The two steps for building a contender, and how Joe Dumars does it backward

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Every NBA championship team needs two things:

  • Supreme talent
  • A winning attitude

Most are built with the former, then the latter comes in time.

But Joe Dumars built the Pistons in the opposite order.

In 2000-01, to nobody’s surprise, the Pistons won 32 games. They had lost their superstar, Grant Hill, and three other starters – Lindsey Hunter, Christian Laettner and Terry Mills – during the offseason. None of their eight most common starters were younger than 25. Their first-round pick, Mateen Cleaves, had struggled. If any team needed to rebuild, these Pistons did.

Dumars actually began the rebuild just before the 2001 trade deadline, when he sent Jerome Williams to the Raptors for the slightly older Corliss Williamson. In the offseason he made three key moves:

  • Traded a second-round pick for Zeljko Rebraca, who would turn 30 before the season ended.
  • Traded John Wallace and Jud Buechler for Clifford Robinson, who would turn 35 early in the season.
  • Trade Mateen Cleaves for a first-round pick and Jon Barry, who was already 32.

Of Dumars’ four big acquisitions, the 28-year-old Williamson was the youngest. Detroit’s only high-upside pickup, No. 9 pick Rodney White, wouldn’t amount to much in the NBA.

With their new veterans, the Piston went from the league’ 17th-oldest team to its fourth-oldest, adjusted for minutes played. No team’s adjusted age increased more between those seasons than the Pistons’ did – not the rebuild many had in mind.

But with Rebraca and Williamson scoring inside, Robinson defending and Barry providing energy and outside shooting, a funny thing happened. The Piston won 50 games, earning the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. All of a sudden, they were good.

Good, but not great. The Piston clearly didn’t have a championship-caliber team. Their older players struggled in a first-round win over the No. 7 seed Raptors and were out of gas in a second-round loss to the Celtics. There was no way they could compete into June.

Those who believe in the “mediocrity treadmill” saw the Piston as stuck – too good to land the high draft picks necessary to add talent, too old to compete for a title.

Another force outweighed the mediocrity treadmill, though. The halo effect. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, via Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus:

"The tendency to like (or dislike) everything about a person–including things you have not observed–is known as the halo effect. … [T]he halo effect is a good name for a common bias that plays a large role in shaping our view of people and situations."

The halo effect allowed Dumars to sign Chauncey Billups, who saw a team on the rise. The halo effect allowed Dumars to trade Jerry Stackhouse, coming off the first playoff-series victory of his career, for a young, talented Richard Hamilton. The halo effect allowed Dumars to safely trade for Rasheed Wallace, who played the most disciplined basketball of his career upon joining the already-established Pistons.

Essentially, playing well allowed the Pistons to add the talented pieces necessary to win a championship. Dumars added the skilled Billups, Hamilton and Wallace to a team with a winning attitude, and everything snowballed up.

The Pistons won 50 games every season between 2001-02 and 2007-08. From the first year to the last year of that streak, their roster completely turned over.

Winning didn’t get in the way of progress. It enabled progress.

And that’s just on the court. The peripheral advantages are immense, too.

Winning sells more ticket. Winning masks off-court squabbles. Winning makes coming to work more fun for everyone in the organization.

Trying again

It’s difficult for me to blame Dumars for trying again to build a playoff team before adding championship-caliber talent.

More focused on offense this time, Dumars traded for Allen Iverson and signed Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon, not necessarily because those players could take the Pistons to a championship. He added those veterans because, in theory, they could help keep the Pistons good, help sustain Detroit’s winning attitude and help preserve the Pistons’ halo-effect advantage.

It’s the same reason Dumars signed Damien Wilkins and Walker Russell, rather than pursuing higher-upside younger players. The better the Pistons play, the more value all their players have.

Plus, competition for minutes breeds the winning environment necessary for a championship, even if the system hurts the development of individual players. That’s why Arron Afflalo, Amir Johnson and Carlos Delfino are thriving elsewhere – because they weren’t immediately better than the players in front of them in Detroit. It’s also why Austin Daye has struggled to find minutes this season. They’re the casualties of a plan focused on winning immediately.

Obviously, Dumars’ second go-around at the plan has been a colossal failure. I certainly blame him for that. He overrated Iverson, Gordon and Villanueva, and they weren’t capable of delivering even Dumars’ modest goal of remaining competitive.

But the theory behind his plan had already proven workable.

The exceptions

As much as Dumars has forgone talent development in favor of attitude development, there have been exceptions.

Keith Langlois of Pistons.com to Dumars, October 2008:

When we talked just before camp, you hinted that Amir would get first crack at that starting job.

Amir Johnson began the 2008-09 season as Detroit’s starting power forward, despite being fairly unproven.

Joe Dumars, February 2009:

I would say that what’s not lost on me is feeling like what we’ve done in previous years – how we did it, the personnel we did it with – had run its course. We could squeeze out 50 wins and try to get back deep in the playoffs – or you could start the transition process now. And that’s what we’ve chosen to do, start the transition process now. And that transition process is, one, putting the ball in the hands of a young Rodney Stuckey and letting that development take place now and not prolonging it or delaying it.

Rodney Stuckey averaged 35 minutes per game in his final 62 contests, all starts, of the 2008-09 season, despite being fairly unproven.

Dumars didn’t say much about Daye, but Daye beginning the 2009-10 season as Detroit’s starting power forward, despite being fairly unproven, certainly fits the pattern of Dumars pushing for a young player to receive more minutes.

Although Dumars’ philosophy has apparently centered on adding and playing the best players regardless of age, he hasn’t done that at all costs. There have been more exceptions lately.

A new plan?

Dumars said he wouldn’t make a trade if it’s only advantage was helping the Pistons this season. Brandon Knight is playing more than any Pistons rookie since Grant Hill, and Greg Monroe’s minutes are tops by any second-year Piston since Hill. Detroit is in line for a top draft pick, another player who could warrant big minutes immediately.

It appears, out of necessity, Dumars changed his plan on the fly. Despite his attempts to continuously remain competitive, the Pistons are bottoming out. Bottoming out brings lottery picks like Monroe, Knight and someone else in 2012.

Maybe this time, talent will arrive before attitude.

In 2001, acquiring productive veterans like Williamson, Robinson, Barry and Rebraca came at little cost, because most other rebuilding team were focused on getting younger. There was no competition for the players Dumars coveted for his unconventional plan, so they were easy to obtain.

Now, with Knight, Monroe and a 6-20 record, Detroit has a head-start on getting young talent. The Pistons’ most cost-effective road to competitiveness now appears to be through the lottery.

Dumars proved acquiring a winning attitude before acquiring supreme talent can work. Nearly every other NBA champion has proven the opposite route can work, too.

It’s time for Dumars to try adding supreme talent before creating a winning environment, not because his philosophy was wrong – the 2004 championship proved it wasn’t – but because he failed to execute it in his second try.

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Tags: Austin Daye Brandon Knight Greg Monroe Richard Hamilton Tayshaun Prince

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