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Adrian Dantley Couldn’t Stop Scoring (Slept On Sports Ep. 18)

Image from the Deseret News

Here is the latest episode of my podcast, Slept On Sports. I don’t usually share these episodes on Medium, but I thought I would this time around for the incredible story of Adrian Dantley.

You can listen to the episode on Spotify or Apple Podcasts or read a transcript below.

Six players in NBA history have averaged at least 30 points per game in a season four times. Four players have done so four years in a row. Their names are Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, and Adrian Dantley. Today, we’ll take a look at that last guy.

I’m Connor Groel, and this is Slept On Sports, the podcast that takes interesting, lesser-known sports stories (stories you could say have been slept-on), and brings them back into the light.

This episode focuses on Adrian Dantley, the 6’5” (and that’s being generous) small forward also known as “The Teacher” or simply “A.D.” Dantley blended offensive production and efficiency like few players in NBA history. But for as talented a scorer Dantley was, he struggled to find team success. Dantley never won an NBA championship and frequently found himself traded.

The story of Dantley and many of his teams in the 70s and 80s is a wild one, so be prepared. But Dantley was already a very accomplished player by the time he reached the NBA, so we’ll start from the beginning.

Adrian Dantley was born on Feb. 28, 1955, in Washington D.C. Dantley’s parents divorced when he was three years old, and he was raised primarily by his mother and his aunt.

The lack of a father figure made life tough for Dantley, and he learned at a young age to hide his emotions. His mom always had to ask him how he was doing because she could never tell, and even as an NBA superstar, Dantley was never a vocal leader. He had a great work ethic but preferred to train alone.

Dantley wasn’t one to wear an artificial smile. That doesn’t mean he was always cold or unhappy, but it did lead to him feeling misunderstood for much of his career.

Dantley attended DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, MD, where he played under legendary coach Morgan Wootten, who holds the distinction of being the first coach who coached exclusively at the high school level to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Over 46 seasons at DeMatha from 1956–2002, Wootten compiled an overall record of 1,274–192, winning five national championships. Dantley went 57–2 during his time at DeMatha, where he also played with Kenny Carr, who would be Dantley’s teammate at the Olympics and in the NBA.

But Dantley’s success, even at the high school level, didn’t come without doubters. At 235 pounds, people thought he was too heavy to be a successful player. Even after slimming down to 225 in college and between 205–210 for much of his NBA career, people always said he was too short to be an inside player and too slow to be out on the perimeter.

Dantley also had to wear custom inserts in his shoes to compensate for one of his legs being nearly two inches shorter than the other. Needless to say, there was never a lack of motivation to prove people wrong.

After graduating from high school, Dantley went to Notre Dame to play for coach Digger Phelps. As a freshman, he immediately made a huge impact, averaging 18.3 points and 9.1 rebounds per game for a 26–3 Fighting Irish team that finished 5th in the AP Poll, the school’s highest AP Poll finish at the time.

Most famously, Dantley played 32 minutes in Notre Dame’s historic victory against UCLA on Jan. 19, 1974, snapping the Bruins’ 88-game win streak, which remains a men’s Division-I record.

Dantley was a consensus first-team All-American the following two seasons, averaging 30.4 points and 10.2 rebounds as a sophomore and 28.6 points and 10.1 rebounds as a junior. For his career, Dantley averaged 25.8 points and 8.9 rebounds per game on an extremely efficient 56.2% from the field. He currently sits third on Notre Dame’s all-time scoring list behind Austin Carr and Luke Harangody.

Dantley declared for the 1976 NBA Draft after his junior year and was selected by the Buffalo Braves with the 6th overall pick.

That summer, Dantley was chosen to represent Team USA at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, as players with NBA experience were still ineligible to compete. Dantley was the leading scorer on the team and scored 30 points in the gold medal game vs. Yugoslavia, which the United States won 95–74.

Dantley was able to carry that momentum into his rookie season with the Braves, where he averaged 20.3 points and 7.6 rebounds per game and was awarded Rookie of the Year.

However, that offseason, something strange happened — Dantley was traded. It marked the first time a player won Rookie of the Year and was traded the following offseason. Despite his height, Dantley preferred to operate out of the post, and Braves owner John Brown was concerned by the team having three inside scorers with Dantley, his former Notre Dame teammate John Shumate, and the recently acquired Swen Nater.

Or, at least, that’s how he described it. Most people thought that Brown, who previously owned the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels, wanted more former ABA players on the team. Either way, Brown, who is also known for growing KFC into one of the largest fast-food chains in the nation and serving as Governor of Kentucky, shipped Dantley and Mike Bantom to the Indiana Pacers for guard Billy Knight, who had just finished 2nd in the league in scoring but would never reach those heights again.

