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Friday, September 05, 2008

Adrian Dantley: The Mystery Man

With Adrian Dantley there are always more questions than answers. How did a 6-5 player consistently score in the paint against bigger, stronger and taller defenders? Why did several teams trade Dantley even though he was very productive? Why did a player who averaged 24.3 ppg on .540 field goal shooting during a 15 year NBA career have to wait more than a decade to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame?

Adrian Dantley is the mystery man: his game wasn't flashy and he didn't do anything to attract undue attention to himself. All he did, year after year, is score. A lot of guys talk about "getting buckets" but few players in pro basketball history have been as mind-numbingly consistent at "getting buckets" as Dantley was during his prime. This line from an old Zander Hollander Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball (if you've never heard of this yearly classic, look for some old copies on eBay) summed it up best: "The sun rises in the East and Adrian Dantley averages 30 ppg." Here are Dantley's scoring averages from 1981-1984: 30.7, 30.3, 30.7 (played only 22 games due to injury), 30.6. In 1980, he averaged 28.0 ppg and in 1985 he "slumped" to 26.6 ppg before bouncing back to 29.8 ppg in 1986. Thus, from 1980-86, Dantley scored 13,635 points in 461 games for a 29.6 ppg average. During that remarkable run, he captured two scoring titles (1981, 1984), led the league in minutes played per game in 1981 (42.7 mpg) and never shot worse than .531 from the field; in six of those seasons he shot at least .558 from the field. Dantley was also outstanding at drawing fouls and he took advantage of that skill by shooting .818 from the free throw line during his career. He led the NBA in free throws made five times, including four times from 1980-86. Dantley played for Utah during those seven seasons but prior to that he played for three teams in his first three seasons in the NBA and after his stint with the Jazz he played for three teams in his final five seasons.

There were two constants throughout Dantley's career, no matter the locale or the competition: he was always an undersized inside player and he could always score. Although Dantley never played on an NBA championship team it would be foolish to characterize him as anything other than a winner. Under the tutelage of the legendary Morgan Wootten, Dantley led DeMatha High School to a 57-2 record and earned High School All-America honors. During Dantley's three years at Notre Dame (1974-76), he averaged 25.8 ppg and 9.8 rpg while shooting .562 from the field as the Fighting Irish went 26-3, 19-10 and 23-6. In 1974, Dantley and Notre Dame ended UCLA's record 88 game winning streak. In 1974 and 1975, Dantley made the NCAA Tournament All-Regional teams and he received First Team All-America recognition in 1975 and 1976. The U.S. Basketball Writers Association voted him the National Player of the Year in 1976 after he ranked fourth in the NCAA in scoring (28.6 ppg) while shooting .588 from the field and averaging 10.1 rpg. Dantley led Team USA to an Olympic gold medal in 1976, ranking first on the squad in scoring (19.3 ppg).

Dantley decided to forgo his senior season at Notre Dame to enter the NBA Draft but he completed his degree requirements by 1978. The Buffalo Braves chose Dantley with the sixth overall selection in the 1976 NBA Draft and he won the Rookie of the Year award after averaging 20.3 ppg and 7.6 rpg while shooting .520 from the field. After the season, the Braves--who would soon become the San Diego Clippers and are currently known as the L.A. Clippers--traded Dantley and Mike Bantom to the Indiana Pacers for Billy Knight, who ranked second in the ABA in scoring during that league's final season (28.1 ppg in 1975-76) and then ranked second in the NBA in scoring in the first season after the leagues merged (26.6 ppg in 1976-77). Dantley averaged 26.5 ppg in his first 23 games with the Pacers in 1977-78 before they shipped him and Dave Robisch to the Lakers for James Edwards, Earl Tatum and cash considerations. Dantley averaged 19.4 ppg in his 56 games as a Laker that season, finishing 1977-78 with averages of 21.5 ppg and 7.8 rpg while shooting .512 from the field. In 1978-79, Dantley only played in 60 games and his numbers declined to 17.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg and .510 field goal shooting. The Lakers had a balanced offensive attack that ranked eighth in the league in scoring (112.9 ppg) with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (23.8 ppg), Jamaal Wilkes (18.6 ppg), Dantley and Norm Nixon (17.1 ppg) each scoring at least 17 ppg but the Lakers got killed on the boards even though Abdul-Jabbar ranked third in the league in rebounding (12.8 rpg); Dantley and Wilkes were both natural small forwards, so even though they were both All-Star caliber players their games were not complementary. Therefore, just prior to the 1979-80 season the Lakers traded Dantley to the Utah Jazz for Spencer Haywood, whose landmark court case paved the way for players to "go hardship" and leave school early, a process now called "early entry." Haywood was an elite player in the early to mid 1970s but by the time the Lakers acquired him he had a serious drug problem; the Lakers won the championship in 1980 but they suspended Haywood during the playoffs before officially releasing him that summer.

