For better or worse, Rodney Stuckey and Joe Dumars will forever be linked

It’s impossible to do #JoeDumarsWeek without looking at the relationship between Dumars and Rodney Stuckey, the young player teeming with so much potential that Dumars moved quickly to open a spot for Stuckey to get major minutes early in his career. Dan and I decided to put a Dumars-Stuckey post on the list for this week, but there was only one slight problem: I’d already written so much on the topic in my book, Piston Devotion, that there isn’t much new ground to cover that I haven’t already written about. So instead, we are going to run the Dumars-Stuckey chapter from the book, slightly updated. And, if you like the type of longer form posts we’ve done this week and would like to read more stuff in a similar format, and if I’ve never insulted you in the comments, you can purchase the book here or in Kindle form through Amazon here. And I was kidding … you can totally still buy it even if I’ve insulted you in the comments. If nothing else, it will give you more fodder to hate my writing. So here’s my slightly tweaked take on the long, strange Stuckey-Dumars journey. — P.H.

The transition from NBA star to successful personnel evaluator is often a difficult one.

The list of stars who had sustained excellence in an executive role is an easy one: Jerry West. The list of star players who struggled as execs includes some of the greatest players of all time: Michael Jordan, Larry Bird (although Bird finally seems to be getting things right in Indiana), Elgin Baylor, Isiah Thomas.

Those former players all had something in common: they had a ‘guy.’ The former-star-as-exec assuredly will bring the same ego to the job that made him a successful player, and one thing this ego consistently pushes them to do in the front office is try and discover some hidden gem — take an obscure player and mold him into a star.

The concept’s origins are simple: we’re a highlight culture. Legacies, we’re taught, aren’t built by the insane amount of hard work star players have to put into becoming great. They are built with ‘moments.’ Michael Jordan isn’t the greatest because he added, throughout his career, a dominant post-game, a long-range jumper, great defense and an unselfishness that allowed him to occasionally defer to lesser teammates in big situations. He’s the greatest because he pushed off on Byron Russell that one time in the Finals and hit a great shot or because he single-handedly kicked the city of Cleveland in the nuts with the shot over Craig Ehlo or because FLU GAME!.

Those moments are great for fans, but the players themselves buy in as well, and often seem to take that approach to their GM job. They’re not going to be great GMs by being patient,  putting in long hours, drafting players who fit their systems well, signing undervalued free agents and making sensible trades. They’re going to become legendary by finding an outlier, being the GM who discovered the hidden talent that everyone else was too negligent to see. I understand why stars-turned-GMs often look for these types of players, but it rarely works out.

Michael Jordan did it when he selected high schooler Kwame Brown No. 1 overall as an executive with the Wizards. Brown, of course, was a failure with Washington and Jordan had no idea what to do with him. Yes, he even tried resorting to homophobic slurs with no success.

Elgin Baylor’s ‘guy’ arrived in 1998 when he picked a late-blooming center named Michael Olowokandi out of tiny Pacific No. 1 overall. Olowokandi was big, strong and athletic, but still new to basketball. Baylor would pick him, teach him the finer points of the game, and in a year or two, he’d have the next great big man. It obviously was a disaster, but because Baylor had an inexplicably long career as a GM, it was far from his only disaster.

Isiah Thomas wanted Eddy Curry so badly as an anchor in his frontcourt with the New York Knicks that Thomas not only signed Curry to a gigantic contract after Curry’s heart condition and allergy to rebounds were both public knowledge, he gave up four draft picks to trade for him. Ironically, those picks ended up being LaMarcus Aldridge, Joakim Noah, Jon Brockman and Kyrylo Fesenko. Thomas’ trade amounted to a pretty good frontcourt rotation for a man who once sat on an aerobic ball and caused it to explode.

Larry Bird’s ‘guy?’ How about Austin Croshere? As a coach with the Pacers, Bird loved Croshere and actually used him pretty effectively. Based on back-to-back seasons watching Croshere average 10 points per game, the Pacers paid him like a star. No subsequent coach got similar production out of him, but Croshere made more than $45 million to average six points per game for his career thanks to Bird.

