Nearly 38 years ago, the Celtics made one of the great trades in the history of the franchise when they got Dennis Johnson a strong starting point guard from Phoenix for Rick Robey, who was a solid backup center, but nothing more. Boston would go on to make the next four NBA Finals, winning two, while Robey was out of the NBA by 1986.
After the runaway success of the Celtics, the trade was widely seen as an obvious fleecing by Red Auerbach of Jerry Colangelo and the Suns. This view is undoubtedly correct. I wondered if the conditions around the trade were at least slightly more complicated than this view and whether there was any reasonable basis for Phoenix to do this deal. Let’s dive back to 1983 and see…
State of the Boston Celtics in the Summer 1983
Boston was a great team but the dynasty was not yet assured. Boston had Larry Bird for four years (and Kevin McHale and Robert Parish for three) and had been quite competitive but they were only one of many good teams in the East at the time. Here’s a quick review of the results in Boston since Bird had gotten to town:
1979-80: 61-21, 1st in Atlantic, 7.37 SRS (1st in NBA), lost 4-1 to 76ers in Conference Finals
1980-81: 62-20, 1st in Atlantic, 6.05 SRS (3rd in NBA behind 76ers and Bucks), won title
1981-82: 63-19, 1st in Atlantic, 6.35 SRS (1st in NBA), lost 4-3 to 76ers in Conference Finals
1982-83: 56-26 2nd in Atlantic, 5.34 SRS (2nd in NBA behind 76ers), lost 4-0 to Bucks in Semifinals
The broad numbers show that Boston was as good as its rivals, Milwaukee and Philly, but not clearly better. On top of that, they were decisively beaten by Milwaukee in 1983, which added a little more weight to the inkling that the team needed help.
To color in the details, Boston was viewed as struggling at the end of the 1982-83 season. Anthony Cotton wrote in Sports Illustrated on May 2, 1983 that: “[b]y the end of January  it was obvious that Boston wouldn’t catch the 76ers and also that Central Division-leading Milwaukee wouldn’t be able to bump the Celtics out of the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. As a result Boston became, according to Center-Forward Kevin McHale, ‘an average team. If we won five games in a row it didn’t matter; if we lost five in a row it didn’t matter. So what was the point?’” Cotton further wrote that there were reports that the team was “bickering incessantly with each other” and that the team was sick of coach Bill Fitch.
After a tough first rounder mini-series versus Atlanta, Boston was then swept by the Bucks in convincing fashion. The Bucks outscored Boston by nearly 12 points per game (the closest game was Game 2, which Bird actually sat out with flu). The whooping was reported widely. David Dupree wrote in the Washington Post that Milwaukee “left the once proud and mighty Celtics in a crumbled, embarrassed heap.” Bird told Dupree that “I’ve never been this embarrassed in my entire career, and this is going to hurt for a long time because we didn’t play to our potential. When we were backed against the wall and challenged, we were supposed to come through like the champions I thought we were, and we didn’t. We embarrassed ourselves and I’ll live with that the rest of my life.” To pour salt on that open wound, Sidney Moncrief said that “I know a lot of Boston fans are wondering what happened to their Celtics, but they just got beaten by a better team at the time.”
