It's a tough question to answer, and your answer probably depends on when you became a fan. But for me, there are four trades that must be part of the conversation. Let's discuss! In chronological order, with details swiped directly from the all-time transaction history on Pistons.com, here are my nominations:
February 16, 1982 - Acquired Ken Carr, Bill Laimbeer from Cleveland in exchange for Phil Hubbard, Paul Mokeski and 1982 first- and second-round draft picks.
For context, the Pistons were awful in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including six losing seasons in a row from 1977-83. But on the heels of drafting Isiah Thomas in 1981, GM Jack McCloskey pulled off a series of moves that permanently changed the identity of the franchise -- including the deal for Bill Laimbeer.
At the time, Laimbeer was 24 years old and in the middle of an unremarkable second season in the NBA. He was so unremarkable, in fact, that most folks figured Carr was the centerpiece for the trade. But McCloskey liked what he saw in the young center:
"I saw him play when we played Cleveland," McCloskey recalls of his initial interest in Laimbeer. "We beat them pretty good that night, but I saw him compete until the last whistle goes. We didn't have too many big guys then. I said, ‘I've got to try to get him. He doesn't have fancy footwork or anything like that, but he wants to win.' "
And win he did. After one more losing season in 1983-84, the Pistons ripped off nine straight seasons with at least 46 wins, winning 16 playoff series, three conference championships and back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990. Laimbeer appeared in four All-Star games and remains the team's leader in rebounds (and personal fouls!).
Often lost in the discussion of Laimbeer's accomplishments is his incredible durability: he missed a grand total of nine games in his first 12 seasons. He once had a streak of 685 consecutive games played that ended only after he was suspended.
February 15, 1989 - Acquired Mark Aguirre from the Dallas Mavericks for Adrian Dantley and Detroit's number-one draft choice in 1991.
Let's get the draft pick out of the way: the Bullets eventually got their hands on it, and they took LaBradford Smith, who appeared in 183 games over three years before disappearing into the ether. So this trade boils down to Dantley for Aguirre.
Both Dantley and Aguirre enjoyed their finest years before arriving in Detroit. Dantley won two scoring titles with the Jazz and is regarded as having some of the finest footwork in the paint in NBA history. Aguirre, meanwhile, was the first overall pick in 1981 (one spot above Isiah Thomas) and a three-time All-Star who finished among the league's top 8 in scoring five times before arriving in Detroit.
To be honest, I wasn't old enough at the time to truly enjoy watching Dantley in his prime, but looking at his career numbers, there's a reason why he was eventually elected to the Hall of Fame in 2008. He was a more complete player than Aguirre, and he was damn productive while he was in Detroit. But a rumored rift between Dantley and Thomas forced McCloskey's hand for the sake of locker room chemistry:
It was Chuck Daly who initially tipped McCloskey off that a fissure had developed within the team. Dantley made clear in his body language, if not his words, that he was disgruntled.
"Chuck said, ‘You've got to talk to Dantley. There is a division going on.' "
So McCloskey asked to talk to Dantley one day after practice, pulling him into the official's room at The Palace, which had just opened that season.
"Adrian, are you having any trouble with anybody on the club?"
"He said, ‘No,' " McCloskey said. McCloskey pressed. Dantley answered, "I really don't want to talk about it."
"You have to talk to me about it." Still, Dantley refused. Finally, McCloskey told him, "Adrian, if you don't want to talk about it, I'm going to trade you, and I'm not kidding you. I'm going to trade you. I'm not going to have you break up this team. I'm not saying you're at fault, but you know something that I don't know."
Months after making the trade, the Pistons won their first of back-to-back titles. Could they have survived the mysterious locker room issues that put Dantley in a funk? We'll never know. What we do know is that Aguirre adapted his game to fit Detroit's style, giving up the accolades and recognition of being "the man" in favor of being just another cog in a well-oiled machine. Maybe Aguirre didn't put the Pistons over the top so much as save them from falling astray, but the end results were the same: two NBA championships.
