There was a reason why Joe Dumars was able to hang on for so many years as Detroit Pistons general manager. He was beloved as a player; the 1990 NBA Finals MVP was the only member of the Bad Boy Pistons for whom outsiders could stand to root, kind of like the opposite of an aerial view. It wasn’t that distinction that made him so workable, though, so un-fungible. Dumars, who stepped down from his post as Pistons personnel el jefe on Monday, actually used to be damn good at his job. And people unfortunately tend to forget this.
The whiffs are notorious. This is the man who signed and dealt for both Josh Smith's and Brandon Jennings’ 20-foot jump shots last summer. He signed Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva in 2009 – to big contracts to actually start for his basketball team. He drafted Darko Milicic with, wait for it, the second pick in the 2003 NBA draft, when everyone knew that Chris Kaman or Travis Outlaw (or Dwyane Wade or Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh or whatever) would have been a better selection. The man hired Maurice Cheeks to coach an NBA team. In 2013.
In the early years of his run, though, Joe Dumars was ahead of his time.
The former Bad Boy understood depth, and though he watched an Allen Iverson-led 76ers squad chuck and defend its way to the NBA Finals in 2001, Dumars knew that a Jerry Stackhouse-led Pistons rotation couldn’t do the same in spite of featuring a points-per-game standout. Joe D had sat on the sidelines for a year as a deputy in 2000-01, watching Stackhouse pile up the big stats with little win/loss reward, and by the time the 2001 offseason hit, with Dumars taking the lead role as personnel chief, Joe D seemed primed for a different approach to roster building.
His work during that summer may not come off as flashy or brilliant some 13 years later, but that wasn’t the point. The idea was to utilize previously unutilized aspects of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement to gain an advantage. Dumars plotted with trade exceptions. He took advantage of sign-and-trade rules. He sent expiring contracts to other teams to take on what were considered onerous contracts. He used the midlevel exception expertly. And while names like Corliss Williamson, Jon Barry and Clifford Robinson may not strike you as killer pickups in 2014, they did help turn Dumars’ franchise around.
With Rick Carlisle running things as coach, Dumars’ team improved from a 32-win joke to a 50-win contender in 2001-02. Joe D terribly screwed up in his first draft, taking swingman Rodney White ahead of several preferable options, which was an unfortunate telling sign of things to come – White was a private workout stud, someone that shined while running through drills, a talent whose skills did not translate to game action. Still, Dumars more than made up for that pick by selecting Tayshaun Prince in the first round in 2002, following that up by selling high and milking Richard Hamilton out of an impatient Washington Wizards boss Michael Jordan in exchange for Stackhouse.
The Pistons nearly made the Finals the following season, coming close to toppling the New Jersey Nets with Prince coming on late in the postseason, setting the stage for a potential Piston dynasty. Dumars was clearly itchy, though. Carlisle had done excellent work as coach in Detroit, working two 50-win seasons, but Dumars dumped his first appointed head coach for noted vagabond Larry Brown in the summer of 2003, soon after his team was eliminated in the Eastern Conference finals.
That hire came just a few days before Dumars’ most notorious misstep, one that didn’t mar his team’s chances at a title, but one that possibly denied Detroit’s chances at several championships. Dumars fell victim to personal workout shine once again, selecting Darko Milicic second overall in one of the deepest NBA drafts in league history.
The Pistons had lucked into a high lottery pick in spite of the team’s 50-win 2002-03 campaign due to a 6-year-old trade involving former malcontent Otis Thorpe. Dumars reasonably surmised that he should probably swing for the fences in selecting a prospect over a known quantity. Milicic had just turned 18, he could jump through the roof and had obvious potential as a two-way standout, someone who could learn under the Pistons’ core of solid big men. He was a talent who, Dumars posited, could be hitting his prime just as Detroit’s older crew fell off.
Darko would have to learn under Larry Brown, though, a limiting aspect that Dumars appeared to have never considered. Brown remains the ultimate pound-foolish coach, not one to waste crucial on-court time on playing un-ripened talent, and Milicic played just 159 minutes in his rookie year. That rookie year, it should be noted, was Dumars’ top turn as an executive – his Pistons worked off of depth and defensive know-how to peak at the absolute right time, beating out several Western standouts and taking home the 2004 NBA title. Dumars’ 2003 offseason signing of Chauncey Billups and his February acquisition of Rasheed Wallace pushed the team over the top. Those Pistons remain to this day the shining example of how to win with the midlevel exception and NBA trade deadline, and a group that stands as the rare star-less NBA champion in league history.
Detroit got its breaks along the way – crucial injuries to the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves help hand the Pistons their first title in 14 years – but this was not a squad built on fits and flukes. Dumars’ team would make the Finals again in 2005 and the conference finals again in 2006, 2007 and 2008, though it couldn’t break through to capture a second ring. This could have been helped by the presence of another star, but Dumars had passed on Anthony, Wade and Bosh in the 2003 draft, and he had to sell low on Darko in 2006, dealing him to Orlando for a draft pick that later turned into Rodney Stuckey.
Brown was gone by that time, replaced by Flip Saunders in a move that seemed tailor-made for Saunders’ zone-heavy defensive style. Rasheed Wallace tuned out Saunders late into his first season, and the rest of the team soon followed suit. Dumars fired Flip in order to hire Michael Curry in 2008, but that was no help, as the buttresses started to crumble. In what seemed like a sound business decision, Dumars dealt Chauncey Billups to the Denver Nuggets for Allen Iverson and his expiring contract in the fall of 2008, a move that seemed to foreshadow a rebuilding effort with cap space in hand.
Dumars strangely extended Hamilton’s contract just days later, though, killing any potential massive cap space potential. In the end it just looked like Joe D was trading for Allen Iverson the player, and not the expiring contract. Iverson predictably quit on the team late in the season, and what cap remnants Dumars had to work with in the 2009 offseason were wasted on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva.
That crew, headed by former Cleveland assistant John Kuester, won just 27 games in 2009-10. Dumars claimed that ownership frustrations (longtime Pistons owner Bill Davidson passed away in 2009, current owner Tom Gores didn’t take over until 2011) got in the way of him making significant moves, but in reality he was allowed to make personnel changes with both his roster and coaching staff in the intervening years, to little on- or off-court acclaim. Gordon and Villanueva were no help. Rodney Stuckey was no player to build around. The draft picks, outside of Andre Drummond, failed to live up to expectation.
And in 2013, Dumars seemed to sadly live up to expectation by signing Smith and trading for Jennings. He hired Cheeks to coach his team, the fifth coach to run the squad since Brown left in 2005. Gores fired Cheeks midseason, with the Pistons struggling. The writing was on the wall, and on Monday Dumars stepped down.
It’s important to note that Joe was good for a while. Even if his Pistons hadn’t won the 2004 title – again, quite a lot had to go wrong in the Western Conference bracket for Detroit to field a champion – he still would have been known as smart executive who worked the league over quite a bit. Detroit made the third round of the playoffs or better for six straight seasons, and Joe Dumars was the reason why.
He’s also the reason why the team hasn’t made the postseason since 2009, and hasn’t fielded a winning team since 2008. He is the reason why the new general manager in Detroit will have to work out of quicksand, attempting to remove players like Smith and Jennings with their league value at an all-time low.
That’s probably worth the payoff, though. Joe Dumars gave Detroit another ring during his reign. That’s not to be taken away.
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