Joe Dumars was on his way to obliterating the previously low standards for great player-turned-GM early in his career for one simple reason: he never had a ‘guy.’ His Pistons won a championship in 2004, and they did it with his two best players, Chauncey Billups and Ben Wallace, making less money combined per year than Antoine Walker, who was an out-of-shape bench player on the Dallas Mavericks in 2004 when the Pistons were champions.

Dumars was a master of the lopsided trade. He acquired an efficient shooting guard in Rip Hamilton who could score nearly 20 points every game without ever having to have the ball in his hands more than a couple seconds per possession for a shooting guard in Jerry Stackhouse who could only score when he had the ball in his hands for about 22 seconds every possession.

He gave up a soon-to-be overpaid energy guy (Jerome Williams) and a never-was big man (Eric Montross) for future Sixth Man of the Year Corliss Williamson.

He convinced Boston to inexplicably take the remaining years and money on Chucky Atkins’ contract (thanks to another player-turned-executive, Danny Ainge), and also give up defensive stopper Mike James for the trouble, in order to free up enough salary to bring Rasheed Wallace on board for something called a Bobby Sura.

The Wallace trade was a shining example of how Dumars did things: always with cost in mind. He didn’t overpay players. He constantly maneuvered so that his team was always below the luxury tax threshold, yet was still able to give deserved raises to core players and keep them in Detroit. If he wanted to trade for someone expensive, like he did with Wallace, he cleared out enough salary to keep the team within his budget parameters.

He didn’t seem to let emotions or attachments get in the way of personnel decisions. When the Chicago Bulls offered significantly more to Ben Wallace as a free agent than Detroit thought he was worth, Dumars wished Wallace well and didn’t make an attempt to up his own offer, despite the fact that Wallace had been the heart and soul of a championship team.

In a word, he was sensible. He had a system and culture in place, he worked within a budget, and he went out every year, lived by those disciplined parameters and wasn’t afraid to make difficult decisions.

The Pistons followed up their championship with a near-miss in the Finals the next year and then three more Eastern Conference Finals appearances until something happened to Dumars. An enchantress named Rodney Stuckey walked into his life, changing Dumars and the course of Pistons history forever.

Infusing youth

When he was first drafted, Stuckey added a needed dimension to the Pistons. Entering the league out of small Eastern Washington University, Stuckey was a strong guard who could handle the ball and loved to attack the basket. And it’s a good thing he loved to attack the basket, since he couldn’t shoot (27 percent from three as a senior at EWU).

As a rookie, though, he was immediately a good pickup because he was an energetic, fast guard who could come off the bench. The organization had watched All-Star point guard Chauncey Billups wear down and struggle to contain quicker guards in two straight postseasons. It was clear that the Pistons needed a talented player who could spell Billups and reduce his minutes during the regular season, and then potentially be used as a situational defensive replacement in the playoffs.

The Pistons had also tried every Maurice Evans-like scrap heap wing who hit the free agent market at their backup two and three spots each year, never having any of the spare parts become consistent rotation contributors. As a combo guard, Stuckey could potentially provide valuable minutes subbing for Hamilton or Tayshaun Prince off the ball.

From the start of his career, Stuckey showed the makings of a great find in the middle of the first round of the NBA Draft for Dumars.

It was in the playoffs that rookie year when Stuckey would have his coming out party, scoring in double figures in six of 17 playoff games off the bench. Of course, he did shoot less than 40 percent in three of those six games.

The real reason the Pistons needed him was for a deep playoff run. When they faced Boston in the Conference Finals in 2007, Stuckey had been through two hard-fought playoff series, he’d shaken the rust off after breaking his wrist in the regular season, and he was ready to help the Pistons finally get back to the Finals. Then, with the series tied 2-2, Stuckey would shoot 4-for-14 in the final two games of the series, both Pistons losses. Meanwhile, Billups, whose supposed playoff flameouts were a constant source of criticism, put up the following stat-lines in those final two games: 26 points/6 assists/5 rebounds and 29 points/6 assists/6 rebounds.