Meanwhile, Dantley blossomed into one of the league's top forwards, ranking third in the league in scoring in 1979-80 (28.0 ppg) while shooting .576 from the field (fourth in the league) and averaging 7.6 rpg. Dantley earned the first of his six All-Star selections. He rarely dunked or shot three pointers, so his game would be unrecognizable--if not unimaginable--to contemporary players and fans. In Hoops!, a 1987 book by Giorgio Gandolfi and Gerald Secor Couzens, Dantley explained the finer points behind some of the fundamental moves and weapons in his offensive repertoire. One of his favorite techniques was "the shot fake and jump shot." This is how Dantley described it:

Many times you will encounter situations in a game when you have already picked up your dribble and your defensive man is standing right in front of you preventing you from getting off a shot or passing the ball. It is just for cases like this that you need to have some dead-ball moves in your repertoire. Naturally, you can use these moves away from the basket, but they are most effective when you make them not far from the hoop, either in or close to the lane.

To make the shot fake and jump shot move, start with a one-count stop. Bring the ball up toward your head to give the defensive man the impression that you are going to take a jump shot. He will lunge toward you at this moment. As he moves in, crouch down with your legs to gather your strength and then go up for the jump shot just as your defensive man moves into you. Go up strong and bump him a little with your shoulder or forearm to keep him from blocking your shot. Often your man will foul you and you can get a three-point play out of the move.

That "bump" maneuver led to a lot of free throws for Dantley; in fact, he shares the single game record for free throws made with Wilt Chamberlain, who shot 28-32 from the free throw line in his 100 point game. Later in Hoops! Dantley talked about "Life Underneath":

The real reason for my success down low comes from my high school coach. I had to play center for my high school team and therefore needed to learn how to pivot off both feet, plant myself, then make a power move to the hoop without traveling. My coach drilled me on these moves every day until I could finally do them right.

I'm surprised to see that most big men in the league today can't make effective moves underneath. I guess the reason for this is that they simply never were taught them. Or they never worked hard enough on them. Or if they did work on them, they learned the moves later on in their careers and haven't really been able to master them.

When I'm down low, I move by instinct. I feel my man on my hip and when I can tell he's leaning or pushing more on one part of my body than the other, I'll keep low and try to go in the direction away from where he's leaning.

Even when I'm closely guarded I'm often able to turn, face up and either shoot my jump shot or else go for a power drive. However, there are some players who play me very tight, so I can't get my jumper off so easily. What I have to do against them is shoot right after I turn around to the basket. If I delay or don't get the shot off quickly enough, either the shot will be blocked or else I'll be tied up and forced to pass out.

Playing underneath is tough, no question about it. You have to be willing to get fouled and take a beating. I prepare myself for this in the summer by playing with friends, working especially on my moves under the basket. We'll often play half-court for four or five baskets, and allow grabbing and holding when a player goes to the basket. Other times we'll decide to play the entire game without calling fouls. By playing like this, I'm able to concentrate on making my offensive move and following through with my shot even though I'm being pushed and shoved while I'm doing it. It often gets like that or even rougher when you play underneath in the NBA.

Although Dantley was highly productive in Utah, he and Coach Frank Layden did not always see eye to eye. Prior to the 1986-87 season, Utah traded Dantley plus two draft picks to the Detroit Pistons for Kelly Tripucka and Kent Benson. The Pistons had evolved from being a high scoring team to being a defensive minded unit but even though they had a physical squad they did not have a bona fide inside scorer; center Bill Laimbeer was a spot up shooter, while Rick Mahorn and young forwards Dennis Rodman and John Salley were not big time scoring options. Dantley provided just what the Pistons needed, leading them in scoring (21.5 ppg) and helping them make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they lost 117-114 in game seven to the defending champion Boston Celtics. If Larry Bird had not stolen Isiah Thomas' inbounds pass near the end of game five in one of the most famous plays in NBA history, the Pistons may very well have won that series. In 1988, the Pistons defeated the Celtics in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Dantley then put on a clinic in game one of the Finals versus the defending champion Lakers, scoring 34 points on 14-16 field goal shooting as the Pistons seized home court advantage with a 105-93 victory. Dantley scored 22 second half points, including 12 straight during a critical fourth quarter stretch. The Pistons led the series 3-2 when disaster struck in game six: Isiah Thomas, Detroit's heart and soul, suffered a severe ankle sprain late in the third quarter while in the midst of a remarkable scoring outburst; Thomas shot 11-13 from the field in that quarter, scoring a Finals record 25 points en route to 43 points overall, but the Pistons squandered a three point lead in the final minute of the game as the Lakers escaped with a 103-102 victory. In the seventh game, Thomas gutted out 10 first half points but his ankle stiffened up at halftime and he did not score in the second half. The Lakers held Dantley to 16 points and won 108-105, becoming the first team to capture back to back titles since Bill Russell's 1969 Boston Celtics. Dantley averaged a team-high 21.3 ppg on .573 field goal shooting during the Finals.

