The sad saga of Richard Hamilton

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(Damian Strohmeyer/SI)

I flipped on Fox Sports Net the evening of Sept. 11, 2002, and the broadcast opened with news of the Pistons trading Jerry Stackhouse for Richard Hamilton. A few months earlier, FSD opened its broadcast with news of an outrageous trade before cutting away to reveal an April Fools Day prank. Surely, this had to be another, albeit more poorly timed, farce.

Jerry Stackhouse had given everything to the Pistons. He stopped trying to lead the league in scoring and started trying to win. He bought into Rick Carlisle’s defense-first system, and he played a key part in the Pistons winning their first playoff series in 11 years. Surely, the Pistons didn’t reward Stackhouse’s sacrifice by trading him – let alone for an unproven, although apparently talented, Hamilton. It had to be a joke.

I wish this were a joke:

The Pistons have come full circle. They started with a high-volume shooter, who despite being more well-intentioned than not, wasn’t devoted to winning in Stackhouse. A decade later, they’re left with a high-volume shooter, who despite being more well-intentioned than not, isn’t devoted to winning in Hamilton.

Richard Hamilton was progress. His energy allowed him to compete throughout the regular season and deep into the playoffs, a trait Stackhouse couldn’t duplicate. Hamilton was one of Joe Dumars’ many success stories.

Now, he’s the obvious face of a segment of the Pistons who are stuck in the past, too stubborn to change. He reminds me of an old band, playing hits of yesteryear to remain relevant. But in the NBA, unlike music, the younger, sharper acts share the arena and expose the old-timers. Hamilton isn’t left to play his classics the best he can in peace. He has to fend off new competition, both on opponents’ rosters and his own team, every night.

That must be a scary proposition for Hamilton – knowing your best days are behind you and there’s nothing you can do. I doubt Hamilton will ever accomplish anything on a basketball court he hasn’t already. That’s certainly not easy to handle.

Rather than adjust, Hamilton presses on, fighting battles he can’t win. He’s protesting the NBA’s stricter technical-foul rules by getting ejected from as many games as possible. He’s shifting blame for Detroit’s struggles to the coach by refusing to play hard for the coach. He’s campaigning to start by getting sick at the thought of coming off the bench.

This sad saga was all too predictable.

The education of Richard Hamilton

(John Biever/SI)

This has been building for some time.

The Pistons let Ben Wallace, the heart and soul of the team, leave for the Bulls in 2006. That created a void for Hamilton and his teammates to find themselves. Chauncey Billups was always a rock, but unfortunately, Rasheed Wallace, not Billups, took a more authoritative role.

Ben Wallace’s lessons on how to treat coaches (read: as poorly as you desire) were reinforced and augmented by Sheed, whose head-butting with Flip Saunders trumped any of Ben’s testiness with Rick Carlisle. As a bonus, Sheed taught Rip how to argue with officials (read: as much as you desire).

The Wallaces meant a lot to the organization, but their head-strong attitudes left a mark on the impressionable Hamilton. Unfortunately, their most brusque traits veiled the subtle nuances in their ability to help teams.

Then, the Pistons took the most drastic step in Hamilton’s decline.

(Getty Images)

They traded Chauncey Billups to Denver. Smiles like those pictured above became fewer and farther between for Hamilton.

Psychologically, the trade took an obvious toll. Hamilton lost his best friend to another team.

What happened to Hamilton on the court is a little trickier. A common theory: without Billups’ pinpoint passes, Hamilton has struggled to find his shot. Here’s another theory: without Billups’ passes, Hamilton believes it’s difficult to find his shot.

The trade also brought Allen Iverson to Detroit. Iverson and Hamilton battled for the starting spot on the court, in the locker room and in the media. Hamilton won. Iverson took the rest of the season off.

The victory was short lived for Hamilton, lasting only until the season ended in a first-round sweep at the hands of the Cavaliers. The Pistons quietly let Iverson walk in the offseason. Unfortunately, the example of entitlement he set has apparently lasted longer.

Odd man out

(Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News)

To make matters worse for Hamilton, the Pistons signed Ben Gordon that summer. Two rhythm shooters playing the same position and combining to make more than $20 million per year doesn’t make anyone happy.

Hamilton, who once outwardly enjoyed playing basketball more than any key Piston in this era, sulked. It didn’t take hold immediately, but it was inevitable.

(Getty Images)

The Pistons hired John Kuester, who immediately championed Hamilton as a valuable part of the team. Since stroking Hamilton’s ego then, Kuester has continued to treat Hamilton well. Even though the organization committed to open competitions for starting positions and playing time this season, Hamilton, remained the starting shooting guard for 27 games despite poor play.

The pandering ended before – or depending whom you believe, when or shortly after – a mysterious stomach ailment kept him from the Pistons’ win over the Hornets on Sunday.

Slowing the leak

(Brandy Baker/The Detroit News)

Whispers became news when Vincent Goodwill of The Detroit News found a Pistons source to say Hamilton “quit on us.” That article brought Hamilton’s problems public, preventing either side from concealing them anymore.

But I also had no doubt Joe Dumars would nip this in the bud. He commands too much respect. When he told Hamilton to stop sulking, I knew Hamilton would, and I’m sure that was the crux of the pair’s 20-minute conversation today. Whether or not Hamilton wants to be traded, his behavior helps nobody.

After his chat with Dumars, Hamilton went to the media and said the right things*:

Pistons guard Richard Hamilton practiced Tuesday and declared afterward he would take coming off the bench "like a man" and do whatever it takes to win.

But I don’t think Dumars can fix Hamilton’s attitude. Beyond the typical clichés, Hamilton also said, “Joe will find out who said it and get to the point on that.” I believe Dumars told Hamilton he would try to find Goodwill’s source, but they talked for 20 minutes, and that’s what Hamilton took from their talk?

Maybe whoever criticized Hamilton should take more accountability, but why is Hamilton demanding it? Does he not see how his comment makes him look? Can Hamilton take any responsibility for the comment? Time will tell, but the early indications suggest no.

Actions speak louder than words, and Hamilton has taken one appreciable action this season – sitting out Sunday’s game.

*Update: It was pointed out to me that Hamilton met with Dumars after speaking with the meeting. I’d guess before their face-to-face meeting, the two talked in some other way. If they did, my points stand, If they didn’t, my points mostly stand, but we’ll find out more when Hamilton speaks publicly next.

Accountability

(Getty Images)

The heat burns intently on Hamilton now. Today’s article in The Detroit News is deservedly receiving national attention. Every NBA fan now believes Hamilton doesn’t measure up, and they’re get a hint of another unfortunate truth:

Every member of Pistons team fears leading it.

On one hand, how can you blame them? The team will probably fail, regardless, and the leader will take more of the blame. On the other hand, this team has no chance of succeeding without a leader.

Hamilton needs to realize three things:

  1. He’s the Pistons’ highest-paid player.
  2. He’s a captain.
  3. He’s, as result of today’s report, now the face of a lost franchise.

He can keep heading down the same path, but it won’t do him any good.

A new era

(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

This image represents the past. Hamilton no longer holds the edge over Gordon, and I think Hamilton knows that. I don’t know whether he accepts it or how he’ll deal with it, but I think, deep down, he knows it.

Hamilton accomplished a lot in Detroit, and nothing will ever take that from him. But history isn’t objective. How Hamilton handles this situation will play a huge part in his legacy – whether he’s remembered as the Pistons’ all-time leading playoff scorer or that malcontent who drained three years and $37.5 million from the organization.

I hope he knows that.

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Tags: Ben Gordon Ben Wallace John Kuester Richard Hamilton

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