Joe Dumars understands how to win in different ways. It was Dumars, after all, who glued together the NBA's last superstar-less title team, building the 2003-04 Pistons with castoffs (Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups), low draft picks (Tayshaun Prince, Mehmet Okur) and mercurial talent (Rasheed Wallace). That Detroit team won more with great chemistry than overwhelming talent, blasting the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers out of the NBA Finals in five games. Which is why if any team executive can smile, look into a camera and sound credible while giving a speech about a roster that invites skepticism, it's him.
And wouldn't you know, Aggressive Joe has been at it again this summer. Despite already having a strong foundation in the frontcourt, the Pistons' president signed free-agent forward Josh Smith to a four-year, $56 million deal, a contract that the longtime Hawk probably deserved but one virtually every team, fearful of his changing-like-the-tide attitude and stretches of play where he channels his inner Dana Barros, was terrified to give him. And on Tuesday, Dumars introduced the latest addition: Point guard Brandon Jennings, another talent dogged by a me-first reputation, who received a three-year, $25 million contract in a sign-and-trade deal that sent 2011 lottery pick Brandon Knight to Milwaukee.
"Any time you draft a hardworking kid like [Knight], [trading him] is not easy," Dumars said. "But where we are as a team, and what we needed right now, it was a move like we felt we had to do."
Indeed, there is pressure on the Pistons (who haven't made the playoffs since 2009) and Dumars (who is in the last year of his contract) to win now. And in Jennings, 23, there is a lot to like. Jennings is a terrific pick-and-roll player. He doesn't turn the ball over much (2.5 per game last season, his career average in four years). He shot a respectable 37.5 percent from three-point range last season, and he has shown flashes of a developing an in-between game that could mask his lack of explosiveness around the rim. Yes, he's a career 39.4 percent shooter, but Milwaukee's reliance on its backcourt to carry the offense could have contributed to his inefficiency.
Yet league-wide, the opinion of Jennings is startlingly low. It's why as July ticked toward August, Jennings remained a man without a contract. It's why when point guard Jeff Teague signed a four-year, $32 million offer sheet with the Bucks, Atlanta didn't want to take back Jennings in a trade. (The Hawks matched the offer for Teague.) Jennings' talent, coaches and executives reasoned, wasn't worth the baggage (and defensive struggles) he brought with him.
"He's good enough to beat you by himself," an Eastern Conference coach said. "But I wouldn't want him because he can beat his own team with the way he plays, too."
Added an Eastern Conference GM: "He's a poor man's Allen Iverson. He is very inconsistent with his effort from night to night. I've seen him not shoot for a whole half, like he was trying to prove a point, and then take a shot every time he touched the ball in the next half. I just don't consider him a winning player."
Jennings doesn't flinch much at the criticism. In some ways, he understands it.
"I'll tell you the truth, being out there this long [on the free-agent market] didn't surprise me," Jennings said in a telephone interview. "Me being inefficient, me not being a true point guard, these are some of the biggest knocks on me. I knew it could take some time. It's why I wasn't talking to the media during the whole process. I just had to be patient and just shut up and wait."
With Detroit, Jennings sees an opportunity. On paper, the Pistons are a playoff team. They have a young, frighteningly talented power forward-center combination in Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. They added Smith, who has All-Star skills that new coach Mo Cheeks will try to harness. They have rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, one of the best shooters in the 2013 draft. They have depth in the recently re-signed Billups, Rodney Stuckey, Jonas Jerebko and Charlie Villanueva.
Here, Jennings sees potential. He knows he has to change his game. The chucker who launched ill-advised shots from all over the floor needs to stay in Milwaukee.
"There is no doubt I have to change," Jennings said. "There are so many good pieces around me, I have to do what is best for the team. I still have to be me, but I'll tweak some things in my game. I know here that I am not going to have to force up so many shots. We have legitimate post presences in Drummond and Monroe. That's going to be a big help."
Of course, talent doesn't always translate to victories. And Dumars' last foray into free agency, in 2009, didn't pan out. That summer, Dumars signed Ben Gordon to a five-year, $55 million deal and Villanueva to a five-year, $35 million contract. Gordon was so bad that the Pistons had to give Charlotte a first-round pick just to take him last offseason in a trade for Corey Maggette that saved the Pistons about $14 million in salary. Searching for "Villanueva" and "amnesty possibility" could blow up Google.
This Pistons group, while talented, is just as unpredictable. Again, Jennings understands this perception. But, he insists, there is an upside to it.
"I look at it like this," Jennings said. "We have a bunch of guys in the locker room who have a chip on their shoulder. And that's what Detroit is all about, isn't it? Guys with an edge. We have enough veterans who will make sure the locker room is going to be great. I'm telling you, we're going to surprise a lot of people."