Although Dantley was a potent scorer, his game did not necessarily mesh completely well with Detroit's three guard offense; Dantley scored in the paint, but he was not a post-up player per se: he caught the ball on the wing, maneuvered into the paint and then scored. This did not always create great spacing for the other players, so midway through the 1988-89 season Detroit General Manager Jack McCloskey made a bold move, trading Dantley and a first round draft pick to Dallas for Mark Aguirre. Aguirre was a little bigger than Dantley but--more importantly--he could play in the post with his back to the basket and either score or else draw a double team and make the correct pass leading either to an open shot or else one more ball reversal that resulted in an open shot on the weak side (Aguirre delivered a lot of what would now be termed "hockey assists"). The Pistons went 31-6 after the trade, defeated the Lakers in the 1989 Finals and defended their crown by knocking off Portland in the 1990 Finals.

Of course, this was a devastating turn of events for Dantley, who had played very well for Detroit and certainly felt that the Pistons could have enjoyed similar success without trading him; if not for Thomas' injury in the 1988 Finals, Dantley and the Pistons probably would already have won a ring. "I think one of my assets was the ability to stay focused and stay mentally tough," Dantley later said. "When you get traded, it affects a lot of players, and they struggle. You get down when you get traded and you have to stay focused." After averaging 18.4 ppg in 42 games with Detroit in 1988-89, he increased his production to 20.3 ppg in 31 games with Dallas, though his field goal percentage declined. Dantley only played in 45 games for Dallas in 1989-90 and after a brief 10 game run with Milwaukee in 1990-91 he played one season in the Italian League before retiring. He is currently an assistant coach with the Denver Nuggets.

Dantley ranks 23rd in career NBA/ABA scoring (23,177 points) and 17th in scoring average (24.3 ppg). He is also sixth all-time in free throws made (6832). Dantley's career field goal percentage of .540 ranks 20th all-time and every player listed above him--other than Charles Barkley--is significantly taller. He was a Hall of Fame finalist six times (2001-03, 2005-07) before being inducted this time around.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:46 AM



At Friday, September 05, 2008 9:59:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

One of my favorite players to watch and best forwards ever. To do what he did at his height against guys 6 to 7 inches taller than him was amazing. There will never be another AD. They called him the Teacher for a reason. I didnt like how Isiah got him out of Detroit.
It just shows you how much a joke the HOF is when it took this long to put him in.

At Friday, September 05, 2008 3:05:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Great post. Just wanted to ask if a more recent version of "Pro Basketball Handbook" has been published. From my knowledge, the last version that was published was right before the lock out season, in 1998.

At Friday, September 05, 2008 5:13:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

S. Tiku:

As far as I know, the edition that you mentioned is the last one that was published.

At Friday, September 05, 2008 6:21:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

always thougt he was a great player he was chased out by isiah but isaih always was a punk said laary bird was overated white boy walked off the court early on jordan called magic gay and other errounous stuff.

dantley scored alot good passer was short for his size reveloutinized te psoition a true all time great.

At Saturday, September 06, 2008 1:33:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Actually, Rodman called Bird overrated. Someone asked Isiah about what Rodman said and Isiah laughed sarcastically and said something to the effect of "Sure, Bird is overrated." Of course, if you just quote those words in print without the laughter then it looks a lot different. Thomas later held a press conference to make it clear that he was not dissing Bird and Bird actually flew into town and attended the press conference to offer support to Isiah.

At Saturday, September 06, 2008 11:53:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Excellent piece on A.D. I linked your work to my Blog entry today on Dantley. Your work on former NBA players is top-notch!

At Saturday, September 06, 2008 5:45:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Coach Finamore:

Thank you.

At Monday, June 13, 2011 4:57:00 PM, Blogger Judy Seaberry said...

A.D. was a great asset to the Pistons, but sorely he did not get that championship ring. C'est La Vie.

At Thursday, April 24, 2014 11:49:00 AM, Blogger JR Sanchis said...

Hi, great job. Three years after, Indiana traded Alex English. What else were thinking the Pacers? Which reason Indiana traded Dantley? Best regards!!

At Thursday, April 24, 2014 12:04:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


After the Pacers joined the NBA, they moved a lot of players in and out of the organization as they tried to find the right chemistry while also adhering to the tight budget of a small market team.


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