Losing a tough playoff series in the NBA has always meant the sky was falling for the losing team. Boston left that series definitely feeling that they were behind Philly (who would beat Milwaukee and win the title), as well as the Bucks. From a stats perspective, the Boston big men had played well but guards had struggled. Danny Ainge and Gerald Henderson were okay offensively but Moncrief had torn them up and looked like the best player on either team (23.3 ppg, .547 TS%, 6.5 rpg, 4.0 apg). The point guard situation was bad both offensively and defensively for the Celts. Tiny Archibald shot .311% and Quinn Buckner had shot .333%. Putting aside the failure versus Milwaukee, here are the stats of the Boston guards for the 82-83 season:
-Tiny Archibald, age 34: 27.4 mpg, 10.5 ppg, .425 FG%, 1.4 rpg, 6.2 apg, 12.3 PER, .077 WS/48, -2.0 BPM, 0.0 VORP
-Danny Ainge, age 23: 25.6 mpg, 9.9 ppg, .496 FG%, 2.7 rpg, 3.1 apg, 13.2 PER, .121 WS/48, 0.2 BPM, 1.2 VORP
-Quinn Buckner, age 28: 21.7 mpg, 7.9 ppg, .442 FG%, 2.6 rpg, 3.8 apg, 11.5 PER, .048 WS/48, -1.4 BPM, 0.2 VORP
-Gerald Henderson, age 27: 18.9 mpg, 8.2 ppg, .463 FG%, 1.5 rpg, 2.4 apg, 12.1 PER, .073 WS/48, -1.5 BPM, 0.2 VORP
Not good. Ainge was young and average-ish. The rest of the crew was below replacement level and not particularly young (or pretty old in the case of Tiny). Fitch ended up quitting after the season to take the Houston job (which took some heat off of the players) but a point guard was desperately needed and a better shooting guard wouldn’t have hurt either.
Phoenix and DJ
By 1983, Dennis Johnson had been a perennial All-Star. He made the All-Star team four straight years but the streak was snapped in 1982-83 when it was perceived that his numbers had dipped a bit. Check out the differences:
-Johnson 78-82, ages 24-27: 35.0 mpg, 18.3 ppg, .440 FG%, 4.9 rpg, 4.0 apg, 16.1 PER, .130 WS/48, 1.5 BPM, 2.5 VORP
-Johnson 82-83, age 28: 33.1 mpg, 14.2 ppg, .462 FG%, 4.4 rpg, 5.0 apg, 14.8 PER, .125 WS/48, 0.9 BPM, 1.9 VORP
He really wasn’t that far off of his peak but the big drop in scoring is noticeable. Still, he was pretty good. The numbers, however, weren’t put up in a vacuum. DJ had a reputation as a bit of a pain in Seattle and later in Phoenix. Here’s a quick rundown of his past:
-Pre-NBA: One of 16 kids from a large family in Compton, California, DJ didn’t really play much high school ball. He began working after high school and grew from 5’9 to about 6’4 and made a junior college team. From there, he went to Pepperdine for two years and was an underdog second-round pick for Seattle.
-Seattle: Johnson quickly became a starter in Seattle and helped bring a balanced squad to two straight NBA finals in 1978 and 1979. They won the 1979 Finals and DJ was the MVP. DJ became unhappy with his contract and was traded to Phoenix after the 1979-80 season (despite the fact that Seattle gave him the contract he wanted). Seattle coach Lenny Wilkens blamed DJ for locker room issues and called him a “cancer” on the team. The reason for the beef wasn’t clear but a 1985 Los Angeles Times article reported that “It has been said that Johnson didn’t like Wilkens’ laid-back approach to the game in Seattle. There also were problems because Johnson sought a contract renegotiation after the SuperSonics had won the NBA title.” Whatever the reason, DJ was traded for Paul Westphal, another All-Star guard.
-Phoenix: The Suns were pretty good with Johnson but playoff success was a big issue. They went 57-25 in 1980-81 but were upset in the semifinals by the Kansas City Kings. Johnson shot pretty well and led the team in scoring and minutes played. In 1981-82, the Suns were 46-36 but were swept away by the better Showtime Lakers. Finally, in 1982-83, they improved to 53-29 but, this time, they lost the “mini-series” to Denver 2-1. DJ has a good series (18.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 5.7 apg, 1.7 spg, 0.7 bpg) but the sense was the team was going sideways.
On top of that, DJ was feuding with coach John MacLeod. Again, the source of the problem was not clear but, that same L.A. Time article noted that: “Johnson reportedly didn’t warm up to MacLeod’s practice rituals, which included aerobics and wind sprints.” The 1984 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball reflected his lower stock in its bio saying that Johnson “claims to be misunderstood…but he never seems to stay in one place for long before making people dissatisfied…Was blamed for the fact that the Suns have come up short in the playoffs that last three years…Seems basically insecure and always talks big.”
