Joe Dumars operates in the shadows, a powerful but low-key figure who’s been patient since his departure from the Detroit Pistons in 2014.
The Sacramento Kings would be wise to remove the interim title they’ve tagged him with and name him executive vice president of basketball operations, following Vlade Divac stepping down on Friday from the top spot with the franchise.
Save for a run in the early 2000s featuring Chris Webber, the Kings have been a faceless franchise with very little identity. Someone with Dumars’ résumé wouldn’t normally look their way; however, Dumars’ absence has long been noticeable for a league that not only embraces those who’ve had success in multiple facets but he’s also a Black executive who should’ve been back in a front office a long time ago.
The Kings have vacillated between being a hard-luck franchise to one that was subject to all the jokes and ridicule befitting of one without banners or respect, missing the playoffs the last 14 seasons. They've hired 10 head coaches since Rick Adelman left in 2006. They need credibility, experience and savvy in the worst way.
Presumably, a man with three championship rings will provide that.
Dumars will be part of the process to name a day-to-day general manager, sources told Yahoo Sports, but he isn’t expected to operate quickly. He could take next season to evaluate the executives around the league and determine who’s the best fit to work with the franchise — a move that seems prudent given where the Kings are and not wanting a quick fix alteration to assuage the fan base.
It’s a different league in the executive rooms, and Dumars wants to work his way through the league to learn, to listen and then strike when the time is right.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see him tap a young executive and guide him through the nuances, similar to his own road when he took over as a 37-year-old, not far from retirement.
Dumars operated within the margins with the Pistons, famously winning a title without a superstar in 2004, the biggest anomaly in modern NBA history. The salary cap was flat, and unlike today there were no superstars to go around as the talent had stagnated until the new breed of stars emerged like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
But he built a strong organization of lieutenants who earned his trust, including Scott Perry and John Hammond, executives who’ve gone on to other jobs in the NBA but using a similar blueprint. The Pistons were a model franchise, coming as close as any to replicating the Bad Boys days when he was a player, one the current Pistons are desperately chasing today.
It’s a different league than the one he ruled for nearly a decade, as the Pistons went to two NBA Finals and six straight Eastern Conference Finals from 2003-08. Dumars knew so many of the players he was evaluating when he retired from playing in 1999, which helped him extend a window that normally doesn’t last longer than a few years given the circumstances.
He was bold enough to replace nearly half the starting lineup when the Pistons made their first conference final in 2003, resulting in sustained success. And he was bold enough to trade Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson, a move that wasn't as successful in hindsight.
It’s a different league than the one that was in transition when he tried to get ahead of a rebuild, too, one that was on the verge of a talent transfusion aided by rules changes that opened up the game in ways it hadn’t been in previous eras.
Being an adviser to the Kings allowed him to slowly evaluate the league and the players on the Kings’ roster, an opportunity many weren’t sure would result in him getting a chance in the top chair again.
There were rumors about the New Orleans Pelicans, a natural connection considering he was a native of Natchitoches, Louisana, a longtime fan of the New Orleans Saints and acquaintance of general manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton.
He had discussions with the Atlanta Hawks, but nothing truly materialized a few years back. He operated a basketball division of a sports agency, made a couple of TV appearances here and there but largely remained out of the public eye — even for anniversary functions for a Pistons franchise that doesn’t have a banner in its building without Dumars’ fingerprints as a player or executive.
Dumars’ final years with the Pistons didn’t shine like his first decade, but for some reason his mistakes followed him in ways they didn’t with his contemporaries, including many who didn’t have the success he did.
For some reason, he became known as the man who regrettably drafted Darko Milicic rather than the executive who kept his team in contention for nearly a decade without going over the cap in a mid-market and without a supernova.
It ended in a way he wouldn’t have liked, not meshing with new owner Tom Gores after a simpatico partnership with late Pistons owner William Davidson. It didn’t mean he became stupid overnight, or lost his basketball acumen. It merely meant it was time to move on after 29 years with one franchise in one city, and he needed to recharge his batteries, take a step back and re-evaluate an evolving league.
Combining the work he did as a player and a front-office figure, only Jerry West truly compares. One can assume it was pride and his own demeanor that kept him from doing the media tours common for the executives looking to get back in, but it was true to his character.
There was never a feeling Dumars would take just any opportunity; the right team and right ownership and understanding had to come along for him to get off the sidelines to take another shot at success.
The Kings have to endure the jeering from passing over superstar-to-be Luka Doncic for Marvin Bagley III, a player who’s yet to show his potential because of injury issues. But with a backcourt of De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, Dumars has good bones to work with following his meshing of underrated Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton, huge keys to the Pistons’ success.
It’ll take the right moves to add some luster to a franchise that’s only had a few moments of triumph, but the Kings may have stumbled upon a hidden gem right in their backyard should they be smart enough to utilize him.
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