Revisiting The Almost Trade of Worthy for Aguirre

The 1986 Draft is best remembered for the tragic death of Len Bias, the 76ers’ execrable trades, and quite a few other historical ripples but I wanted to focus on one big deal that almost happened that day but ended up being aborted at the lats minute.  The huge deal on the table was the trade of James Worthy from the Lakers to the Mavericks for Mark Aguirre and the seventh pick in the 1986 Draft, who would’ve been the talented but troubled Roy Tarpley.  I thought we could do a deep dive to understand the context in which the trade arose and what might’ve been.

At the outset, it seems unthinkable that the Lakers would trade Worthy, the rising star who would become a legend and famously clinched the 1988 title with his Game 7 triple-double.  Nevertheless, a trade in 1986 seemed quite imminent and we can indulge in some hypotheticals.

What was the state of the Lakers in June 1986?

The Lakers’ mood was bleak following the 4-1 upset loss to the Rockets in the 1986 Western Conference Finals.  The Lakers had been 62-20 and the clear class of the West.  They had  won the Conference the prior four seasons but the Rockets upended them behind Hakeem Olajuwon, who was a force of nature in that series (31.0 ppg, .520 FG%, 11.2 rpg, 2.0 apg, 2.2 spg, 4.0 bpg).

Worthy’s performance in the series basically equaled his regular season stats (20.2 ppg, .524 FG%, 4.8 rpg, 3.6 apg).  Looking at his game lines, Worthy struggled the first two games of the series but finished very strong the final three games (44.7 mpg, 24.7 ppg, .615 FG%, 6.3 rpg, 4.3 apg). 

If there were scapegoats in the series for the Lakers, they were the frontcourt players who couldn’t slow down Hakeem and Ralph Sampson.  Also, Byron Scott shot poorly by his standards (.441% in the WCF versus .525% the prior two rounds).  Certainly, Worthy had done nothing to get himself branded as a problem.

So, Worthy was good but did a trade make sense anyway?

Aguirre was a great scorer and getting him plus a top pick for Worthy sounds reasonable in the abstract.  Let’s see the stats of the two players as of the end of the 1985-86 season to see how they compared:

Aguirre: Age 26, 33.8 mpg, 22.6 ppg, .547 TS%, 29.0 USG%, 6.0 rpg, 4.6 apg, 19.2 PER, .090 WS48, 0.3 BPM

Worthy: Age 24, 32.7 mpg, 20.0 ppg, .613 TS%, 22.6 USG%, 5.2 rpg, 2.7 apg, 20.4 PER, .185 WS48, 3.9 BPM

Worthy was younger and a much more efficient player.  In fairness to Aguirre, he was trying to create shots as a primary scorer while Worthy was essentially a third option who got a ton of points in transition.  Aguirre likely would’ve been much more efficient in the same context but it’s clear that Worthy fit that role better AND defended much better.

On top of the fact that Worthy had advantages in age, defense, and fit on offense, Aguirre had other issues.  He was not easy for coaches to deal with.  A great summary of Aguirre’s constant beefing with Coach Dick Motta can be found here but let’s tick through a few highlights:

-“[D]uring the 1984-85 season…Motta and Aguirre had a locker-room blow up in front of players and note-taking reporters. Motta called Aguirre a quitter. Aguirre told Motta he wanted a trade. Motta scoffed, ‘Nobody wants you.’  [Aguirre was forced to apologize].”

-In 1985-86, “miffed at Motta, Aguirre refused to play in the second half of what turned into a blowout loss. The Mavericks suspended Aguirre [again].” 

-Ironically, the Mavs ended the 1985-86 season with a loss to the same Lakers in the second round of the playoffs.  Sam McManis of the L.A. Times described the Aguirre-Motta relationship during that series as follows: “A pout almost always adorns Mark Aguirre’s face on the basketball court. It may be Aguirre’s most prominent feature, even more distinctive than a lower body that should have a wide-load sign attached…. The usual unfolding of these well-publicized tiffs: Aguirre does something on the court that irks Motta. Motta yells and then yanks Aguirre from the game. Aguirre sulks. Motta fumes. They exchange words in the locker room afterward. They meet later and, temporarily, patch up differences.”

McManis then stumbled across this gem of a quote from Aguirre that presaged the potential trade coming 6 weeks later: “[i]f I had been drafted in Los Angeles, it probably would have been looked on as a positive thing. I mean, Byron Scott is flamboyant. James Worthy is, Kareem is, in a way. They are allowed to show their emotions. That’s partly because (Pat) Riley is a player’s coach.”  And then, as if to perfectly capture the value proposition, McManis wrote that: “In Aguirre’s mind, there are only three small better small forwards in the NBA–Larry Bird, Alex English and Worthy.”  (Note that Aguirre was 15th in small forward VORP that year, and was 9th the prior season).

