By Paul Knepper
Joe Dumars was one of the most beloved sports figures in Detroit when the Pistons named him their President of Basketball Operations and General Manager in 2000. During his first several years on the job, the architect of the “Bad Boys” reincarnated became a Motown legend. Now, three years after their last trip to the conference finals the franchise is in disarray and Joe D is a big reason why.
Weeks after Dumars joined the Pistons front office their franchise player Grant Hill bolted for Orlando. Dumars used the loss of Hill to acquire the first piece of a championship puzzle, Ben Wallace, via a sign and trade with the Magic. Wallace, who was perceived as an offensively challenged role player went on to win Defensive Player of the Year four times with the Pistons.
Two years later, Dumars made three more crucial acquisitions. He selected Tayshaun Prince, a 6’10 forward who most scouts agreed was too frail to play in the NBA, with the 23rd pick in the draft. Then he signed free agent point guard Chauncey Billups who had played for five teams in his first five years in the league and traded high-flier Jerry Stackhouse to Washington for Richard “Rip” Hamilton, a lanky shooting guard who the Wizards President of Basketball Operations Michael Jordan was anxious to get rid of.
Prince developed into one of the most versatile players in the league, Hamilton was named to three all-star teams and Billups earned the nickname Mr. Big Shot, while leading the Pistons to a championship in 2004.
Joe D wasn’t done yet. Despite the Pistons reaching the Eastern Conference Finals in 2003, he fired coach Rick Carlisle and replaced him with Larry Brown. Midway through the ’03-04 season he added the final piece to the puzzle, trading for Rasheed Wallace of the Portland Trailblazers. Sheed joined with Ben Wallace and Prince to form the best defensive front line in basketball.
During his first eight years in the Pistons front office, Dumars seemed to make all the right moves, with the notable exception of passing on Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in favor of Darko Milicic with the second pick in the 2003 draft. His Pistons advanced to six consecutive Eastern Conference Finals from 2003-2008 and won the NBA Championship in 2004. Dumars was named NBA Executive of the Year for the ’02-’03 season and developed a reputation as one of the best general managers in the league.
In 2008 the tide began to turn for Joe and the Pistons. After losing in the conference finals to a seemingly inferior Cavaliers team the Pistons’ President decided it was time to make some changes.
Dumars terminated coach Flip Saunders (who replaced Larry Brown after the ’04-’05 season) and promoted assistant coach Michael Curry to the head job. The Pistons GM also believed the team had gone as far as they could with their nucleus and in November ’08 traded Chauncey Billups, Antonio McDyess and Cheikh Samb to the Denver Nuggets for Allen Iverson.
Dumars hoped Iverson, still one of the best scorers in the league, could get the Pistons over the hump and back to the NBA Finals. More importantly, Iverson’s $20.8 million a year contract expired at the end of the season clearing up cap space for Dumars to sign a couple of big-time free agents.
Neither scenario worked according to plan. The team went into free fall, finishing 39-43 and was ousted in the first round of the playoffs. Iverson was a disaster in Detroit. His shoot first mentality didn’t mesh with the Pistons unselfish style of play and the diminutive guard was relegated to the bench before missing the playoffs due to injury. To make matters worse, Billups led the Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals that season.
Dumars dismissed Curry after one season, replacing him with John Kuester. Then he failed to sign a star player and instead of saving up for the free agent bonanza in the “summer of LeBron,” used the cap space to sign Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva to a combined $19 million per year. Gordon, an undersized shooting guard has averaged a whopping 13 points per game over a season and a half in Detroit and Villanueva has contributed a mediocre 12.5 points and 4.6 rebounds a contest.
Detroit finished a dismal 27-55 last season and their big off-season acquisition was an over-the-hill Tracy McGrady. Kuester immediately clashed with Prince and inexplicably benched Rip for the past ten games, which has ruffled the feathers of veterans on the club. The Pistons are a measly 17-31 and looked apathetic on the court during a 124-106 loss to the Knicks Sunday night.
Their current roster doesn’t provide much reason for optimism either. Dumars has failed to infuse the team with the type of young talent they can build around and his hands are tied by the money he locked up in Prince, Hamilton, Villanueva and Gordon.
Karen Davidson, daughter of long time owner William Davidson, who passed away in 2009, is currently attempting to sell the team. When new ownership takes over they’ll have to decide which they believe is the real Joe Dumars, the GM that built a perennial contender out of other teams castaways or the President who has overseen the rapid descent of a proud franchise.