The trade deadline has come again and this year’s relatively mild events had me thinking back to, perhaps, the biggest late season trade when the Atlanta Hawks traded franchise icon Dominique Wilkins to the Clippers for Danny Manning in February 1994. Even 27 years later, it still seems odd that this deal happened. Let’s take a look back and see if things make more sense now than they did then…
1993-94: Atlanta Surprises in a non-MJ World
Before we get into the specifics of the deal, let’s better understand the context. 1993-94 was an odd season. Michael Jordan abruptly retired in training camp, seemingly ceding the Eastern Conference to the Knicks. New York had the best record in the East in 1992-93 and lost a tough Eastern Conference Finals to the Bulls. Without MJ, the Bulls looked done as a contender (the third best team in the East in 1992-93, the Cleveland Cavaliers, were also looking long-in-the-tooth).
In reality, the Knicks ended up getting a run for their money from the MJ-less Bulls (thanks to great seasons from Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant). The Hawks, however, were the real surprise contender in 1993-94. In 1992-93, the Hawks were 43-39 and a blah playoff team (they were swept by the Bulls). The Hawks’ core was Wilkins, who put up 30 ppg at age-33, and Kevin Willis the big power forward (18 pg, 13 rpg). Atlanta was relatively good offensively with those two (10th) but miserable on defense (23rd). Coach Bob Weiss was fired after the season and replaced with long-time Cleveland coach Lenny Wilkens.
Atlanta’s Unexpected Success While at the Crossroads with Nique
In the summer of 1993, Dominique had one year left on his contract. He was already a dunking/scoring legend for the Hawks but they had not won a playoff series since 1987-88 and, with his age and contract, Wilkins was obvious trade bait for a stagnant team that need to rebuild. But the Hawks didn’t trade him that summer. In fact, the Hawks brought back the same core in 1993-94, only Nique was now 34 and Willis was 31. The only key players added were 32-year old backup guard Craig Ehlo (a Wilkens favorite in Cleveland) and average(ish) center Andrew Lang.
That sure sounded like a recipe for a bad and boring team. They weren’t exciting to watch but they weren’t bad. Somehow, Wilkens got this virtually identical team to play defense really well. The offense was basically the same effectiveness (12th) but the defense jumped to (4th). As a result, the Hawks were tied with the Knicks for the best record in the East most of the year (Chicago was nipping at their heels too).
Wilkens got a ton of credit for this turnaround and the narrative was that the success came somewhat in spite of Dominique. In a December 1993 New York Times article, Harvey Araton wrote a story of Wilkins sulking when he wasn’t getting shots: “Wilkins turned, facing the Hawks’ bench, and cursed. He didn’t exactly sprint back on defense. Soon, without fuming or fuss, Lenny Wilkens called him to the bench. The tranquil-looking coach knew it was going to be a stomach-churning night with the 33-year-old no-conscience scorer. Wilkins is in the last year of his $3.5 million contract. That will exacerbate any game-night situation when Wilkins isn’t in the flow.”
Araton continued with his premise that Wilkens had taken full control of the team from Nique: “[f]or years, the Hawks have been Dominique’s team. Their recent reputation has been a reflection of Dominique’s, an exciting highlight film with no defensive core. When Wilkens’s career alarm started ringing last spring in Cleveland, where he helped make a contender out of what was a horrendous team, people wondered why this scholarly basketball teacher would choose Atlanta and this seemingly incorrigible class…. Dominique may still have the ball, but this is no longer his team.”
Of course, it was more complicated. Nique was set for one last big contract and he was the team’s only reliable perimeter scorer. The easy move would be to give the franchise star his tenure contract and pay him to be a Hawk for life, even though the last few years of the deal could be dead money. That would be perfectly reasonable, especially since the Hawks were good for the first time in about five years.
On February 24, 1994, the Hawks were in a three-way tie with the Knicks and Bulls and they decided that: (a) they didn’t want to stick with Nique long-term and (b) they had better options than Nique for the current season. They traded Dominique to the Clippers for the more-versatile Manning (who would also be a free agent at the end of the season).
