Adrian Dantley was traded by the Utah Jazz to the Detroit Pistons during the 1986 offseason for Kent Benson and Kelly Tripucka, and from there his career arc was one of going from regular Western Conference All-Star and one of the best small forwards in the league (at least by reputation) to a guy who never sniffed another All-Star Game and who would be traded in 1989 for Mark Aguirre just in time for Aguirre to integrate himself into two Detroit title teams.
Now, on the surface, that looks like a precipitous decline, and in terms of counting stats, it absolutely was. A two-time league scoring champ who topped 30 points per game for four straight years (even if one of the years, 1982-83, was cut short by injuries and limited to just 22 games, albeit 22 games in which Dantley scored 40 or more in 16 of them) averaged just 20.3 a game in Detroit’s offense after averaging 29.6 for the duration of his time in Utah as a 6-time All-Star.
The kicker is that Dantley is in the Hall of Fame, so of course we’re going to hold him to a higher standard here, asking if he was a truly great NBA player…or just a guy who did one thing well by putting the ball in the basket not just from the field but with an insane ability to draw fouls and get to the line.
Let’s crack open the numbers and see what we find, shall we?
The Counting Stats
Man, if you love counting stats, you love Adrian Dantley. 23,177 points, good for 24.3 a game. 5,455 rebounds, totaling 5.7 per contest. 29.6 and 6.2 a game during his peak in Utah. Dude even dished three dimes a game out of the forward spot and 3.7 in Utah.
And he did all of the above while shooting 56.2 percent for the Jazz and 54.0 percent overall, all without doing much more than the faintest bit of dabbling in that newfangled long ball that came into the NBA in Dantley’s fourth year in the league (he was 7-of-41 from three in his entire career, good for 17.1 percent. .171 isn’t even an acceptable batting average in baseball.)
He also led the league in made free throws five times, peaking at 813 makes in 1983-84, good for fourth all time behind Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, and Michael Jordan (Wilt would’ve set an unbreakable record in 1961-62 if not for the fact that he hit just 61.3 percent of his 17 free throw attempts per game. West, Jordan, and Dantley shot 86.0, 85.7, and 85.9 percent, respectively, in their best seasons for total makes.)
And oh by the way, the top 37 seasons in NBA history by free throw makes? They all belong to players who are either in the Hall of Fame or likely will be (James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook are the active players who appear on that list.)
Dantley won the scoring title in a two-point league in a year he only averaged 10.2 made shots from the field per game because he averaged 10.3 makes a game from the line. That is a spectacular way to get to 30.6 points a contest.
But role and context are everything. Look no further than the year before and the year after he got traded to Detroit for Dantley’s role and context.
In 1985-86, Dantley averaged 29.8 points a game on a Jazz team whose next leading scorer was a rookie out of Louisiana Tech who’d go on to score more points than anyone in NBA history not named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but Karl Malone averaged just 14.9 a contest in his first year.
Below Malone, only Thurl Bailey (14.2) and Rickey Green (11.2) averaged more than 10 points a game for that ’86 Jazz team that went 42-40, had the fourth-worst offense in the league, and lost in the first round of the playoffs to a Dallas Mavericks team that was their equal and opposite squad (Utah was 20th and 3rd on offense and defense in a 23-team league, Dallas was 2nd and 20th respectively in those same stats.)
Without Dantley, the Jazz might not have cracked a 100 Offensive Rating.
In 1986-87, Dantley was the leading scorer on a Pistons team that came one THE STEAL BY BIRD away from the NBA Finals, but his 21.5 a game didn’t even get him into the ’87 All-Star Game, where the starting forward slots belonged to Larry Bird, Julius Erving (in his farewell season), and Dominique Wilkins and where Kevin McHale, Charles Barkley, and Pistons teammate Bill Laimbeer crowded Dantley off the roster as reserves.
The next-leading scorers for Detroit? Isiah Thomas (20.6), Vinnie Johnson (15.7), and Laimbeer (15.4), with second-year player Joe Dumars (11.8) adding double-digit scoring as well.
Dantley wasn’t Dantley anymore and he would never be again. Detroit ranked ninth offensively a year after they’d ranked seventh even after they added a guy who averaged 30 a night on the team that traded him. In fact, Dantley averaged only 1.5 points more a game than Tripucka, the guy he was traded for role-wise (Benson’s role largely landed in the lap of John Salley, who parlayed it into a monster season defensively.)
That’s…not supposed to happen.
But we’re working in circles here. Let’s get to…
The Advanced Stats
Where the rubber meets the road in terms of separating one-dimensional scorers from great NBA players is in the effect all that scoring has on advanced stats.
And yes, Dantley led the league in Offensive Win Shares four times, including his last year with the Jazz in ’86.
But Utah traded him anyway, and it’s because he couldn’t guard a dead dog. So putrid was Dantley’s defense that a guy who led the league in OWS four times cracked the superstar threshold of .200 WS/48 only twice in six full seasons with the Jazz (that ’83 season is a massive what-might-have-been with all the 40-point games and the .235 WS/48, but he only played 22 games.)
Granted, he got a lot better on defense when he got to Detroit, which let him crack the .200 mark for the third (or fourth, depending on your perspective) time in 1988, but come on. Domantas Sabonis posted .197 WS/48 in 2018-19. If you’re Johnny on the spot offensively, you’re going to come just short of that superstar caliber a time or three. Karl-Anthony Towns, who posted the same .197 WS/48 as Sabonis, is another example.
What’s also interesting is what a drag defense created on Dantley’s VORP.
He posted 5.4, 5.0, 4.7, and 4.8 VORP in his four fully injury-free seasons in Utah, which sounds great until you consider that better defensive players than he posted better overall advanced stat profiles.
Jordan was a hotshot scorer just like Dantley was during His Airness’ younger days, but MJ was a defensive beast who led the league in VORP for nine straight full seasons (leaving aside the two he played baseball) and cracked 7 VORP as a rookie.
Dr. J cracked nine VORP three times in the ABA and had three years in Philadelphia where he hit 6.8, 6.9 (leading the league in 1980-81), and 6.8 VORP because he was a solid defender.
Dantley was more like ‘Nique, as the Human Highlight Film was a similarly awful defender whose best year by VORP was 5.6, but even ‘Nique cracked five VORP three times to Dantley’s two.
And ‘Nique was a one-dimensional scorer.
But then again, Wilkins is in the Hall of Fame and rightly so. But Wilkins also stayed healthier for longer and made nine straight All-Star Games, so…
The point is this. There’s your comp, and…
We just decided that Adrian Dantley is basically Dominique Wilkins in terms of his overall impact and general statistical profile relative to the league he was in.
And what we asked at the top of the show here is whether Dantley is worthy of his spot in the Hall of Fame.
To argue that he isn’t is to argue that ‘Nique isn’t; hell, it’s to argue that if you take away his years in the ABA, neither is Dr. J. I’m not willing to go that far and neither, I suspect, is anyone else.
The guy cracked 30 a game four years in a row, carried some absolutely putrid Jazz offenses to better records than they’d ever have put up without him, and just didn’t fit in with the culture in Detroit, which is hardly his fault (nor is it his fault that once he got shipped out of town, the Pistons finally got over the hump and won those two titles.)
Over 23,000 career points and, in a curious twist of fate, the fourth-highest free throw makes in a single season in NBA history putting him on a list that’s 37 deep for Hall of Famers before you get to the first guy (Jerry Stackhouse, at 38th) who fell short?
Maybe he was a Great Stats Bad Team guy. But he was a mighty good one. Confirmed.
NEXT: Bill Walton.