Revisiting the Pearl Monroe Trade

On November 10, 1971, the Knicks acquired legendary guard Earl Monroe from the Baltimore Bullets for Mike Riordan, Dave Stallworth, and an undisclosed amount of cash.  The trade is celebrated as helping the Knicks to two straight Finals (and one title) and countless books and documentaries.   As we approach the 50th anniversary of the deal, I thought we could dig a little deeper into the trade itself.   Most of what has been discussed related to how Monroe and Walt Frazier blended their games after the trade.  I thought we could focus on the trade itself and how and why it happened.  What were the Bullets thinking at the time?  Was the trade really as bad as it seems in retrospect?   Let’s do the usual deep dive…

Bullets Background and Monroe’s Value as of 1971 

The Bullets had been a pretty weak franchise since the inception as the Chicago Packers/Zephyrs in 1961.  In 1963, the franchise moved to Baltimore and won 31 to 38 games three years in a row.   They did make the payoffs two of those years due to the weak the Western Division (yes, you read that correctly.  Baltimore was in the west at the time).  The Bullets were moved to the Eastern Division for 1966-67 and cratered to 20-61, earning the second overall pick in the draft, namely Monroe.

Monroe scored 24.3 ppg as a rookie and won Rookie of the Year.  The team also improved to 36-46.  They drafted Wes Unseld that summer and the combo rocketed the team to 57-25 in 1968-69.  Pearl continued to be the same great player (25.8 ppg), though they were swept by the Knicks in the playoffs.

The Bullets remained quite competitive the next few seasons as well.  Here’s the year-by-year breakdown before the trade came down:

-1968-69: 57-25, lost in first round to Knicks 4-0

-1969-70: 50-32, lost in first round to Knicks 4-3

-1970-71: 42-40, lost in NBA Finals 4-0 (beat Knicks 4-3 in ECF)

So, the Bullets were a serious contender (despite their middling showing in the regular season in 1971-72) and the Knicks were obviously a huge rival.  Coming into the 1971-72 season, Monroe was turning 27.  He was Baltimore’s top scorer each of his seasons on the team.  That doesn’t seem like someone you would want to trade, particularly to a big rival.

Earl Forces the Deal

So, why trade Monroe at that time?  Money.  Monroe was in a bitter contract dispute with the Bullets.  He played the first three games of the season and refused to play any more games for the team, demanding a trade to Philly, Chicago, or the Lakers.   The Bullets suspended Monroe on October 22, 1971 and weighed their options.  It didn’t help Baltimore when the team went 2-7 in the period between the suspension and Monroe’s trade.

The New York Times reported at the time that Larry Fleisher, Monroe’s agent, was accusing the Bullets of “refusing to pay Monroe an overwhelming portion of his salary through deferred payment for the 1969-70 and 1970-71 seasons.”  The article does not explain exactly what that meant but it sounds like the Bullets were having cash flow issues and were possibly welching on payments for services already rendered.  Monroe bolstered that theory by telling that Times that: “[i]t was depressing in Baltimore, playing before only 5,000 fans. I do want to say, though, that my gripe in Baltimore was not with the fans, just with the general atmosphere.” 

It sounded like a poisonous and intractable situation.  Ironically, years later, Monroe was quoted in Garden Glory as saying: “I really didn’t want to leave Baltimore.  That was just something that came up, and being a young guy and egotistical, I always thought that when you negotiate with a team it’s just between you and them.  It’s not the media.  And things got out of hand in terms of things being said in the media.  Once I read some of the things that were being said, I said to myself that I wasn’t gonna be back there.  That’s what really prompted me to pursue the trade even more.  We had asked for a trade after that [1970-71] season, and it wasn’t until I was in the preseason the following year when I decided to leave.  It wasn’t that I just wanted to jump out of there, but at the same time, things just didn’t work out.  But I always loved Baltimore and still do.”

But Monroe’s true feelings aside, there was no way Monroe could stay because the money wasn’t there to pay him.  So, Baltimore had little cash, apparently owed Monroe back pay, and was losing a lot games without Pearl in the lineup.  The deferred payments were particularly troublesome because, if the Bullets were in breach of contract, Monroe could have sued for free agency and even maybe have jumped to the ABA (there were scores of litigation on this at the time).  The Bullets’ only option was to get as much possible in return for Pearl, even though they had lousy leverage.  Hence, the trade to the Bullets’ biggest rival for two reserves, Mike Riordan and Dave Stallworth, and some cash.

