Written by Garrett Catalana – @GarrettCatalana
Let’s go back in time to possibly the darkest day in the history of the Philadelphia 76ers franchise: June 16, 1986. The Sixers executed two trades that were meant to build around the new franchise player Charles Barkley. With the near retirement of Julius Erving and a deteriorating/aging/injured supporting cast, owner Harold Katz and the front office wanted to add some depth to the roster. These became the two trades:
- Sixers trade Moses Malone, Terry Catledge, a 1986 1st round draft pick, and a 1988 1st round draft pick to the Washington Bullets for Cliff Robinson and Jeff Ruland.
- Sixers trade the first overall pick in the 1986 Draft to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Roy Hinson.
Philadelphia was up in arms after these two transactions with rage, anger, and confusion. Why would they trade Moses Malone away? Why did they trade away the first overall pick? What’s so special about Roy Hinson and Jeff Ruland?
People knew that Katz had a rocky relationship with Malone ever since the New Jersey Nets bounced the 76ers in the first round of the playoffs in 1984. The 30 year-old Malone averaged 23.8 points per game (led the team), 11.8 rebounds per game (second to Barkley), and averaged one block a game over 74 games. Malone was still putting up big time numbers. The team had gone 54-28 led by Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks, Malone, and young Charles Barkley under first-year head coach Matt Guokas but had lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in a grueling 7-game series in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. Past Barkley and Malone, the surrounding talent was appearing weaker and older.
Bobby Jones was set to retire at age 34 following the season, Erving was 35, the All-Star backcourtof Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney were getting as Toney’s foot problems were limiting his ability, former first round pick and “point guard of the future” Leon Wood was traded in mid-season, key reserves Clint Richardson was traded to the Pacers just before the season, Bob McAdoo was way past his prime, and an aging Clemon Johnson was not as effective as he was in 1983. Katz was ready to part ways with the man who had brought the Sixers to the Promise Land just three years before. The temperamental owner dealt Moses to Washington for high-scoring forward Cliff Robinson and rugged big man Jeff Ruland.
The only bright spots in terms of reinforcements prior to the two trades behind the main core were young guard Sedale Threatt and the #1 pick in the 1986 draft. The Sixers acquired this pick from a trade in 1979 where they sent Joe Bryant (father of Kobe Bryant) away to the Clippers. The consensus amongst most draft experts was that UNC big man Brad Daugherty was going to be the first overall pick. The problem with the pick was that Sixers management was worried that Daugherty was not worth the #1 pick and they thought his game would not mesh well with rising star Charles Barkley so they decided to trade the pick to Cleveland for athletic forward Roy Hinson.
These two trades began the downward spiral that turned the Sixers from a perennial Eastern Conference contender to a team that hit rock bottom in the 1990s before drafting Allen Iverson in 1996. At first it didn’t stop them from winning 45 games in 1986-1987, losing once again to the Bucks in the first round of the playoffs. But these trades, along with other head-scratching moves eventually forced Charles Barkley out of town and pushed the team to a losing record in the seasons between 1991 and 1999 (the lockout year).
On paper the trades looked like they could work but on the court, they were a disaster. Jeff Ruland had gotten hurt and only played 116 total minutes in 1986-1987 and subsequently retired, playing just 18 games as a Sixer. Roy Hinson was traded in January of 1988 for Mike Gminski after just 105 games with the team. Cliff Robinson played three seasons in Philadelphia but didn’t show much and only played in 131 games out of a possible 246 games.
Brad Daugherty, meanwhile, was a five-time All-Star with the Cavaliers as the anchor of their defense on teams that went deep into the playoffs in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Malone kept chugging along putting up big numbers for another four seasons in Washington and Atlanta and was named an All-Star three more times.
Sixers fans will forever remember that awful day in the summer of 1986, but what most Sixers fans may not know is that a certain trade was on the brink of occurring that would have completely changed the paths of three franchises, and perhaps the entire NBA. While mulling offers in exchange for the three-time MVP, the team almost executed a trade with the Pistons that would have sent Moses to Motown. This is what the supposed trade would have looked like:
Pistons receive: Moses Malone
Sixers receive: Bill Laimbeer, Vinnie Johnson, Kelly Tripucka, and the 11th pick in the 1986 NBA Draft (John Salley)
Forget the Sixers for a second; imagine how this trade would have directly changed the history of the Detroit Pistons franchise. Of their 9-man rotation when they won back-to-back NBA championships in 1989 and 1990, four of those players would have been traded away in the summer of 1986. Bill Laimbeer was the emotional leader and starting center of the “Bad Boy” Pistons, Vinnie Johnson (aka the Microwave) was a clutch scorer off the bench who had the series-clinching shot in the 1990 NBA Finals, Kelly Tripucka was later traded to the Jazz for Adrian Dantley who was later traded for Mark Aguirre (a starter on the 1989 championship team), and John Salley was the fourth big man in the rotation behind Laimbeer, James Edwards, and Rick Mahorn. It’s hard to imagine seeing the Pistons nearly make four straight NBA Finals appearances between 1987-1990 without those four pieces in exchange for 30 year-old Moses Malone.
In terms of a rotation for the Pistons heading into 1986-1987 if they had traded for Malone, it would look something like this:
PG: Isiah Thomas
SG: Joe Dumars
SF: Dennis Rodman
PF: Sidney Green
C: Moses Malone
Off the bench: Rick Mahorn, Tony Campbell
So basically the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons probably don’t win back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990. Perhaps Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls are able to go past the Pistons in those years and win two more titles and have eight titles. Maybe Magic or Bird gets another championship under their belts. Maybe Clyde Drexler would have gotten the Trail Blazers over the hump and won a championship. If this trade would have happened, the important bridge between the end of the Celtics-Lakers dynasties with Bird and Magic in the 1980s into the Bulls dynasty with Jordan in the 1990s looks completely different. Not to say Moses Malone wasn’t still an All-Star-level player at age 30 but trading away players who were so important to a major contender would have ruined the Pistons short but great reign over the NBA.
