Grading Every Trade in Jazz History: Acquiring Pete Maravich

January 5th, 2015 | by Andy Larsen
A shot of Pistol Pete street art in Chicago, IL. (Photo from flickr, Seth Anderson)

A shot of Pistol Pete street art in Chicago, IL. (Photo from flickr, Seth Anderson)

This is the first in a new series on Salt City Hoops, in which we take a look back at every trade the Jazz franchise has ever taken part in. We’ll analyze the departing players and assets, the returning players and assets, the context, and how each trade helped or hurt the Jazz overall. Hopefully we’ll learn a little about the men named in the transactions, as well as those who conducted them.

May 3, 1974: Acquired G Pete Maravich and a future draft choice (1980 third-round pick, later traded to Detroit – No. 64, Jonathan Moore) from Atlanta in exchange for a 1974 first-round pick (No. 10, Mike Sojourner), 1975 first-round pick (No. 1, David Thompson), 1975 second-round pick (No. 19, Bill Willoughby), 1976 second-round pick (No. 23, Alex English), and the second (Bob Kauffman) and third (Dean Meminger) selections in the 1974 expansion draft.1

“New Orleans staking its future on Maravich” declared the headline of the Wilmington Star-News in the days after the trade. Indeed, no trade in Jazz history has been as impactful as its very first.

Before hiring a coach, bringing in a front office, having a stadium to play in, or even naming the team, ownership of the new New Orleans franchise gave up most of their future assets to bring back the prodigal Louisianan son. Maravich, who set NCAA scoring records that still stand today with Louisiana State University2, was coming home to be the primary ticket draw for the franchise.

They gave up a king’s ransom in order to do so. At the time, the AP put it bluntly: “The New Orleans people can’t really believe that “Pistol Pete” will win more games for them than all of the first and second round draft choices they shelled out to the Hawks.” Hawks head coach Richie Guerin called the deal “the biggest steal since the Louisiana Purchase.” And Sports Illustrated said this:

When the New Orleans Jazz got Pistol Pete Maravich from Atlanta last spring in return for a batch of future draft picks, the reaction around pro basketball was that the expansion team had peddled its future for instant boffo at the box office. The justification for the deal was that when you have invested $6.1 million to join the league, and you are hip-deep in everybody else’s unwanted reserve centers, you have to dangle something in front of prospective customers. The joker in this line of reasoning, it was suggested, was that last place is always last place, and that after watching Maravich do his act a few times, the people of New Orleans would soon go back to spending their depressed dollars on Oysters Rockefeller.

Maravich, in his time with the Hawks, had developed somewhat of a reputation as a selfish, run-and-gun player who didn’t, despite all his talent, ultimately help a team win. He clashed with the coaches in Atlanta, and it wasn’t promising when he started to do the same with the Jazz’s first two coaches. Regarding Butch van Breda Kolff’s offense, he said: “My job is to slow things down and set up our so-called offense. Then if the shot goes in, well, that’s leadership.”

New Orleans ownership had hoped that their mortgaging of the team’s future would lead to wins right away. Pete Rosenfeld, Jazz team president, said: “We will have all of the elements of a playoff calibre team, if not a championship team, by 1975.” Instead, they finished with a league-worst 23-59 record.

And worst of all, the picks the Jazz gave up ended up including two Hall of Fame players, along with some decent role playing talent:

  • David Thompson turned out to be quite good; he’s in the Hall of Fame. This was the most obviously valuable of the assets given away, but since the Jazz had hoped that the Maravich trade would make them competitive from year one, they hoped that giving away the pick wouldn’t cost them too greatly. It did. Unfortunately, Thompson was the #1 pick in both the NBA and ABA drafts, and chose to go to Denver in the ABA, giving the Hawks nothing.3 As a result, Atlanta ended up with nothing for the pick.
  • Alex English is also in the Hall of Fame, and also ended up with the Denver Nuggets for the majority of his NBA career. This pick was given to the Bucks as compensation for the Hawks’ signing of Dr. Julius Erving, so while the Hawks didn’t get English, at least they got something out of this part of the deal.
  • Bob Kauffman was a former three-time All-Star who was taken in the expansion draft, then only played one season with Atlanta.
  • Dean Meminger was a 25 MPG guard who played three more seasons in the league, including two with Atlanta. His nickname, according to Basketball-Reference, was “the Dream”, both anticipating Hakeem’s name and underselling it. (Dean the Dream? It doesn’t even rhyme.)
  • Moore never played in the NBA.
  • Mike Sojourner played at the University of Utah, then was drafted by the Hawks, but only played three seasons there. His career was cut short by a knee injury, as well as a strange incident involving him taking control of a taxicab before getting sent to a psychiatric institution.
  • Bill Willoughby was a decent little backup SF with an eight year NBA career.
  • Walt Bellamy being picked in the expansion draft by the Jazz from Atlanta, while not a part of the trade in the books, seems to have been “an acknowledged part of the trade.” He fake retired, upset at the trade, but ended up playing one game for the Jazz, playing 14 minutes and scoring six points.

If New Orleans was indeed staking their future on Pistol Pete, and I think it’s fair to say they were, then this trade is why the New Orleans Jazz failed. They missed the playoffs every season, played to mostly small crowds at the Superdome, and never made money for their owners. As a result, the team had to move. They made the biggest mistake possible.

But it’s hard for me to be too hard on this trade, because at least they went big. And Pete Maravich was awesome. He was doing things in the 1970s that seem downright futuristic to today’s viewers. He did things that no current NBA players do. Like the under-handed, full-length of the court outlet pass:

As a result of the trade, Pete Maravich had many of his career’s best moments in a Jazz uniform. Like his 68 point game in 1977, the highest ever point total by a guard at the time.

He even fouled out of this game, or else he could have scored 70 or more. In a twist of fate, Dick Bavetta, of all people, called the really questionable fifth foul4.

His Jazz career was cut short by bothersome knee injuries and, honestly, the fact that he clashed with coaches and GMs as they realized that his stubborn individualism wasn’t helping them win games. In 1978, trade rumors surrounded Maravich in a situation neither team nor player was happy with. He played just 17 games for the Utah Jazz in 1979 after the franchise moved, and on January 17, 1980, he was waived. He played 26 more games with the Boston Celtics, then his career was done.5

While hindsight is 20/20, this trade couldn’t have worked out much worse for the New Orleans Jazz. To trade away picks that became two Hall of Fame players for Pete Maravich hobbled the Jazz’s franchise for years, especially as they struggled to surround Maravich with enough talent. Those six assets, players and picks combined, could have really helped the Jazz through the late 70s and early 80s, when they never had a winning season until 1983-84.

Given that commentators at the time also felt that the Jazz gave up too much for Maravich, this isn’t just a case of injury trouble ruining a well-thought-out trade. Instead, it’s a classic case of an ownership team meddling and preventing basketball people from doing their jobs, though this time they hadn’t even hired the basketball people. While the trade did ensure that Maravich played his best years in New Orleans, it also ensured the Jazz didn’t have the assets to put together a winning team.

Grade: D

Andy Larsen

Andy Larsen

Andy Larsen is the Managing Editor of Salt City Hoops, the ESPN TrueHoop affiliate for the Utah Jazz. He also hosts a radio show and podcast every week on ESPN700 AM in Salt Lake City.
Andy Larsen

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