All posts by Tyler Walker

The trade that cost the Pacers their chance at Michael Jordan

In the dark ages of the Indiana Pacers early NBA history of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the team struggled and made many poor decisions at least partially due to financial instability. Perhaps none worse than one trade that involved a future draft pick.

(30 for 30 voice) What if I told you that after the Indiana Pacers traded away their chance at drafting the player many consider to be the greatest of all time in Michael Jordan?

In 1981, Head Coach Jack McKinney led the Pacers to its first winning season (44-38) in the NBA and their first trip to the playoffs on his way to being named Coach of the Year. But the team’s success was soon cut down when starting center James Edwards was lost in free agency to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

In order to keep pushing for the postseason, McKinney traded a first-round pick in the 1984 draft for Tom Owens, a journeyman center on the tail end of his career, to fill the void that Edwards left. Owens only played one season for the Pacers averaging 10.5 points per game and the team missed the playoffs with a 35-47 record.

Indiana then traded Mr. Owens to the Detroit Pistons for a second-round pick in the 1984 draft and won a combined 46 games over the next two seasons.

The Pacers finished with the worst record in the Eastern Conference in the 1983-84 season and McKinney was fired. That draft pick they traded away for a short-term fix ended up being the second overall selection.

The 1984 NBA Draft is widely considered one of the best ever and ended up having five Hall of Famers. Hakeem Olajuwon went first overall to the Houston Rockets. The Portland Trail Blazers infamously took Sam Bowie and Michael Jordan fell to third with the Chicago Bulls. 

Maybe the Pacers would have made the same mistake the Blazers did and that’s the decision that would haunt them the most from the 1980s instead of the Owens trade. Or maybe Jordan would have led Indiana to multiple NBA titles like he did with Chicago. We’ll never know.

Donnie Walsh took over the Pacers personnel decisions in 1986 and steadily built the consistently competitive, respectable franchise that came closer than anyone to beating the Jordan Bulls during their dynasty as they took them to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1998. 

Jon Wertheim of SI.com once said the Pacers were trying to break the “curse of Tom Owens,” similar to the Red Sox curse of trading away Babe Ruth. With all their bad luck since he said that in the early 2000s, it rings a little more true: Malice at the Palace, the GQ Photo with the struggle of 2013-14, Paul George’s broken leg, and Victor Oladipo’s injury.

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