This one feels like cheating. Yes, Ben Wallace was technically acquired in a trade, but it was a sign-and-trade. Grant Hill had already decided to leave for Orlando, and Wallace and Atkins had already decided to come to Detroit. All three players had to sign new contracts for this deal to go through, but for salary cap reasons I won't pretend to remember well enough to explain, it was a sign-and-trade.
Even so, Wallace ended up blossoming into one of the biggest (non-rookie contract) bargains in NBA history during his first stint in Detroit. In those six years, he won four Defensive Player of the Year awards, made five NBA All-Defensive teams, made four All-Star games, ranked among the top four in rebounds every year (leading the league twice), ranked among the top four in blocks four times (leading the league once) ... and I haven't even mentioned all of the team's accomplishments.
In short, he gave the Pistons an identity. Grant Hill was one of the most popular players in the entire NBA for most of his tenure with the Pistons, and his departure was supposed to send the Pistons into a long spiral of despair. Instead, the Pistons suffered through one down season in 2000-01 before ripping off seven straight seasons of 50-plus wins.
Wallace wasn't around for all of that, but he was there for the start and was certainly the foundation on which the rest of the team was built. And even though the Pistons continued to win a lot of games in the years immediately after Wallace's departure, his discontent with the team's decreased emphasis on defense turned out to be the canary in the coal mine. We didn't know it at the time, but when he left, the window closed.
Rasheed Wallace (and Mike James)
February 19, 2004 - Acquired Rasheed Wallace from Atlanta and Mike James from Boston as part of a three-way deal that sent Chucky Atkins and Lindsey Hunter to Boston and Bobby Sura, Zeljko Rebraca and the Celtics' Chris Mills to Atlanta.
Everyone remembers this deal as "the Rasheed Wallace trade" because Wallace was the biggest name and stuck around the longest, but picking up Mike James, who started 55 games for the Celtics that year, and quickly re-signing Lindsey Hunter, who was immediately released by Boston, helped give the Pistons an impressively deep bench. Remember the Pit Bulls?
"That's how I've always played defense, aggressive," James said. "And I'm going to continue to be aggressive on the defensive end."
"One day in Detroit they just started calling Lindsey Hunter and I the pit bulls and the name just stuck with us," James said. "The players started calling us pit bulls because the way we used to defend.
"Every time we used to go in the game, Rasheed Wallace used to act like he was taking the dog chain off us. As if to say, 'It's time for you to sic 'em all now.' So it stuck with us. And then the crowd got with it and they started making pit bull signs."
Man, that team was fun.
In any case, the Pistons were already a dangerous team in 2004, but acquiring a versatile All-Star like Rasheed Wallace helped give them swagger. Much like Aguirre years earlier, Wallace gave up the chance to be a star in favor of fitting into Detroit's system.
It worked in 2004, though you could argue he did this too much in the years to come. Instead of living up to his potential as a premier scoring threat in the paint, he seemed to enjoy the challenge of refining less consistent aspects of his game, namely his middling three-point shot. But that was Rasheed.
Rasheed was famously temperamental on the court, racking up technical fouls with such frequency it forced the NBA into adopting new rules that result in suspensions. (Forget DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, Rasheed's 41 technicals in 2000-01 are the one record in sports that will never be topped.) Unfortunately, his attitude problems were not limited to referees. Although he was beloved by his teammates, his distrust and blatant lack of respect for head coaches not named Larry Brown likely derailed any chance for the "Goin' To Work" Pistons to win multiple titles.
Much like McCloskey made the hard decision to deal an extremely productive Dantley simply to preserve locker room chemistry, hindsight suggests Joe Dumars should have done the same with Wallace instead of turning the head coaching job into a revolving door.
But I digress. The initial trade was brilliant, and it resulted in another banner in the rafters.
What do you think?
Now comes the hard part: deciding who to pick. Make your case in the comments -- and let me know if I forgot any important deals -- and vote in the poll below.