Joe Dumars shifted to offensive focus – but why?

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The common thinking in the Pistons’ fall from contender to bottom feeder in the last few years has been that Joe Dumars has ‘lost his touch’ or that he’s had no vision. In fact, the opposite is true. The current version of the Pistons exists precisely because Dumars had a vision.

After the Pistons lost to Boston in the 2008 Conference Finals, Dumars gave in to increasing pressure to shake up the old core and traded Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson shortly after the 2008-09 season started. But today’s post isn’t going to once again delve into whether or not that was a smart move. I’m going to look at the new era of rhetoric that was ushered in starting with that trade. The Pistons won a title and became one of the steadiest teams in the league for nearly a decade based on, first and foremost, physical defense. Starting with the Billups trade, Dumars began to target players that didn’t fit a specific traditional position and who didn’t necessarily have strong defensive reputations, and that was no accident.

Iverson was the world’s smallest shooting guard (or was until Nate Robinson showed up). Charlie Villanueva wants desperately to be the world’s tallest shooting guard. Rodney Stuckey, at best a combo guard and more likely a shooting guard in college and as a rookie, became a full-time point guard. Ben Gordon was primarily a bench player in Chicago because he was too small to be a starting shooting guard and didn’t have the skillset to be a passable point guard. DaJuan Summers was a hybrid forward at Georgetown with the build of a prototypical SF and the skillset of a low-skilled PF. Austin Daye was a lifetime post player with no chance in hell at playing in the post full-time in the NBA (just don’t tell John Kuester that). Jonas Jerebko, although a good player, isn’t perfectly suited to either of the forward positions. Kyle Singler is yet to play a game for the Pistons, but he’s probably not strong enough to play his natural power forward position in the NBA, and he might not be skilled enough to be a full-time small forward. Brandon Knight is technically a point guard, but he plays more like a shooting guard right now. Will Bynum is the size of a point guard, but he’s a scorer in every sense of the word.

I could ask readers what the best position for most of those players is and it would start heated debates in the comments. And in fact, that was by design. Dumars began talking a lot about his belief that traditional positions were becoming obsolete. He wanted to put a team of five versatile guys who could score on the floor at all times. Below are some examples.

Dumars in a 2010 interview:

Dumars later says he doesn’t look at backcourts in terms of having a point guard and a shooting guard. He looks for two players who can play well together. So, if he used that line to dodge the question, ask, “For a player who you think would be ideal next to Stuckey, would other teams consider him a point guard or a shooting guard?”

Dumars in a 2010 interview:

Asked if the Pistons need a “pure point guard,” he said, “When people say that now, I think we still hold on to what a true point guard was 20, 25 years ago. A lot of the young point guards you see now that are having success are also combo guards. I saw some during the playoffs, kids who barely played point guard in college, played two-guard all of college, and now they’re running teams.”

Dumars in 2009:

If you don’t have the strong, low-post, traditional four man that can score, if you don’t have one of those top guys, you certainly better have one of those guys we call a stretch four – that can stretch the defense, that’s versatile, that’s inside-out. You have to get one or the other. If you’re not going to get a traditional four guy, then today’s game requires you to have more versatile four men.

Dumars also clearly believed that the NBA had changed into a less physical league where having an abundance of offensive-minded players was more vital than it had been in the past. From an interview with Keith Langlois in 2009:

We also recognize that we have to be able to score the ball more. I think our acquisitions reflect that. Kuester will decide at what pace we pay, but what I wanted to do was give him weapons to put us in a position to be able to score the ball more. How he chooses to do that will be up to him, but I did not want to put him in position where we didn’t have enough weapons to step on the floor and score like you need to be able to score now to have success in this league.

It’s not that Dumars ever publicly said defense wasn’t important. His comments just started to treat defense as kind of an afterthought, something that could be picked up later. Here’s an example:

I don’t think you can ever lose the mentality that for us to win, you have to stop people. You have to play good defense. You can’t be a poor defensive team and expect to win. So the fact that we’ve acquired more guys who can score the basketball doesn’t change the mind-set that you have to stop people. All we’re doing is saying we recognize that we have to score more. To recognize that doesn’t mean that you’re abandoning the mind-set that we have to stop people. You don’t have to choose, either-or. Lest people forget, Chauncey and Rip didn’t come here as these great defenders. They came here as offensive players. Chauncey was talented offensively, Rip was a scorer. They won a championship because they made a commitment to try to defend people. Just because you address the need to score more, doesn’t change your mind-set to have to stop people.

