Will Perdue was a solid NBA player, who averaged 4.7 points per game across a 13-year career. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of production, especially when you’re playing with Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. Plenty of players would trade places with him just for a chance at one of his four championship rings. He just isn’t the sort of player one would expect to be traded for a Hall of Famer.
But on October 3, 1995, Perdue was dealt straight up for Dennis Rodman, who was still in his prime from a production standpoint. There were no draft picks involved. No other players. Not even a bit of cash. Chicago gave up a backup center and received a Third-Team All-NBA forward. In a modern NBA that routinely sees superstars traded for packages featuring several elite young players and valuable draft assets, such a deal is practically unthinkable.
The deal was the result of perhaps the most precipitous non-injury-related decline in trade value in NBA history. In the 1993 offseason, Rodman demanded a trade from the Detroit Pistons and was dealt to the San Antonio Spurs. The return for Detroit was substantial: 24-year-old All-Star Sean Elliott. In two years, Rodman managed to go from a player worthy of being traded for a young star to one who could only net a backup center. In those two years, his numbers were largely steady, he received numerous on-court accolades, and he suffered no career-altering injuries.
So how did the Bulls manage to snag Rodman for such a historically low price? There were three principal factors driving down Rodman’s trade value, so we’ll start with the obvious:
1. Rodman’s erratic off-court behavior
Perhaps San Antonio should have recognized the risk in trading for Rodman based on his behavior during his final season in Detroit. Rodman was extremely close with former Pistons coach Chuck Daly, whose resignation in 1992 seemingly sparked a change in the former Defensive Player of the Year. Rodman skipped training camp in 1992 and was fined $68,000. He was suspended three games for refusing to go on a road trip. But the low undoubtedly came in February of 1993, when he was found asleep in his truck outside of The Palace at Auburn Hills with a rifle. Rodman described the events in ESPN’s documentary about him, “Rodman: For Better or Worse” as the beginning of a transformation.
“When I put the gun to my head, I wasn’t trying to shoot Dennis Rodman,” he said. “I was trying to change the old one so that the new one could come out.”
The new Rodman may be best-known for dating Madonna, dying his hair and becoming one of the NBA’s most notorious partiers, but it was his conduct as a basketball player that ultimately irked the Spurs. He was fined a total of $32,500 during his first season in San Antonio for four separate incidents and was suspended a total of three games. He headbutted multiple opposing players, including then-Bull Stacey King, and things only got worse from there.
Rodman’s second season in San Antonio reads like a Mad Lib. In November, he threw a bag of ice at Spurs coach Bob Hill after being ejected from an exhibition game. He separated his shoulder in a motorcycle accident. He took a leave of absence from the team, was late to games and teams events and was again suspended on multiple occasions. Things came to a head in the 1995 playoffs.
In the middle of Game 3 of San Antonio’s second-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers, Rodman took off his shoes and sat down by the training table. He did not join team huddles, instead choosing to simply watch the game. Hill did not put him back on the floor in Game 3, and then-Spurs general manager Gregg Popovich suspended him for Game 4. In his biography, “Bad as I Wanna Be,” Rodman viewed the decision as one approved by the entire team.
“The players wanted to take a stand against me,” Rodman wrote. “Management wanted to take a stand against me. The whole organization wanted to send a message to me.”
Rodman viewed that as the moment in which he knew he would not return to San Antonio. Spurs star David Robinson made the team’s sentiment at that point perfectly clear.
“I want him back,” Robinson said according to the New York Times. “But with the right frame of mind.”
Rodman was not in the right frame of mind, and that was the final straw. San Antonio was so fed up with his antics that it resolved to trade him. But at that point, interest was virtually non-existent. His behavior was a big reason for that, but there was another driving factor in that soft market.
2. The Spurs had no leverage whatsoever
The NBA knew that Rodman was not long for San Antonio. The Spurs not only considered making him available in the 1995 Expansion Draft, but may have released him outright had the Bulls not come along with a trade, according to the Los Angeles Times. They were extremely fortunate that they did, because the Spurs simply didn’t have anywhere else to send Rodman.