In a May 26, 1986 Sports Illustrated article, Suns teammate Rich Kelley said that: “Dennis had more problems with [coach John] MacLeod and the front office than with the players. He’d constantly try to get MacLeod’s goat, but it was all little things, practice stuff.” As Bob Ryan told SI: “Once or twice every year that will happen [with DJ on the Celtics]. It’s as if he’s reminding us that it’s D.J. out there and not some Stepford Guard. But whatever’s bugging him is gone by the next game. You never know why, and you can’t ever know. You can open door after door after door, but you’ll never get at the real D.J.”
In 1996, Peter May addressed DJ’s moods in “The Last Banner,” quoting Ainge about Johnson: “In those early years, DJ had a spat with everybody. We even got into it a couple times in five years. But there was always an apology the next day. That’s the way he was.” Johnson told May in the same book that that DJ had been too stubborn in Seattle and there were no real major issues in Phoenix.
The upshot was that DJ could definitely be a pain in the ass at times and you had to accept that as part of the package. Phoenix was apparently sick of it and ready to move on. Not a crazy idea but the concept is one thing…the real question was what would the return be?
Boston was clearly in the market for a veteran guard and Phoenix could offer DJ. Objectively, DJ’s value was lower than it should’ve been due to the low-level turmoil with MacLeod and Phoenix’s playoff frustrations. Still, there were very few good guards on the market. The only other guards traded in the summer/fall 1983 were Norm Nixon, also a very good player but one whom the Lakers would never trade to Boston. Lesser options were lukewarm players like Billy McKinney, Kelvin Ransey, or Billy Knight. Nixon fetched a high draft pick (rookie Byron Scott) but the others were traded for filler.
Even a devalued DJ should’ve been able to return more than McKinney, Ransey, or Knight. Yet, the Johnson trade looks even weirder when you dig into the parts:
Boston traded: Rickey Robey and two second-round picks (28th overall pick Rod Foster, who lasted three seasons as a PG and Paul Williams, the 45th pick, who didn’t make the team).
Phoenix traded: Dennis Johnson, a first-round pick (21st pick, ended up being Greg Kite) and a third-round pick (ended up being Winfred King, who never made the NBA)
(Ironically, Doc Rivers was available at 31 and would’ve been pretty good for Boston too).
Basically, the implication of the trade was that DJ was worth less than Robey, so they had to throw in a higher pick to even things up. Robey’s numbers don’t support that finding. Here are his 82-83 numbers:
-Robey, age 27: 14.5 mpg, 4.2 ppg, .467 FG%, 3.7 rpg, 8.6 PER, .049 WS/48, -3.5 BPM, -0.3 VORP
And before you argue that maybe Robey has some hidden value to Boston that the stats don’t see, the guy played 29 total minutes in five1983 playoff games (and racked up DNPs in the other two) and shot 0-4 for the playoffs with 2 total points. He was as replaceable as any player on the team.
So, this trade makes no objective sense on any level. Robey was pretty worthless to Boston and, even a little DJ was a real actual starter. What gives? The only plausible explanations:
-Money: We don’t have contract data from that prehistoric time before the salary cap but it’s fair to assume Johnson was making more. The 1986 SI article quoted John Johnson as saying that Seattle gave him a deal worth $800,000 per year in 1979, which was big money in the early 1980s when the NBA was struggling (Peter May said DJ was making $400,000 at the time, which was still big money).
-Off-the-court-stuff: We know DJ didn’t get along with MacLeod and there was some innuendo of other issues but this was totally unconfirmed.
-Management Stupidity: Jerry Colangelo was usually pretty shrewd. It’s hard to believe he would give up talent for so little unless something else was at play.
Without any inside knowledge, and incomplete facts, the fair conclusion on this deal was that DJ was a salary dump. MacLeod didn’t like him and he made a lot of cash. Boston was willing to pay him and, therefore, they got him (and a first-rounder!) to clear Phoenix’s payroll. Credit to Red for getting his ownership to foot the bill but this was more big business investment than Auerbach using voodoo magic on the Suns. Either way, Boston ain’t complaining.