Dumars hopes summer brings fresh start

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! SportsJune 30, 2009

Over the past year, Joe Dumars lost two of his mentors, lost gambles on a rookie coach and a big trade, and even lost his franchise's competitive momentum as the Detroit Pistons lost more games than he'd care to remember.

It was a bad year that kept getting worse, on the court and off. So as the NBA free-agency period officially begins at 12:01 a.m. ET Wednesday, perhaps no one is as eager for a new beginning as Dumars.

"It's been a very tough year," Dumars said Monday. "Very tough."

The Pistons' run of playoff success (six consecutive conference finals appearances, including two trips to the NBA Finals and the 2004 league championship) ended in a first-round sweep after Chauncey Billups(notes) was traded for Allen Iverson(notes).

The drama of A.I. and his coexistence with Richard Hamilton(notes), combined with the team's poor competitive attitude, meant Dumars had little choice but to fire first-year coach Michael Curry, another close friend, on Tuesday.

Even worse, in a two-month period Dumars buried longtime Pistons owner Bill Davidson and former head coach Chuck Daly, two confidants and teachers who brought him to Detroit as a player and guided him to two NBA championships. When Davidson later handed him the reins to the Pistons front office, he, along with Daly, served as a constant adviser.

"Both of them had a certain humility to them," Dumars said. "Both were down-to-earth guys; in 24 years of dealing with those men, they were generally good people, just good guys. It was always about doing what's right, always about surrounding themselves with great people."

So the challenge is clear for Dumars: a major overhaul of the Pistons from bench to floor, only a few days to do it and without his most trusted advisers.

Armed with more than $20 million in salary-cap space, the Pistons will be one of the most active franchises, attempting to retool their roster on the fly and return to championship contention.

To do so will take more than just bringing in good players. It will be finding the good people with whom the Pistons have long tried to surround themselves. Some big names are potentially available: Hedo Turkoglu(notes), Charlie Villanueva(notes), Ben Gordon(notes), David Lee(notes). Dumars will pursue some, but not all.

It's about finding the necessary fit to win a championship, not just adding a stat line.

"The hardest thing is to convince people that fantasy basketball and running a team are two different things," he said. "You can't just write down names that look good on paper. We've seen in the past that'll get you a ways, but not all the way."

What Detroit is trying to do, rebuild in motion, is one of the most difficult things in sports. The natural flow of a sports franchise is to build to a championship level, bottom out and then build again with all new parts.

"The thing about bottoming out is you're able to hand-pick all the pieces, kind of like when I just started here [in 2000]," Dumars said of the year he took over as president of basketball operations. "All of the guys came here and had to mesh together to make it work.

"Now there are some established guys who've been here and had tremendous success. Now we're trying to fit new guys in with those guys. That's part of the transition."

Basketball is the ultimate team game; chemistry and complementary styles are as important as pure skill. You can't just load a roster up with stars and expect them to coexist. So he replays conversations with Davidson.

"He'd say, 'Here's how I went forward with this 40 years ago, Joe. I think it still applies.' "

Not that Dumars didn't know this from his playing days, when he helped win two NBA titles, or from putting together the unlikely 2004 championship team that lacked an identifiable superstar.

If he needed a fresh reminder, though, the past season was it.

Dumars decided the current Pistons had hit a wall, losing in the conference finals in each of the previous three years. So he decided to shake the core up, create cap space for this summer's retooling and, in the process, take a shot on an X-factor for a playoff run.

He gave up Billups, the heart of the team, for Iverson and his megadeal, which would come off the books in the summer. The available money is great now. The experience of A.I. never was.

"I hoped that his desire to be in a championship situation would override everything else," Dumars said of Iverson. "And I hoped his ability to create plays would come to the forefront."

Neither happened. It was a disastrous marriage, with the Pistons essentially booting him off the team before the regular season was over.

Curry bumbled figuring out how to use both Iverson and Richard Hamilton, and left some hard feelings. Dumars originally thought Curry could rebound for a second season, but decided to make a clean sweep of things before free agency. Firing a longtime friend was another "tough decision to make."

"I'd be incorrect to point to one thing that went wrong," Dumars said of the season. "I just think the transition of losing one of our key payers in Chauncey; the transition of bringing in the player and personality of Allen Iverson; having a first-year head coach in Michael Curry; and having a first-time starter at point guard in Rodney Stuckey(notes) all contributed.

"The bottom line is we rolled the dice for one year. It didn't pan out like we wanted. But we said [at the time], 'If it works, that's icing on the cake. If it doesn't, we're moving on anyway.' "

The good news is that, presumably, last season was the low tide. And as bottoming out goes, a first-round loss in the playoffs isn't so bad.

"That's certainly our goal," Dumars said. "But if that's going to be the case, then it's important to have a major impact this summer."

That begins at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, the last day of a tough stretch and the first day of the rest of his career.