So, Adrian Dantley packed his bags and headed to Indiana. Dantley was clearly blossoming into a superstar and had a tremendous start to the 1977–78 season, averaging 26.5 points, 9.4 rebounds, and more than two steals over his first 23 games.

But incredibly, that’s where his time with the Pacers ended, as once more, he was abruptly traded.

Look — I’m sorry, but this one still doesn’t make any sense to me. The Billy Knight thing — fine — I get it. But this trade was absurd. It involved two players on each side and cash being sent Indiana’s way but was effectively Adrian Dantley for the Lakers’ rookie center James Edwards, who was averaging 15 and 7 at the time.

Sure, the Pacers needed a big man, but I just can’t fathom that this was the way to do it. Dantley was still just 22 years old himself and looked to be the face of the franchise. Edwards never became an All-Star. After fewer than four months with the Pacers, Dantley was now a Los Angeles Laker.

The Lakers were firmly Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s team, but Dantley immediately slotted in as the team’s second option, averaging more than 19 per game for the Lakers for the rest of the season. Despite finishing just 14th in the league in total points scored, Dantley led the NBA in both free throws made and attempted in his second season, making nearly seven free throws per game and shooting 80% from the line.

Drawing fouls was one of Dantley’s best attributes. During his career, he would lead the league in free throws made five times. He still ranks 10th all-time in free throws made and 6th in made free throws per game.

Dantley had impressive lower-body strength and a devastating arsenal of head-fakes and jab steps that made him a menace in 1-on-1 situations. He loved to play mind games with his opponents, frequently dribbling the ball high to induce reach-in fouls and intentionally allowing defenders to block his first shot in big games to make them think they could guard him. His playstyle was similar to someone like Carmelo Anthony, with the ability to draw whistles like James Harden.

Adrian Dantley would spend one more season with the Lakers, but dealt with injuries and the emergence of Jamaal Wilkes, who he competed with at the small forward position. He still averaged more than 17 a night, but the Lakers had to make a decision and chose Wilkes. After the season, Dantley was traded for the third time in just over two years. This time, he was sent to the Jazz for Spencer Haywood.

Things worked out well for the Lakers — they drafted Magic Johnson and proceeded to win a championship the next season, and five titles in nine years overall. But Haywood struggled. The five-time All-Star and 1970 ABA MVP developed a cocaine addiction and was merely a role player on his one season with the Lakers.

In fact, coach Paul Westhead dismissed Haywood from the team during the NBA Finals for falling asleep during practice due to his addiction. Haywood’s anger at his dismissal led him to form a plan with a Detroit gangster that would have ended with the murder of Coach Westhead.

Luckily, Haywood never went through with the plan and was able to get his life back together while playing in Italy the following season. He then managed to make a comeback for two years with the Washington Bullets before ending his career and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015.

The Haywood trade meant Dantley joined the Jazz as they relocated from New Orleans to Utah. The New Orleans Jazz had not been a successful franchise — in five seasons, they failed to ever make the playoffs or finish with a winning record. Their franchise player during this time, Pete Maravich, was also on his way out. Struggling heavily with knee injuries, Pistol Pete would only play 17 games with Dantley in Utah before being placed on waivers and finishing his career with the Celtics.

This was not a good team, but after being traded three times, Dantley found it difficult to trust people within the league. With the Jazz, it was clear he would be the centerpiece.

The Jazz went just 24–58 under new coach Tom Nissalke in their first season in Utah, but Dantley exploded for 28 points per game on better than 57% from the field while also leading the team in rebounds per game and steals per game. For the first time, Dantley was named an All-Star.

Sadly, tragedy struck during the offseason, when Terry Furlow, the team’s starting shooting guard and second-leading scorer, was killed in a car crash.

Furlow’s passing would make things even tougher for the Jazz, who relied on players in their age-25 season or younger for nearly 76% of all minutes on the court.

Luckily, the team used their #2 pick in the 1980 NBA Draft on Darrell Griffith, who stepped in at shooting guard and averaged 20.6 points per game on his way to Rookie of the Year. Dantley also continued to increase his production, averaging 30.7 points per game and collecting his first scoring title in the process. No other player on the team averaged in double figures.

Adrian Dantley won the scoring title while playing for a 28–54 team that finished 22nd out of 23 NBA teams in points per game, and just 18th in offensive rating. That’s pretty remarkable.