Nique v. Manning tale-of-the-tape
The trade was particularly fun because it was a classic challenge trade. Well, almost a challenge trade. The Hawks threw in their first rounder in 1994 (a late-first rounder who ended up being a decent regular Greg Minor, who the Clipps traded with Mark Jackson for Eric Piatkowski, Pooh Richardson, and Malik Sealy). Manning and Nique played the same position and were directly comparable. Here were there stats at the time of the trade:
Wilkins: 49 gms, 34.4 mpg, 24.4 ppg, .526 TS%, 6.2 rpg, 2.3 apg, 21.1 PER, .166 WS48, 2.7 BPM, 2.0 VORP
Manning: 42 gms, 38.0 mpg, 23.7 ppg, .527 TS%, 7.0 rpg, 4.2 apg, 17.9 PER, .066 WS48, 1.1 BPM, 1.2 VORP
While Manning was more versatile and younger, Dominique actually was having a much better season. Wilkins was no longer the Hawks best player, that was Mookie Blaylock who blossomed into an All-Star level PG and he led the team with a 5.7 BPM and 5.7 VORP. Wilkins ranked as second best player with SG Stacey Augmon (Augmon-Mookie was a suffocating defensive backcourt).
From the Hawks’ perspective, they weren’t sold on Wilkins. After the trade was done, it was revealed in Sports Illustrated that the deal was discussed as early as the summer of 1993 (when it would’ve made even more sense to all parties). Lenny Wilkens told Sports Illustrated that “Danny’s smart, and I like that. You have to have that type of player on the floor if you’re going to win, because you have to make good decisions down the stretch.” The obvious unstated insinuation was that Dominique was not a winning player.
Kevin Loughery saw the trade differently, calling it “a franchise killer. By far the toughest trade for Atlanta fans. In all honesty, skill-wise this was not a bad trade. However from a fan base, it set the Hawks back a long way. I’ve been in Atlanta for 20 years, and Dominique has been the biggest star athletically in those 20 years.”
Wilkins, for his part, was pissed about the deal. In a Seattle Times article, Wilkins was quoted as saying: “[t]he disappointment still hasn’t left me. The Hawks have a chance to win a title and I wanted to be a part of that. I still don’t understand it. It’s the most senseless trade I can imagine. Nothing against Danny, but I’m still a little sour.” Wilkins refused calls from Hawks management and the article noted that “[t]alk of the trade comes up at every stop the Clippers make. When it does, Wilkins’ mood is likely to turn dark and hasten his departure from the locker room.”
Side Note on the Clippers’ Motivations
We won’t touch on this too long but why the hell did the Clippers want to make this trade? They were a bad team, with little chance of making the playoffs and were about to lose most of their core to free agency? The Hawks side of the trade was understandable (if debatable) but the Clipps seemed to be just churning. The Clippers were likely to lose Manning at the end of the year because Donald Sterling never paid any big contracts. But rebuilding with a 34-year old Wilkins was a worse option. The Clipps went 8-17 with Nique and he did pretty well scoring 29 ppg and putting up a 2.2 BPM. In the end, Sterling knew he wasn’t re-signing either player and was happy to get a late first-rounder for Manning as well as the thrill of having a big name star for two months.
Trade Results: Disappointment in Atlanta
Manning’s style of play was quite different from Nique’s in Atlanta. Atlanta finished up at 19-7 with Manning, which was enough to get the top seed in the East. Manning’s stats were less gaudy:
-26 gms, 35.6 mpg, 15.7 ppg, .501 TS%, 6.5 rpg, 3.3 apg, 13.8 PER, .066 WS48, -0.5 BPM, 0.4 VORP
While the Hawks won at a slightly higher rate without Wilkins, Manning was decidedly subpar during that run. Manning did get his sea legs in the playoffs (20 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 3.4 apg, 4.2 BPM), where he was the team’s second best player behind Blaylock.
Alas, irony was strong with the Hawks. Despite getting the top seed, Atlanta’s path to the Finals was not smooth. First, they struggled with a solid Heat team in the first round. Then, they lost 4-2 in the second round to a Pacers team was actually as good as the Knicks (and better than the Bulls). The Pacers could defend with Atlanta and had a couple of reliable scoring options (Reggie Miller and Rik Smits) and the Hawks didn’t have many such options (they averaged only 85 ppg in the series). One can only wonder if having Dominique’s scoring would’ve changed things.
Postscript: Stuff Happens
A. Manning Bolts Atlanta
Despite going out earlier from the playoffs than expected, the Hawks looked like they had a pretty good shot to keep Manning. They could pay Manning, as a returning player, over the salary cap to keep him. But it was not meant to be. Sports Illustrated noted in April 1994 that Manning “seems determined to test the market, but Atlanta’s chances of retaining him may be increasing…. But it’s far from a done deal; Manning has only a three-month lease on his Atlanta apartment.”