Never has the NBA had a greater abundance of talent at the power forward position than the mid-1990’s. Considering Rodman’s age (34 during the 1995 offseason), it stood to reason that only a contender would be interested. It just so happened that every winning team was set at power forward … except Chicago. Besides Rodman’s Spurs, nine teams finished above the Bulls in the 1994-95 standings. Four of them had power forwards that made the All-Star Game in 1995 (Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Shawn Kemp and Larry Johnson). Orlando had just stolen Horace Grant from the Bulls. Houston had just won a championship with Robert Horry. The Knicks (Charles Oakley), Lakers (Elden Campbell) and Pacers (Dale and Antonio Davis) all had solid veterans that weren’t going to be displaced. San Antonio had nowhere to trade Rodman except Chicago.
And the Bulls were hardly a slam dunk. There was a major hangup that could have nixed the deal in its infancy.
“Scottie [Pippen] was totally against it,” Michael Jordan explained in “Rodman: For Better or Worse.” “Which I understood because when we played Detroit, he and Scottie had some really heated battles. Scottie didn’t like him.”
Pippen’s issues with Rodman stemmed from a dirty foul in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals.
Rodman explained to Darnell Mayberry of The Athletic that the animosity was so severe that after the trade was completed, Bulls coach Phil Jackson forced him to apologize to Pippen. With this in mind, the Spurs hardly had room to negotiate. Chicago was taking a risk in the first place by bringing Rodman onto Pippen’s team. They weren’t going to pay San Antonio anymore than they had to for the privilege.
Especially considering how much they were going to have to pay Rodman to be their power forward. Financial concerns easily could have killed the trade before it happened.
3. Rodman’s contract situation complicated things
Rodman said in his documentary that by the time he was traded to the Bulls he was “nearly broke.” When he met with Bulls leadership, “All he wanted to talk about was how much he was going to get paid,” Phil Jackson explained in his book, “Eleven Rings.” At the time, Rodman was going through a divorce and living beyond his means despite what was a fairly healthy salary for the time period.
In 1995, Rodman was entering the final season of a long-term contract he signed as a member of the Pistons. That deal guaranteed him a salary of $2.5 million. As small as that might seem by modern standards, the cap for the 1995-96 season was only $23 million. In making around 11 percent of the salary cap, Rodman’s 1995-96 salary would be the equivalent of around $11.9 million today.
That posed a problem in making a trade work under the salary cap. How many contenders nowadays have $11.9 million in salary that they’re eager to trade for a risk as great as Rodman? Any player earning nearly as much as Rodman was too valuable to be traded for a player with as little value as Rodman. So not only did the Spurs need to find a team willing to take Rodman, but they had to find one that had enough bad salary to send back to them for a trade to be legally allowable. And that’s where the Bulls came in.
Chicago’s frontcourt was pillaged in 1994 free agency. Starting power forward Horace Grant left for Orlando. Starting center Bill Cartwright joined the Seattle SuperSonics. Key backup Scott Williams departed as well, so with almost no meaningful talent left up front, the Bulls moved to secure one of their few remaining big men. Perdue, whom they had selected No. 11 overall in 1988, was in line for a bigger role, so the Bulls rewarded him with a bigger contract. Chicago handed him a six-year deal worth in excess of $12 million. That contract was big enough to be dealt straight up for Rodman, and when Luc Longley emerged as Chicago’s starting center during the 1994-95 season, Perdue became expendable.
That it was expiring created another problem for potential trade partners. If Rodman lived up to his promise, he would require a hefty contract extension. At 35 years old and given his general instability, that would have been an even greater risk than the trade. A Rodman contract gone wrong could have ruined the finances of a normal team. Fortunately, Chicago was not a normal team.
The Bulls were so wildly profitable in the 1990s that they regularly spent far above the cap. Jordan alone received salaries in his final two Chicago seasons that were greater than the entire cap. At this point, there was no max contract, and teams could re-sign their own players without limits thanks to Bird Rights. Jordan’s deal ensured that Chicago had no aspirations of creating cap space moving forward, so they lost no flexibility paying Rodman. He received a one-year, $9 million contract for the 1996-97 season, and then a $4.6 million pact for the 1997-98 season. So with no major financial concerns in acquiring him, the Bulls went ahead and executed the deal.
Never in NBA history have the stars aligned so perfectly for a contending team to make a blockbuster trade. For the Bulls to get a player of Rodman’s caliber in exchange for a backup, they needed him to systematically destroy his trade value over the course of two years in an era in which players of his position were plentiful and few teams could afford to absorb his contract. It was a one-in-a-million fluke that allowed the Bulls to add a third Hall-of-Famer to their legendary Jordan-Pippen duo, and fortunately for the sake of competitive balance, it is one that is unlikely to ever repeat itself.