It has played out time and again in the fantasies, and dare we say, nightmares of some Detroit Pistons fans -- for six months in some cases, and possibly for as long as six years in others, on a stinging, endless loop of what could have been. As in: If not for
"Remember when" might be the lowest form of conversation -- Tony Soprano said so, anyway -- but in the sportswriting racket, nothing comes cheaper than second-guessing a draft pick through the miracle of hindsight and retrofit. Anyone can go back and cherry-pick the prospects who did not pan out for the teams that chose them, identify the legit contributors who were selected after a given spot in the draft order and then criticize, scold or ridicule the personnel folks who zigged when they should have zagged, who called heads on a young bundle of skills and ambition when tails would have been the savvier choice.
Oh, and the longer you wait, the cheaper it is. One year later, that's a second-guess. Two, three or more years later, it starts to resemble a rewriting of history, about as helpful as wagging a finger at the poor souls who booked passage on the S.S. Titanic. Then again, if you question the wisdom of a big draft move in real time -- say, within 48 hours -- your skepticism qualifies as a true difference of opinion and vision rather than a big, fat "told ya so."
There were, for instance, some NBA observers who felt that the Portland Trail Blazers erred in selecting
"I still haven't heard them come out and say, 'We've screwed up,' " one NBA coach said the other day, as the Pistons were falling into an 0-2 hole against Cleveland in their first-round series. "They still kind of hide on that. It doesn't matter -- everybody in 'the know' knows. That night, it was well known that Detroit was rolling the dice. But the one thing you've got to worry about is lying to your players. Because they'll know, and then they won't trust you." Claiming that they were set with
Others shrug it off. "You could find a Darko on a lot of teams," a scout said. "They've already swallowed that one and gone on and been successful. In defense of Darko, he's a decent defensive center. He's not a rebounder. He's got nice moves, he just doesn't finish. If he wasn't taken with the second pick, if he was taken in the late teens or so, you'd say, 'OK.' But he was drafted on size and potential."
Why does this all matter now? Because, if not for Dumars' gamble in 2003, the Pistons might well be a team of the present in these playoffs, rather than one split between its past and its future. Anthony could be clicking with Billups just the same -- Smooth and 'Melo, together in Motown -- and an organization that got to six Eastern Conference finals, two NBA Finals and one championship could be chasing those things again, rather than facing first-round elimination for the first time since 2000.
In a way, it's a tribute to Dumars' work up and down the roster -- apart from the Milicic pick -- that we're seeing the Pistons at less than their best. Typically, teams looking to retool slink off to the shadows of lotteryland, do what's necessary, lick some wounds and stay largely out of sight, out of mind until they're ready again for their close-ups. Detroit has done it on the fly, transitioning from Billups and the core of
That makes it unsightly and in plain view, like performing an autopsy on someone still twitching. Veterans know their time is up. Young guys know it's not their time yet. The result, here near the end of the run, has been more whimper than roar, the Pistons getting caught more than once playing only off muscle memory.
"You can't fake hustle," TNT's
Where does Dumars go from here? Back to the drawing board, for sure. The Billups-
When Detroit won the title in 2004, it won in spite of the Milicic move, the gentle interpretation being that its rotation was streamlined without a high-profile and ready-to-rip rookie for coach