dinner in Sacramento, was quickly indoctrinated into the Pistons Way.

The Bad Boys of 1989-90 understood that what goes on between the ears and how mentally tough you are, can make the difference between winning and losing a division, a playoff series, and a championship.

The bitter disappointment of the 1988 Finals didn’t break the Pistons—it steeled them.

And the success of 1989 didn’t spoil or soften the Pistons—it drove them.

Today’s young Pistons are finding out that it’s not all about your basketball skills—it’s also about the mental grind of an 82-game season and how you navigate through it.

Right now, the Pistons are getting failing grades in the mental category.

They’re 8-9 this season, but three of those losses have come against a trio of NBA dregs: the Los Angeles Lakers, the Sacramento Kings and the Brooklyn Nets.

Those three teams are a combined 12-39 this season. All the losses have come on the road, but that’s not enough of an excuse to be 0-3 against them.

Maybe the Pistons’ 5-1 start was the worst thing that could have happened to them.

Pistons czar Stan Van Gundy has done a marvelous job, in just 18 months, of making over the team, from top to bottom on the roster.

But the Pistons are still too young, too immature, and too flawed to handle success with the degree needed to be considered a top flight NBA team.

The 5-1 start has crumbled into 8-9 because of inconsistent effort, poor shooting and the inability to beat teams that the rest of the league is stomping into the floor.

Words like “frustrated” and “lack of energy” have been used to describe the team, by both players and coach.

The Pistons can’t shoot and they only seem to hang their hat on defense when the mood strikes them.

But this uneven play shouldn’t be a total shock, because the Pistons have very young players at key positions, especially at point guard and in the middle.

Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond have the potential to form a terrific duo that on many nights can dominate opponents with their inside/outside/slashing play.

But on too many nights already this season—and we’re only just a month into it—their play has been inconsistent and their starting compatriots have dug big holes in the first half. Van Gundy has already bemoaned Drummond’s lack of energy at times and only 17 games of 82 have been played.

drummond van gundy
Getting through to Drummond has proved difficult at times for Van Gundy

The bench guys are like the Tigers bullpen; Van Gundy, like Brad Ausmus, has no idea what he’s going to get from his bench on a night-by-night basis.

Still, the 8-9 Pistons are a markedly improved team from last year, when a 5-23 start buried them by the holidays.

What’s happening here is a process.

Unless you draft someone like LeBron James or Michael Jordan or Lew Alcindor, awful teams don’t get good overnight in the NBA.

It took Isiah’s Pistons about five solid years to mature into a contender after he was drafted, and another couple after that to finally win the brass ring.

By the time the 1988-89 season rolled around, the Pistons were as mentally tough as any team in professional sports. Ever.

Remember, the 1987-88 team had to overcome the nightmare of Game 5 in Boston Garden in 1987, plus another tough loss two games later.

It was a process.

The 2004 champion Pistons capped their process as well, though it wasn’t quite as extended.

In 2003, the Pistons were embarrassed in the Eastern Conference Finals by the New Jersey Nets—swept out of the gym in four straight.

But a year later, steeled, the Pistons won the whole thing. And they came damn close to winning it again in 2005.

The 2004 Pistons got a key addition late in the season via trade.

He, too, was a player with a checkered past. He, too, was a risk.

Rasheed Wallace was that team’s Mark Aguirre.

The Pistons of today are probably not yet ready to contend to the degree that Van Gundy would feel that a bold move for a high profile player late in the season would make a big difference.

After 17 games, the Pistons are too flawed and too soft mentally. Too prone to stretches of malaise.

They obviously can’t even handle the small, marginal success of a 5-1 start. They can’t be taken seriously—not yet.

But they’re getting better.

It’s a process.

 

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