Player Audit: Adrian Dantley
As his prize for winning the 2010 Basketball-Reference NCAA Tournament Pool contest, reader Ian was able to request a post on a basketball-related subject of his choosing. The topic he went with:
“As for a subject of the blog, I’ll go with my childhood hero, who I feel has long been unheralded by the masses, although I’ll admit my bias. I’d love to see a blog dedicated to one Adrian Delano Dantley.”
Great choice, Ian! Let’s get our Player Audit on…
Height: 6-5 Weight: 208 lbs.
Born: February 28, 1956 in Washington, District of Columbia
High School: DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Maryland
College: University of Notre Dame
Draft: Selected by the Buffalo Braves in the 1st round (6th pick, 6th overall) of the 1976 NBA draft.
Honors: NCAA All-American (2x), NBA All-Star (6x), 1977 NBA ROY, NBA Scoring Leader (2x). #4 Retired by Utah Jazz. Inducted into Hall of Fame as Player in 2008.
To this day, Dantley remains one of the most unique and underrated players in NBA history. Zander Hollander once said Dantley was “listed at 6-5, but more like 6-3”; he also said Dantley “never met a foul line he didn’t own”. In The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons wrote that we’ll never see another Dantley-type player again, and with good reason: Dantley was a 6’3½” small forward with a ridiculously effective low-post game, a guy who could basically get fouled whenever he felt like it (he shot 11 free throws per 36 minutes at his peak), had good midrange touch but no 3-point range, poured in nearly 31 PPG at his peak as strictly a halfcourt scorer, and didn’t defend a soul. In short, Dantley was the absolute antithesis of everything you think of a small forward being today (aside from the foul-drawing, which LeBron James has gotten pretty good at for reasons we can all disagree on). And yet he shares one thing in common with almost every great small forward in league history — he could fill it up like nobody’s business.
Dantley was always pegged for stardom — he was one of Morgan Wootten’s all-time best players at DeMatha High School, and he had an impressive NCAA career at Notre Dame, helping the Irish snap UCLA’s 88-game winning streak as a freshman and garnering All-American honors during his sophomore and junior seasons. Drafted 6th overall by the Buffalo Braves, the 20-year-old Dantley promptly averaged 20 PPG on .520 shooting and won the Rookie of the Year award in 1977.
But in a move that foreshadowed so many others, Dantley was traded by Buffalo to Indiana after winning ROY honors — making him the only NBA player to hold this distinction — in exchange for high-scoring Pacer Billy Knight (whom the Braves/Clippers would end up shipping to Boston just a year later anyway). After a brief layover in Indiana, it was off to the Lakers for Dantley, where he dropped below 20 PPG due to a redundant role with Jamaal Wilkes. When the Lakers dealt Dantley to Utah for former All-Star Spencer Haywood in September 1979, Dantley finally found some measure of stability in his fourth city in three pro seasons.
The Lakers would go on to win the NBA title without Dantley (thanks to some guy named Magic), but the drug-addled Haywood was a total non-factor, and Dantley averaged 28 PPG as the Jazz’s star player. Over the next 7 seasons, the undersized low-post machine would post truly ridiculous efficiency marks, leading all players in Offensive Rating from 1980-86 despite one of the highest Usage %’s in the league. He also shot 53 foul shots for every 100 field goal attempts, one of the best marks in the game (and certainly the best by a player 6’5″ or shorter). As a result, Dantley had more Offensive Win Shares than any other player during his Jazz days — more than Bird, Magic, Kareem, Moses, you name it. You want to be shocked? Look at Dantley’s Offensive Rating and Possession% numbers next to Larry Bird‘s over that span:
Unbelievable… From 1980-86, at the same ages, Dantley was without question a more effective offensive player than Larry Bird was for six of the seven seasons… Wrap your brain around that.
Unfortunately for Dantley, though, defense is the other half of the game — and as good as A.D. was offensively, that’s almost how bad he was on D. Frank Layden locked horns with his star often, and it’s not hard to see why: with Dantley as their best player, Utah ranked dead last in points allowed per possession in 1980, and 4th-to-last in ’81 & ’82. Surprisingly, the Jazz made a quantum leap on defense in 1983 and were the NBA’s best by 1985, but that had little to do with Dantley and everything to do with the addition of 2-time DPOY Mark Eaton at center. According to Defensive Points Added, Dantley didn’t show much (if any) improvement despite the Jazz’s meteoric rise on D:
The other knock on Dantley was his poor reputation as a teammate — allegedly he was not a team player, unwilling to sacrifice shots & touches for the greater good, and prone to a bad attitude when his scoring numbers were threatened. After the 1986 season, Layden had grown so weary of his battles with Dantley that Utah shipped him to the rising Pistons for Kent Benson and Kelly Tripucka. In 1987, Dantley seemed to get the last laugh over Layden and every coach who ripped him (Cotton Fitzsimmons once said that no team could ever win with Dantley) when Tripucka flopped badly in Utah, and A.D. led the Pistons in scoring en route to the Conference Finals, losing to Boston in no small part because Dantley was knocked out of Game 7 with a concussion (in addition to the obvious: Isiah Thomas’ infamous turnover to Bird in Game 5).
In 1988, Detroit moved closer to the brink of a title with Dantley as their leading scorer, but they lost the 7th and deciding game of the Finals after spotting the Lakers a 15-point lead in the 4th quarter, a deficit that proved too big to overcome despite a furious rally (really, you should watch the whole thing play out, it was like the 2000 Blazers-Lakers Game 7 if the Blazers had managed to hold on). After that disappointing defeat, the Pistons prepared for another deep postseason run, but Dantley and Thomas clashed over who was the team’s Alpha Dog, and Dantley had issues with Detroit coach Chuck Daly as well. In the middle of the 1989 season, “Trader” Jack McCloskey swapped Dantley with Dallas’ Mark Aguirre, a similar (if less productive) all-offense, no-D forward who was friends with Thomas and more willing to accept a lesser role as Thomas and Joe Dumars grew into more offensive responsibility. As if to validate Fitzsimmons’ old critique, the Pistons went on to win the first of 2 consecutive titles within months of Dantley’s departure to Big D.
In Dallas, Dantley was markedly less effective than he’d been in Detroit, even before a broken leg in 1990 essentially ended his career. But when he retired in 1991, Dantley was 13th all-time in career PPG with 24.3 and had taken the 6th-most free throw attempts of any player in league history (he was 4th in career FTM). He was also the 3rd-most prolific scorer of the 1980s, scoring more points in fewer games and with a higher FG% than Larry Bird.
Any assessment of Dantley’s career has to acknowledge that he didn’t win a championship, that his teams typically got better after he left, that he was a poor defensive player, and that he generally had a one-dimensional game (he didn’t really rebound, pass, handle the ball, shoot from long range, get out in transition, block shots, defend, or do much of anything anything beyond scoring massive amounts of points around the basket and at the line). You also have to judge him on the fact that his coaches disliked him, and he was traded 5 times because of personality/ego conflicts. But you can’t overstate Dantley’s brilliance as a pure scorer. Hollander once wrote, “The Sun rises in the East and Adrian Dantley averages 30 PPG,” which is what they should put on his headstone someday. In the pantheon of guys who could simply fill up the basket with volume and efficiency, the list of players ahead of Dantley is short. Every player has weaknesses, and Dantley certainly had his share, but few have had strengths as remarkable as A.D.’s.