If you weren't impressed by the way Joe Dumars built the Pistons into the 2004 NBA champions, you weren't really paying attention. But if you think his latest makeover is going to bring back meaningful postseason hoops to Detroit anytime soon, your hero worship may be corroding your common sense.
Criticizing Dumars is no fun. He is a gentleman of integrity with a bio built with bootstraps and sweat equity. He's been a Finals MVP. Michael Jordan called him the toughest defender he ever faced. When the annual NBA Sportsmanship Award is handed out, the winner now receives the Joe Dumars Trophy.
In June 2000, a year after concluding his 14-season playing career (all with Detroit), Dumars took over as the Pistons' president and began building a roster emblematic of his own selfless, defensively rugged but clean style of play. He set the tone of his regime with his first deal, acquiring Ben Wallace and Chucky Atkins as the salvage when then-team leader Grant Hill wanted to leave Detroit for Orlando via a sign-and-trade. Dumars had lost a Maserati (one soon to be always in the shop for repairs) but, in Big Ben, earned the keys to a Jeep that never stopped scrabbling.
Two years later, Dumars enjoyed a magical offseason. He swapped Jerry Stackhouse, who was in his prime and had been a 30-point scorer two years earlier, for another shooting guard, Rip Hamilton, who had not averaged more than 20 points in any of his first three seasons. He signed free-agent point guard Chauncey Billups, a vagabond who'd been with five teams his first five seasons, to a six-year, $35 million deal. And he selected small forward Tayshaun Prince with the 23rd pick in that year's draft.
The remaining gaps in that championship team were caulked when Dumars boldly fired Rick Carlisle and replaced him with Larry Brown in the 2003 offseason, then packaged four non-starters and a couple of draft picks for Rasheed Wallace (and Mike James) in February 2004. When all these complementary pieces proceeded to dismantle the favored Lakers in the Finals, the Pistons were the first team in a quarter century (dating to the 1978-79 SuperSonics) to win a ring without a sure-fire Hall of Famer.
But those were the good old days and it seems unlikely that Dumars can restore them. The Pistons' remarkable string of six consecutive Eastern Conference finals appearances was broken only last season, but the seeds of their demise were sown as far back as the infamous 2003 draft, when Dumars selected Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony. (It would be unfair to add Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, who weren't in the debate as options for the top three picks.)
Yet under the circumstances, even the Darko decision seems more defensible than the moves Dumars has made over the past year. No one should question his need to break apart the venerable quartet -- Billups, Rasheed Wallace, Hamilton and Prince -- that formed the dependable chassis for that long, successful Pistons run. But for Dumars to flip his most valuable cog and facilitator in Billups to Denver for the most ball-dominant backcourt player of the modern era in Allen Iverson -- during the second week of the 2008-09 season, no less -- mocked the communal basketball catechism and culture he had minted as both player and front-office executive.
Theoretically, the silver lining was the salary-cap considerations. Iverson's expiring contract meant that the Pistons could be players during the big-game hunt for free agents in 2010, when LeBron James, Wade and Bosh will be on the market. Instead, Dumars used his cap space on middle-game hunting in 2009, signing shooting guard Ben Gordon to a five-year, $55 million deal and combo forward Charlie Villanueva to a five-year, $35 million contract. Even if the Pistons don't pick up any contract options in 2010-11 (and one of them is for supposed cornerstone Rodney Stuckey), the deals for Gordon and Villanueva have pushed existing commitments past $50 million next season -- close enough to the cap to prohibit adding another star free agent.
Too bad, because the Pistons are still a meaningful player or two away from being a serious, well-rounded contender in the postseason. The beauty of Dumars' first rebuilding project was the bang he got for his bucks, in terms of both the total talent he reaped and how those skills blended together. By contrast, there aren't many bargains on the current payroll and the talents of his two big recent additions are clearly redundant with some holdover starters.
For example, Gordon has proved to be a deadly scorer from the perimeter, especially in the clutch. His career shooting percentages (FG/3FG/FT) are 43.7/41.5/85.9, for 18.5 points a game. But during his six-plus seasons in Detroit, Billups provided comparable productivity (and clutch shooting) from outside: 42.5/40.0/89.3, for 17 points. When you look at earnings and positioning, however, a value gap emerges. After opting out of his first deal and signing another contract with Detroit, Billups wound up making about $40 million for his six years there. Gordon will be paid $55 million for his next five years in Detroit. Even if you factor in inflation between 2002 and 2009, when their respective Pistons deals were signed, Gordon will have to improve his numbers considerably through 2014 to approach the value Billups brought.