Sliding Doors Moments: The Alternatives

Before we examine the trade more, let’s ponder whether the trade destinations that Monroe wanted were actually viable.  Let’s walk through them:

Chicago Bulls:  They ended up 57-25 that season and were stacked with Jerry Sloan at SG (16.2 ppg, 8.4 rpg, and great defense).  The Bulls already had Bob Love and Chet Walker scoring, so it’s hard to see a fit here.

-Los Angeles Lakers:  The Lakers had the money to pay Monroe (if mercurial owner Jack Kent Cooke felt like it) but they were pretty set at SG with Gail Goodrich (25.9 ppg, 4.5 apg).  Goodrich would go on to outplay Monroe in the NBA Finals, so it’s hard to see a fit here either.

-Philadelphia 76ers:  Monroe’s hometown team wasn’t very good (30-52) and had a hole as Hal Greer was 35, Kevin Loughery was an old 31, and Fred Carter was okay but the team was in a downward spiral and was not an ideal fit for Monroe, who was hitting his prime.

The Knicks just made much more sense.  They were a good team (52-30 the prior year) and their starting SG, Dick Barnett, was 35 and fading.  Lastly, New York had the cash to pay off both Monroe and the Bullets to get a deal done.  In Garden Glory, Monroe told the story of trying to get to the teams he wanted or the ABA but that Fleischer told him: “I’ve got a deal on the table.  It’s not a place where you had wanted to go…I’m very prejudiced.  I want to see you here [in New York where Fleischer was based].  I want to see you day in and day out.”  Monroe agreed and the deal was consummated.

The Bullets’ Trade Return

On paper, the Bullets look like they were ripped off.  All they got for Pearl, a huge scorer, was two bench players.  To put this in starker terms, here are their stats from the traded parties for the 1970-71 season:

-Earl Monroe (age 27): 35.1 mpg, 21.4 ppg, .442 FG%, 2.6 rpg, 4.4 apg, 17.1 PER, .119 WS48

-Mike Riordan (age 26): 16.1 mpg, 4.8 ppg, .418 FG%, 2.1 rpg, 1.5 apg, 8.8 PER, .063 WS48

-Dave Stallworth (age 29): 19.3 mpg, 9.4 ppg, .431 FG%, 4.3 rpg, 1.3 apg, 14.8 PER, .116 WS 48

(Note that we don’t have blocks, steals, or turnover stats until 1973-74, so the data is incomplete).

On paper, the deal makes little sense.  Riordan looked like a deep bench player and Stallworth, a decent veteran reserve big man.  The New York Times contemporaneous reporting only mentions that Riordan was “a substitute guard” and that he was recovering from a broken wrist at the time.  The article was slightly more generous regarding Stallworth noting that “[t]he loss of Stallworth apparently weakens the Knicks’ reserve strength at forward, where….the starters, will be backed by Phil Jackson and Eddie Mast….”

I could not find anywhere how much the Knicks paid the Bullets to close the deal but it definitely seems that the money paid was the primary consideration.  This is a good moment to take a step back and contemplate how much more money is involved in the NBA today versus 1971.  Ben Simmons, who is currently in an intractable contract standoff similar to Pearl’s, loses $316,000 for each game he is docked.  Back then, Monroe was making $145,000 per season (just under a million dollars in 2021 money).  We will never know what New York paid but clearly it was enough to satisfy Monroe and the Bullets, though it’s not clear if New York paid off the back pay issue and/or gave the Bullets cash on top of that (I personally assume that New York paid both). 

In terms of what they did on the floor, Stallworth spent three years with the Bullets as a backup and put up 7.5 ppg and 4.2 rpg (basically the same as he was doing for New York).  Stallworth ended up back in New York for the 1974-75 season but was cooked and waived after seven games, leading to his retirement.

Riordan actually developed into a useful player in Baltimore.  He put up 10.0 ppg as a reserve in 1971-72 and was okay.  He jumped up to 18 ppg as a starter in 1972-73 and had two more solid seasons (15 ppg) before tailing off in 1975-76.  Not incredible but getting three above average seasons from a heretofore deep reserve had to be an unanticipated happy accident for the Bullets.  Riordan recognized this fact himself.  After getting cut in the preseason in 1977, Riordan told the Washington Post that his career was done and said that: “I never had any illusions about my talents. I never expected my career to continue for very long. I just got on the train and rode it for as long as I could. I never had the luxury of talent like a lot of players, so I could always see the end.”