So, there you have it: contemporaneous reporting that Worthy was considered better than Aguirre and that Aguirre longed to play in the Lakers’ system.  As a side note, the notion that Aguirre would score more with the Lakers seems silly (as was the notion that Riley would be a friendlier coach).  Aguirre scored about 25 ppg as a Maverick and his shots and usage were sure to go down with the Lakers.  Still, it was not unreasonable that Aguirre might be happier playing in Los Angeles and winning more with Magic and Kareem, even with fewer shots. 

What was the rationale for the Lakers to make this trade?

In all, Aguirre was a talented but distressed asset and Worthy was a budding star.  The x-factor was Magic Johnson, who was tight with Aguirre and they clearly talked about playing with each other.  All the reporting at the time pegged Magic with being the driving force for the potential trade.  In November 1987, Curry Kirkpatrick wrote in Sports Illustrated that Magic, Aguirre, and Isiah Thomas were “buddies”  and  that “Johnson reportedly—though he denied it—once tried to get his fellow Laker…Worthy traded to Dallas for Aguirre.”   The same story quoted Michael Jordan as saying that “James is getting too good for Magic’s taste.”  Yep, that’s quite saucy.

Jeff Pearlman wrote in “Showtime,” that Magic “thought Aguirre would be an upgrade” and went directly to owner Jerry Buss to get a deal done.  Buss deferred to Magic and negotiated a deal without consulting GM Jerry West.  Dallas thought a deal was done and The Dallas Morning News reported that “Tarpley’s agent was reluctant to allow Tarpley to come to Dallas for a press conference because he was certain that Tarpley was going to be traded to the Lakers.”  When West heard about the trade, he “went beserk” and killed the deal.  West’s perspective was that “Aguirre—while talented—was a me-first player who would destroy the Lakers’ chemistry {while] Worthy…could do twenty different things to help a team win.  If Aguirre wasn’t receiving the ball and scoring, he was useless.”

There was truth to the idea that Aguirre was only a scorer and that Magic’s relationship with Aguirre was influencing his opinion.  The trade, however, was not totally crazy.  After getting pummeled by Hakeem, the Lakers did need a body like Tarpley to help out and Tarpley would’ve been a great help if he was sober (it’s not clear if West had intelligence indicating that Tarpley had a problem at that time).  Putting Tarpley aside, West clearly did the right thing in killing the deal because the difference in value and fit between Worthy and Aguirre was not evened by the seventh pick.

What would’ve happened if the Aguirre/Worthy trade had gone through?

 Obviously, we can’t know for sure but we do know that it’s unlikely that the Lakers would’ve done better than they did by standing pat (as a reminder, the Lakers won the next two titles and lost in the Finals the third year).  It’s possible that the Lakers would’ve gone back-to-back with Aguirre and Tarpley but much less likely.  Aguirre was just not nearly as versatile a player as Worthy (though it should be noted that Aguirre played selflessly and filled a lesser role in Detroit when he was ultimately traded). 

It almost seems sad and fruitless to predict how Tarpley would’ve handled Los Angeles.  He lasted two good years in Dallas before his career was derailed and it’s not likely he would’ve been anymore together elsewhere.  Putting all these unknowns on the table, here are the principals’ aggregate stats for 1986-87 and 1987-88:

Aguirre: 33.6 mpg, 25.4 ppg, .550 TS%, 31.5 USG%, 5.5 rpg, 3.4 apg, 22.0 PER, .162 WS48, 3.4 BPM

Tarpley: 23.8 mpg, 10.6 ppg, .527 TS%, 20.4 USG%, 9.6 rpg, 0.9 apg. 17.9 PER, .141 WS48, -0.6 BPM

Worthy: 34.9 mpg, 19.6 ppg, .575 TS%, 22.5 USG%, 5.4 rpg, 3.3 apg, 18.3 PER, .151 WS48, 2.4 BPM

Aguirre’s black hole offense was really good the next two years and that efficiency, even scaled down a bit to fit with the Lakers, would’ve been an asset.  Tarpley was very raw but also a useful body.  At the end of the day, though, it’s hard to see the Aguirre/Tarpley Lakers winning a title.  In 1986-87, they would’ve faced the peak Celtics front line in the Finals and Aguirre couldn’t guard Bird or McHale and I strain to see a good match up for Aguirre in that series.  In 1988, Aguirre could’ve matched up with Detroit but would he have played better than Worthy?  The Lakers needed an epic game from Worthy to win that title.  This is not to say that the Lakers wouldn’t have won either title with Aguirre but it would have made it much less likely.