The fact that Billups plays the point and Gordon the shooting guard increases the value gap. First, while scoring nearly as efficiently and proficiently as Gordon, Billups was also averaging 6.4 assists while turning the ball over 2.1 times in Detroit. By comparison, Gordon's career averages show less than half as many assists (3.0) and more turnovers (2.4).
Yes, we're comparing apples and oranges here, but that's part of the point: The Pistons are more in need of Billups' apples than Gordon's oranges. Hamilton is Detroit's shooting guard, and not only is he under contract for four more seasons after signing a three-year, $34 million extension last November, but following last season's failed, tension-filled experiment of playing Hamilton off the bench to accommodate Iverson, Gordon will have to reprise his sixth-man role from Chicago to maintain a happy locker room. Between Hamilton and Gordon, the Pistons are spending more than $20 million per season for the next few years on sharpshooting off-guards.
The question is: Who feeds the ball to these catch-and-shoot scorers in rhythm? Detroit's point-guard situation boils down to Stuckey and Will Bynum. Stuckey, the man who supposedly made Billups expendable, regressed enough at the position to prompt Dumars to tell reporters after the season, "What this year confirmed is that [Stuckey] is a combo guard. We need to play him on the ball and off the ball." And Bynum is a 26-year-old fringe player.
To be fair to Dumars, I'm comparing the Billups of 2002-2008 to the Gordon of 2009-2014. The current reality is that Dumars has essentially swapped what is now two years and $25.3 million of Billups beginning at age 33 (add another year and $14.2 million if his 2011-12 team option is exercised) for five years and $55 million of Gordon beginning at age 26. That makes the position disparity less egregious. But Dumars was able to discern value in a young Billups that few others saw, the hallmark of a successful GM; on the other hand, Gordon's value is widely recognized, and Dumars paid the market rate for it -- at a position already filled on his roster.
Dumars did not respond to several interview requests, but he did explain his recent moves and his vision for 2009-10 with Pistons.com last month. He said he expects numerous players to facilitate the offense, citing the example of non-point guard initiators such as LeBron, Brandon Roy, Paul Pierce and Hedo Turkoglu. He also said he wants to spread the floor more consistently on offense, and referred to Villanueva as a "stretch 4," meaning a power forward who can take his man away from the basket.
But on two other aspects of the team that deepen my pessimism about Detroit's future, Dumars offered either generalities or bromides. The Pistons are woefully lacking in size and skill in the low post, and the current roster has the makings of a horrible defensive team. At center, Detroit has a raft of booby prizes to choose from, including perpetual underachiever Kwame Brown, the undersized Ben Wallace and Jason Maxiell, and undersized underachiever Chris Wilcox. (In his interview, Dumars also threw one of the three "hybrid forwards" he drafted this year, 6-8 Swede Jonas Jerebko, into the mix.) Suffice to say that none of these options will help Detroit compete with Dwight Howard in Orlando, Shaquille O'Neal in Cleveland or Kevin Garnett and Detroit's old friend Rasheed Wallace in Boston. And none will replace the tenacious low-post defense that both Rasheed and Antonio McDyess supplied for so many years.
For that matter, aside from Prince, and possibly Maxiell against power forwards, there isn't another player known for quality defense on the entire team, a situation exacerbated by the signings of Gordon and Villanueva. Pressed on this point at Pistons.com, Dumars replied, "Lest people forget, Chauncey and Rip didn't come here as these great defenders. They came as offensive players." Yes, but the catalyst for change was primarily Brown. Dumars -- who is on his sixth coach in less than a decade and fired two coaches, Carlisle and Flip Saunders, right after seasons in which they'd won at least 50 games and went to the Eastern Conference finals -- was reportedly turned down by Doug Collins and Avery Johnson before hiring career assistant John Kuester. But Kuester's last job was as the offensive coordinator under Mike Brown in Cleveland.
"Just because you address the need to score more doesn't change your mind-set to have to stop people," Dumars told the team's Web site. "It won't change our mind-set. Kuester and I have talked about that. We are committed to that."
The team he has built this time around suggests otherwise. A man as justifiably respected and successful as Dumars has been in Detroit probably doesn't have to worry about job security yet. But after all the occasions when he has come down harshly on his coaches for less-than-perfect results, this dubious overhaul of a suddenly sub-.500 team is on his head, and his legacy.