Taking the long view, here’s how the Bullets did the rest of the decade without Pearl:

-1971-72:  The Bullets went only 38-44 (and 35-35 after the trade) but still made the playoffs, where they lost to the Knicks, again, 4-2 in the first round.  Pearl, who was struggling with injuries, was okay (16 ppg, 3.3 apg).  The healthy and scrappy Riordan actually almost matched (14 ppg) that production.

-1972-73:  The Bullets bounced back to 52-30 but lost to the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs, 4-1.  The Bullets replaced Monroe with young Phil Chenier (19.7 ppg, .452 FG%), who was pretty solid.  Monroe was key in the series, leading New York with 21.6 ppg and .541%.

-1973-74: Baltimore moved to DC that season and went a solid 47-35 but again lost to New York in a seven-game series.  Pearl had a very good series (20.1 ppg, .515 FG%) but Chenier wasn’t bad (22.4 ppg, .453%) and Riordan was decent (12.3 ppg, .414 FG%).

-1974-75:  As the Knicks began to fade, Washington exploded.  They went 60-22. Riordan was still a good player too (15.4 ppg).  They were swept in the NBA Finals in a big upset by the Warriors.  Incidentally, Riordan had a memorable moment in Game 4, when he took a swipe at Ricky Barry, causing Warriors coach Al Attles to lose his mind

-1975-76:  The Bullets fell to 48-34 and lost in a seven-game series to Cleveland in the first round.  Riordan was on his last legs as a player, though Chenier was pretty good in the SG role at that point.

-1976-77:   The Bullets went 48-34 and lost in the playoffs in the second round.  At this point, Chenier was clearly better than the older Monroe, so any impact of the Pearl deal had run its course.

-1977-78:  Washington went only 44-38 but won the NBA Finals. 

-1978-79:  The Bullets finished off the decade with a 54-28 record and lost in the NBA Finals to Seattle.  As we all know, they haven’t won more than 49 games or gotten to the Finals since then.

Monroe on the Knicks

We don’t have detailed play-by-play data but Monroe apparently went to great lengths to fit in with the Knicks.  He barely shot initially and when he did shoot, it went poorly.  He was 7-31 from the field his first four games as a Knick and his stats were quite modest overall for New York in 1971-72: 11.4 ppg and .436% in 20.6 mpg.  The Knicks didn’t really suffer for his less aggressive play.  They were only 6-8 when Pearl came to town and New York went 39-21 in games he played in.  It’s hard to say that Earl made a huge difference to the team that season but his presence definitely was an improvement on an aging Barnett.  The Knicks ended up going to the NBA Finals before losing to that legendary 69-13 Lakers team.  Monroe was injured and a big liability in that series (6.8 ppg and .279% in 20.6 mpg).

In 1972-73, Earl played more minutes (31.6 mpg) but actually took fewer shots per minute.  This worked really well. Pearl had only 15.5 ppg but on a career best .488 FG%.  The Knicks went 57-25 and won the title, routing the same Lakers team that routed them the year before (in case you are curious, New York beat the Bullets in the playoffs again too).  Monroe was great in the 1973 playoffs (16.1 ppg and .526%) and was a key cog.

The Knicks’ dynasty fell apart in 1974, as several key pieces retired or aged out of their peaks.  Pearl was still good and the Knicks started to lean on him to score more, which he did.  He put up 20+ ppg from 1974-75 to 1976-77.  Alas, they didn’t have the horses anymore and Monroe played out the twilight on very blah teams.  He was the last remaining member of the 1972-73 title team in town when he retired in 1980 at age-35.

Summing It Up

The Monroe trade was forced by the Bullets’ inability to pay him and the Knicks ability to be the bank and pay off Earl and Baltimore.  This financial strength got New York the 1972-73 title and several more good years out of Monroe.

From the Bullets’ perspective, they had little choice but to trade their star.  The irony is that the throw-in Riordan, ended up being a key and valuable player for a few years.  The Bullets were also able to weather losing Monroe long-term by developing Riordan and finding Chenier as a viable replacement.  It is clear, however, that the Bullets probably lost to New York in the 1973 and 1974 playoffs as a direct result of Monroe’s great play.  Still, the trade ended up not quite as bad as it could have been for the Bullets.  They stayed solvent and were able to regroup and overtake the Knicks by 1975.