The 1981–82 season marked a turning point for the Jazz, at least in playstyle if not overall success. 20 games into the season, general manager Frank Layden fired Tom Nissalke and took over head coaching duties himself. While the Jazz again struggled, going 25–57 despite another 30-point-per-game season from Dantley, they played at the third-fastest pace in the league after being the NBA’s slowest team during their first two seasons in Utah. They’d spend each of the next three seasons in the top-three in pace.

In the 1982 NBA Draft, the Jazz selected Dominique Wilkins with the 3rd overall pick but traded him before the season for John Drew and Freeman Williams. They also drafted the all-time great shot-blocker Mark Eaton.

After starting the year strong with career-high averages in points, field goal percentage, and assists through his first 22 games, Dantley tore ligaments in his right wrist fighting for a rebound with Artis Gilmore. The injury ended his season, and the Jazz went 30–52.

Dantley’s first four seasons with the Jazz had been underwhelming in terms of team success, but 1983–84 was the year things finally came together for the franchise. Dantley himself picked up right where he left off, averaging 30.6 points per game and capturing both his second scoring title and Comeback Player of the Year honors.

It was his fourth straight season averaging at least 30 points per game on great efficiency. Of the 74 times a player has averaged 30 points per game, all four of Dantley’s seasons rank top-10 in true shooting percentage. Stephen Curry is the only player to average 30 points per game in a season on a better true shooting percentage than Dantley.

Dantley also took his knack for drawing fouls to the next level, making 10.3 free throws per game, the third-most in a season in NBA history. In a Jan. 4 game against the Rockets, Dantley tied Wilt Chamberlain’s record of 28 made free throws in a game that was set during Chamberlain’s 100-point performance. Dantley missed just one free throw in the game, finishing with 46 points in his team’s victory.

Adrian Dantley was far from the only Jazz player to lead the NBA in an individual statistic in the 1983–84 season. Rickey Green topped the NBA with 2.65 steals per game and Mark Eaton’s 4.28 blocks per game put him in first by a landslide.

But easily the greatest statistic from this Jazz season is that Darrell Griffith led the NBA in three-point percentage at 36.1%, a figure that would put him below average in today’s game, where the league shot 36.7% from behind the arc in the 2020–21 regular season.

In 1983–84, the league made just 25% of triples, and teams attempted just 2.4 threes per game. Griffith went 91 of 252 from distance, while the rest of the Jazz were only 10–65 (Dantley went 1–4). Griffith made more threes by himself than any other NBA team did, and no individual player attempted even half as many. It was a different time back then.

The Jazz finished 45–37, giving them their first winning season in franchise history. Incredibly, that was good enough to win the Midwest Division. Because division winners were guaranteed the top seeds in the playoffs, the Utah Jazz went from never appearing in the postseason to the #2 seed in the Western Conference despite going just 15–15 within their division and finishing with the same overall record as the #6 seed in the East.

In the postseason, the Jazz won their opening-round series against the Nuggets but fell to the Suns in the conference semifinals.

Following the 1984 playoffs, Dantley’s relationship with the Jazz and head coach Frank Layden began to deteriorate. Entering the final year of his contract, Dantley sought an extension. Negotiations with the Jazz lasted into the season as Dantley missed the team’s first six games before an agreement was reached.

The 1984–85 season was the rookie year for John Stockton, who would spend three seasons primarily as a backup before emerging as one of the top point guards in the league. Karl Malone would join the Jazz the following season, averaging 15 points and nine rebounds per game as a rookie in 1985–86.

Dantley averaged a combined 28.5 points per game over those two seasons, but the Jazz were unable to make it past the second round of the playoffs. Late in the 1985–86 season, Dantley defended Malone in a locker room confrontation with Layden. He then missed the entire first-round playoff series (which saw the Jazz fall 3–1 to the Mavericks) with back spasms, although Layden seemed to believe Dantley could have played.

After publicly shopping Dantley, he was traded along with two second-round picks to the Detroit Pistons for Kelly Tripucka and Kent Benson. Jazz president Dave Checketts would later say, “We were never so happy to get rid of a guy in the history of the franchise.” That seems harsh, but a move was best for both sides.

Dantley averaged 29.6 points per game over his seven seasons in Utah. George Gervin was 2nd in the NBA with just 26 points per game over that span. Dantley was named an All-Star six times (every year except for 1982–83, when he played just 22 games), and took the team to its first three postseasons. But for the fourth time, he was traded.