So now let’s look at it from the Sixers perspective if this trade goes down:
With the retirement of Bobby Jones and the impending retirement of Julius Erving, the Sixers replenish their supporting cast with potential starters Bill Laimbeer and Kelly Tripucka and scoring machine Vinnie Johnson off the bench. Additionally, the Sixers would have the 1st, 11th, 21st, and the 44th picks in the 86 Draft.
So here is the rotation without trading the first pick and without drafting anyone, but have traded Moses Malone to Detroit:
PG: Maurice Cheeks, Sedale Threatt
SG: Kelly Tripucka, Andrew Toney, Vinnie Johnson
SF: Julius Erving
PF: Charles Barkley, Clemon Johnson
C: Bill Laimbeer
So without using any draft picks, this team already goes nine deep in its rotation. And now onto Draft Night 1986. While there are plenty of ways the draft would have gone, here is my take on how the draft would have gone:
First off, the Sixers take Daugherty first overall. He would perfectly compliment Charles Barkley in the 76ers frontcourt for the next decade as the defensive anchor and a smart, passive offensive playmaker. He would initially play behind Bill Laimbeer to start his career, but would still get major rotation minutes.
With the 11th pick, the Sixers take the player that the Pistons ended up drafting 4-time NBA champion John Salley. Salley would struggle to find minutes early in his tenure but over time would get minutes as the fourth big (behind Barkley, Laimbeer, and Daugherty) just as he had in Detroit (behind Laimbeer, James Edwards, and Rick Mahorn). Salley would give the team the flexibility for Barkley to play more on the perimeter to spell Julius Erving minutes at the twilight of his career as well.
With the 21st pick (Bullets took UNLV’s Anthony Jones [???]), the Sixers draft the real point guard of the future with Georgia Tech senior Mark Price. The 4-time All-Star would be the immediate back-up point guard and would eventually take over for veteran point guard Maurice Cheeks (An All-Star three straight from 1986-1988). Another option at this spot would have been Lithuanian center Arvydas Sabonis, but I don’t think the team would have been forward thinking enough to draft one of the best international players of all-time (didn’t come over to the NBA until 1995). With the 44th pick, the Sixers still select David Wingate.
This is now your 76ers rotation heading into the 1986-1987 season:
PG: Maurice Cheeks, Mark Price, Sedale Threatt
SG: Kelly Tripucka, Andrew Toney, Vinnie Johnson
SF: Julius Erving, David Wingate
PF: Charles Barkley, Clemon Johnson, John Salley
C: Bill Laimbeer, Brad Daugherty
This roster is now 13 deep. This means that John Salley and David Wingate would not see that many minutes and Andrew Toney had adequate support around him so he didn’t have to play as many minutes in the future.
Compare that group compared to what the Sixers trotted out in 1986-1987:
PG: Maurice Cheeks, Steve Colter, Sedale Threatt (traded on 12/31)
SG: David Wingate, Andrew Toney
SF: Julius Erving, Roy Hinson
PF: Charles Barkley, Cliff Robinson, Jeff Ruland (played 116 minutes)
C: Tim McCormick (acquired in exchange for Clemon Johnson on 9/29)
Now which roster would you rather have heading in Charles Barkley’ prime? I’d take the former with depth in the backcourt to help deal with the constant injuries to Andrew Toney as well as adequate help with Laimbeer, Daugherty, and Salley to offset the loss of former-MVP Moses Malone. The transition between the Malone-Erving 76ers to the Barkley-Daugherty 76ers would have been incredible. With some turnover (Cheeks, C. Johnson, Threatt, and Toney), enhanced veteran fire power (V. Johnson, Laimbeer, Tripucka) and talented young players (Daugherty, Price, Salley, Wingate), the Sixers would have been set for the next decade with Charles Barkley, one of the best 25 players to ever play the game, heading into his prime. Using those draft picks could have extended Andrew Toney’s career. He could have played less minutes but still contributed to help the team win.
One final and underrated move that happened because of the Moses Malone & Brad Daugherty trades was that Clemon Johnson was traded prior to the start of the 1986-1987 season because the team didn’t want a back-to-the basket center to start with Barkley. So Clemon was traded to the Seattle Supersonics in exchange for Tim McCormick and Danny Vranes. But in the deal, the Sixers also traded away a 1989 1st round pick. That pick eventually became Shawn Kemp, otherwise known as the Reign Man, leading great Sonics teams in the early to mid-1990s and was one of the greatest dunkers of all-time.
So now we know what the Sixers could have looked like if they traded aging superstar Moses Malone to the Detroit Pistons rather than the Washington Bullets. Just based on this one move, the entire landscape of the NBA could look different. If Brad Daugherty is on the Sixers, Michael Jordan’s shot over Craig Ehlo never happens, maybe Charles Barkley never leaves Philadelphia, maybe Andrew Toney’s career could have been extended, maybe the Sixers could have been the Bad Boys with Barkley and Laimbeer, and maybe instead of the Pistons winning back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990, perhaps the Philadelphia 76ers are back-to-back champions. Maybe the 76ers are the dynasty of the 1990s if Harold Katz and the front office don’t outsmart themselves by giving away draft picks.
We will never know would have been if Moses Malone were traded to Detroit instead of Washington D.C., but it sure is interesting (and kind of hurts) to think about.