It sure seemed like Manning wanted no part of the Hawks. Atlanta offered him a $25 million deal to stay in town (other reports had the deal as seven years and $35 million). Manning rejected that offer for a one-year $1 million deal from the Suns (who expected to contend with Charles Barkley, Dan Majerle, and Kevin Johnson). Either Manning was taking a big gamble to win or the Suns had a wink deal to overpay him once he was a free agent again.
In a recent interview with Adam Ryan’s excellent podcast, Manning said that he seriously considered the Hawks and even the Clippers again (that seems shocking like shocking revelation given Donald Sterling’s MO) and insisted that the Suns made no explicit promises to re-sign him. Manning ended up blowing out his knee halfway through the 1994-95 season. The Suns still gave Manning a six-year $40 million deal that summer, ultimately massively exceeding what the Hawks had offered. Manning missed most of 1995-96 but was a solid reserve from 1996-1999 before getting traded as an older player.
Manning also told Adam Ryan that he was scared that the Suns would not sign him again after 1995. I have a feeling that that fear was slightly exaggerated. Either his agent had a new deal in place or the Suns thought they could impress other free agents with their loyalty to Manning. I assume the former is more likely because that new deal was exceedingly generous under any other circumstance (David Aldridge concurs).
Atlanta Regroups without Manning
Without Manning or Wilkins, the Hawks were a slightly above .500 team in 1994-95 (42-40) and 1995-96 (they went 46-36 but upset the Pacers in the first round of the playoffs). In the summer of 1996, they used their cap space to get Dikembe Mutombo and were restored to a fringe contender for the rest of the decade (they went 137-77, .640% over that time).
It was a weird road to get there but Atlanta ended up better off without Manning. We can’t be sure Manning would’ve hurt his knee in Atlanta but, considering, Manning’s knee issues, it is a fair assumption. At the very least, Mutombo was better than a healthy Manning anyway.
Nique Becomes a Nomad
Wilkins ended up signing with the rebuilding Celtics, which made about as much sense as the Clippers re-signing him. Wilkins came pretty cheap (three years, $11 million). Wilkins could still score a bit on Boston but his numbers were way down from 1993-94:
-Wilkins 1994-95: 77 gms, 31.5 mpg, 17.8 ppg, .519 TS%, 5.2 rpg, 2.2 apg, 16.3 PER, .076 WS48, 0.1 BPM, 1.3 VORP
Boston allowed Wilkins to break his contract to play in Greece for 1995-96. Wilkins returned to the NBA for 1996-97 at age-37 for the Spurs and his stats were virtually identical to what he did in 1994-95 with Boston (some inefficient scoring and not much else). He went to Italy for 1997-98 before signing with Orlando as a back bench guy in 1998-99 and then retired (it was all very similar to post-New York Carmelo Anthony).
Having reviewed the facts, where does this leave us 27 years later? Let’s give our conclusions:
-The Hawks made a bold trade where they thought that they would be better in the short term by replacing the scoring Wilkins with the younger more balanced Manning. They also thought that long term they could re-sign the younger Manning. These were reasonable things to believe.
-The difference between Manning and Wilkins in 1993-94 was slight but Wilkins was the better player at the time. Manning played pretty badly after the trade but it did not prevent the Hawks from getting a top seed. In the playoffs, Manning played pretty well and it is doubtful that Wilkins would’ve made the difference against the Pacers (or the Knicks and Rockets if the Hawks somehow got past the Pacers). Nevertheless, there was always an outside chance that Nique would’ve gone on an unstoppable scoring streak that few players could duplicate and, maybe, they could’ve beaten the Pacers.
-The trade was justified from Atlanta’s perspective based upon the elevated chance to re-sign Manning and the fact that it appeared that Lenny Wilkens just didn’t like Dominique’s game very much. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, the Hawks probably should not have made the trade. Manning did not play better than Wilkins and Atlanta had no shot of re-signing (Atlanta did not know this at the time and it’s not clear if they should’ve known). Atlanta could’ve re-signed Wilkins relatively cheaply as the market for a 35-year old scorer was unsurprisingly tepid (he probably would’ve taken less than Boston gave him to stay with his only team). Wilkins would’ve fit as a scorer off-the-bench and they could’ve kept a franchise icon in town. This isn’t a super important but is definitely better than letting him walk for nothing. Wilkins was understandably angry at the time but I think he’s over it now.
In the end, the Hawks were ready to move on from Wilkins but doing the right thing for a franchise icon probably would’ve yielded the best result.