Dumars, in fact, had a pretty clearly articulated plan. It just wasn’t a good one. Now, I obviously cherry-picked some comments from the past to highlight that point, but these are some common themes that I think it’s fair to take away from Dumars’ change in philosophy: 1. He didn’t believe his veteran core of physical, halfcourt veteran players could continue competing at a high level in a league seeing more wide open offenses and stricter officiating; 2. He feared that his core would age overnight, similar to what he experienced as a player when the key players on the Bad Boys pretty rapidly declined; 3. He believed that he needed both more offensive firepower and players who could create for themselves and score in iso situations; 4. He believed defense was important, but that talented players who were poor defenders elsewhere could be taught to be good defenders.

As for that last point about defense, I’ll let Ben Wallace handle the refutation. From Terry Foster of The Detroit News:

Wallace said it’s possible that the Pistons can become a good defensive team and that some of these players can become good defenders. But it’s doubtful they will turn into all-NBA defenders.

“You are born with it; you can’t teach that,” Wallace said. “It’s tough to get to the league and not be a great defender and turn into one. You can be a great team defender. But as far as taking control of the game, it’s one of those things where you are born with that intensity or with what we call that ‘dog’ in you.”

Thanks Ben. As for the rest of the points, I don’t think Dumars’ philosophy has been entirely wrong — traditional positions have become somewhat obsolete, pure point guards are a rarity nowadays and, since he clearly believed a player with Stuckey’s skillset could be an offensive centerpiece, he was right to think surrounding Stuckey with perimeter threats like Gordon, Villanueva and, to a lesser extent, Daye, should’ve helped Stuckey excel. I think he certainly miscalculated on the players he chose to fill those roles and I think he clearly paid way too much for them while casting aside cheaper, more talented options. But again, that’s not the debate here today. My question is simply, why the drastic change in philosophy? Why reinvent the wheel?

Although it’s true the game has changed some over the last four or five seasons, it hasn’t been some sort of seismic shift. The Spurs, Celtics, Lakers and Mavs all won titles over the last five years by being really good defensive teams. The Bulls became an elite team last year built around a smothering defense, and for all of the hand-wringing about the Heat, they’re actually one of the better defensive teams in recent NBA history. Defense hasn’t changed that much, even if officiating does disallow some of the more physical stuff the 2004 Pistons did. That team wasn’t some relic of a lost era. The Pistons of the last decade were talented enough that they would’ve adjusted to today’s tighter officiating (although it probably would’ve taken about 1,000 Rasheed Wallace technicals to make that adjustment).

There is certainly more positional ambiguity today than there was 20 or so years ago, but Chris Paul would like to tell you that pure point guards still exist. Heck, Walker Russell is proof that even traditional point guards with limited talent can make valuable contributions in today’s NBA. Things have evolved, as they always do in sports, but Dumars seemed to be preparing for an offensive revolution that he perceived to be much greater than what was actually happening.

He clearly changed philosophies. This is the first year that the organization has uttered the phrase ‘rebuilding.’ There’s a reason they’ve been hesitant to do that — ‘rebuilding’ suggests that what you’ve been doing has been a failure. But they’re now at the point where it’s impossible to classify the last three seasons as anything but failure. Via Justin Rogers at MLive, here are some comments from Dumars after this year’s draft:

“When we’ve been at our best, it’s because we knew we were putting guys on the floor who would give there (sic) all and do things the right way. We all know we had some slippage in that department over the last year or two. This is a direct effort to reaffirm who we’ve been and why we have these banners in this building.”

‘Reaffirming who we’ve been’ suggests that decisions that preceded this year’s draft were not ‘who the Pistons have been.’ It’s an indirect admission that mistakes were made, that the drastic philosophical shift towards offensive players wasn’t necessary and that the old way was better.

Why did Dumars change? Unless one of the handful of interviews he gives out each year is to the guy who once built a game recap around around what Austin Daye ate for dinner, I will probably never get an answer for that question. As a fan though, it still haunts me. It’s just so strange.

Dumars became a prodigy among GMs. The ‘genius’ tag was tossed around pretty frequently at one time. Other than Jerry West, at one time, you could’ve made a case that Dumars was the most successful star-player-turned-executive ever. Most people who have that kind of success become so married to their philosophy that they never change, occasionally to their detriment. Dumars was the opposite. He stubbornly and rapidly changed course, as if he’d become convinced that the philosophies that delivered his great successes – fiscal responsibility, identifying under-valued talent, toughness, work ethic and defense as core organizational values, etc. – were untenable, and he couldn’t be convinced otherwise. There have certainly been several forces at work that have made the Pistons what they are today, but chief among them was a mysterious, largely unexplained change in how Dumars believed he needed to go about building a successful basketball team. There isn’t a rational explanation for why that happened.



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Tags: Austin Daye Ben Gordon Ben Wallace Brandon Knight Charlie Villanueva DaJuan Summers Jonas Jerebko Kyle Singler Rodney Stuckey Walker Russell Will Bynum

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