Similar to the Jazz, the Pistons had endured a long period of losing seasons but were a middle-of-the-road playoff team over the past three years. The Pistons were coached by Chuck Daly and led by Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer, with role players in Vinnie Johnson and their young guard Joe Dumars. Along with Dantley, the team would be adding a rookie named Dennis Rodman to the mix.

This was instantly the greatest team Dantley had played on. In the 1986–87 season, the Pistons reached the Eastern Conference Finals, losing in seven games to the Celtics in the series where Larry Bird famously stole Thomas’s inbound pass. It was a more balanced team, but Dantley still led the Pistons in scoring with 21.5 per game.

The following season, Dantley averaged 20 points per game and the Pistons got their revenge on the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, setting up an NBA Finals matchup with the Lakers. But in what would be Dantley’s only Finals appearance, the Pistons’ furious rally in the fourth quarter of Game 7 came up just short, and the Lakers collected their fifth championship of the decade.

Midway through the 1988–89 season, the Pistons would trade Adrian Dantley and a first-round pick to the Mavericks in exchange for Mark Aguirre. Dantley had now played for five NBA teams and been traded five times.

It was a controversial move for Detroit to trade away one of the star players from a title favorite. However, they were still able to finish with a league-best 63–19 record and run through the playoffs, dropping just two games in the entire postseason and sweeping the Lakers in a Finals rematch. It would be the first of two consecutive championships for the team.

While everything seemed fine on the outside, prior to the trade, tension had been building in the locker room between Dantley and Thomas. Isiah was good friends with Aguirre, and Dantley believed that Isiah had control over the Pistons and orchestrated the move.

Dantley still refers to Thomas as a “con man” and believes that had he sucked up to Thomas, he would never have been traded.

But there were also disagreements between Dantley and both coach Daly and general manager Jack McCloskey. Dantley, who thrived in isolation sets, wanted more touches, while Daly wanted a faster style of play and increased ball movement. Dantley also didn’t want to lose minutes to Dennis Rodman, whose toughness and defensive-minded playstyle fit the team’s emerging “Bad Boys” identity while Dantley was always a below-average defender.

It was another untimely exit from a future title-winning team for Dantley, and while it’s been suggested he was a difficult teammate, Pistons players such as Joe Dumars and John Salley have stood up for Dantley in that regard.

For his part, Dantley has called his tenure with the Pistons the most fun time of his career and says he’s happy they won their titles.

Dantley’s career after leaving Detroit isn’t particularly memorable. His trade to Dallas came just before his 34th birthday, and after finishing the 1988–89 season strong, Dantley began to slow down the following season, which ended prematurely when he broke his leg.

He was subsequently released and saw his final playing time in the NBA in April 1991, where he made 10 appearances in limited minutes for the Milwaukee Bucks. For his career, Dantley averaged 24.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game on 54.0% from the field and 81.8% from the free-throw line.

Upon his retirement, Dantley was 9th on the NBA’s All-Time scoring list with 23,177 points. He currently sits 29th on that list.

Following the end of his NBA career, Dantley played one season in Italy before becoming an assistant coach at Towson State under Terry Truax, who had been Morgan Wootten’s assistant during Dantley’s time at DeMatha Catholic. He later spent eight seasons as an assistant coach for the Denver Nuggets, which were coincidentally Carmelo Anthony’s eight seasons with the team.

These days, Dantley is a school crossing guard in Montgomery County, MD. He also referees basketball games in the area.

Adrian Dantley leaves behind a complicated legacy. During his peak, he was the greatest scorer in the NBA, but his style demanded lots of touches. That was fine on younger, less-talented Jazz teams, but Dantley never won 50 games in a regular season until he joined the Pistons.

Players of Dantley’s caliber aren’t often traded, but Dantley was moved five times. On the first three occasions, he was mainly a victim of circumstance, but he was clearly more responsible for being traded away from Utah and Detroit.

Dantley was an Olympic gold medalist, but never an NBA Champion, and remains one of the lesser-discussed scoring champions in league history, particularly post-merger. He currently has the highest career true shooting percentage of any member of the 20,000 point club.

Dantley was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008, cementing his status as an all-time great. Exactly how great is up for debate, but Dantley was a unique type of player we’ll likely never see again. Regardless of where he slots onto the list of the top small forwards in league history, Adrian Dantley is a Slept On Sports legend.

Connor Groel is a graduate student at Northwestern’s Medill School. He is the editor of the Top Level Sports publication on Medium and host of the Slept On Sports podcast. His debut collection is available on Amazon.

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Connor Groel

Connor Groel

Professional sports researcher. Author of 2 books. Relentlessly curious. https://linktr.ee/connorgroel