This series was the most heart-breaking of the Flip Saunders era. Before it started, it felt like this would be the last chance the Pistons as constructed would have at a title. That Boston team bullied everyone through the regular season after pulling off trades for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, they seemed destined to win a title and Detroit was good enough to beat them. They were the only team physical enough to match Boston. They had defenders who could bother Boston’s shooters. They had depth for the first time in three straight playoff appearances, and they still came up short.

This was so frustrating, it led to one of the most candid quotes of Dumars’ always close-to-the-vest era as Pistons team president.

“There are no sacred cows here,” Dumars said. “You lose that sacred-cow status when you lose three straight years.”

The implication, however, was that there was one sacred cow: Stuckey. In fact, Stuckey was so sacred, that just days into the 2008-09 season, Dumars dealt Billups in a trade for Allen Iverson, effectively handing the point guard spot and the future of a team that was one of the top four in the league for six straight years under Billups to a player who didn’t even have a full 82 games on his resumé at the time.

And very clearly, that trade was made first and foremost with Stuckey in mind. Here’s what ESPN’s Chad Ford reported after interviewing Dumars post-trade:

“Dumars believes Stuckey is the point guard of the future in Detroit. Billups has four more years on his contract, and Dumars didn’t want Stuckey playing a sixth man role that long.”

Dumars traded an All-Star, a point guard who at the time was one of the four best point guards in the league, a player who had put down roots in Detroit and was signed to a reasonable (by franchise player standards) contract, to hand the team over to a guy whose career per-36 minute stats at the time were: 14.5 points/4.3 rebounds/5.3 assists/2.6 turnovers and 40 percent shooting. He also was not a perimeter threat, attempting only 16 three-pointers all season and hitting just 19 percent of those. Stuckey was a promising young player with upside then. He was far from a finished product and far from ready to ascend to such an important role on a veteran team that still had serious playoff aspirations.

What did it do in the locker room?

There’s no way things in the Pistons locker room were easy for Stuckey after that trade.

Billups was a beloved teammate, unselfish and the unquestioned team leader. ESPN’s Tom Friend wrote an in-depth profile of Billups upon his trade to Denver where Billups recounted how Hamilton and Prince came to his hotel room after the trade and the three of them just talked and cried together. Is there anyone who legitimately believes that those two, along with Rasheed Wallace, simply just walked back into the Pistons locker room thrilled that their great friend and teammate had been replaced by a kid who’d done nothing to earn his spot except for make a low percentage of high percentage shots?

It wasn’t only the Pistons veterans who experienced just how divine a sacred cow Stuckey was that season. Allen Iverson was technically the biggest ‘star’ the Pistons have ever had, even if he was at the end of his career when he joined the the team. Iverson became the league’s most popular player through the early 2000s. I won’t debate his effectiveness as a player or his personality. Those are different topics. He clearly was a shell of his former self by the time he got to Detroit. But I will categorically say that he’s one of the most culturally significant athletes the NBA has ever had, he’s still, despite all of the legacy-murdering he’s done the last few years, hugely popular and respected among players and when the Pistons acquired him, he was coming off a very good offensive season, statistically at least.

Now, starting Stuckey over Iverson might not have been the immediate plan. Stuckey did go to the bench initially, with Iverson and Hamilton starting. But an injury that caused Hamilton to miss eight games in late December/early January of the 2008-09 season quickly put Stuckey back into the lineup. When Hamilton returned, guess who wasn’t going to the bench? Then-coach Michael Curry elected to bring Hamilton off the bench, a slap in the face to a player who had led the team in scoring every year he’d been in Detroit.

Then Iverson got hurt and had to miss time in February, so Hamilton got his spot back. When Iverson returned, guess who wasn’t going to the bench? Instead of asking Stuckey, the logical choice, to come off the bench, the Pistons elected to tell Iverson, an icon, a former MVP and a sure Hall of Famer, they wanted to bring him off the bench. Iverson, uh, let’s just say declined the opportunity to back up Stuckey, effectively ending his Pistons career.

But we all know Iverson had declined by that point and had not had a good season, right? Stuckey was probably just out-performing him and had won the job, right? They were actually putting up pretty similar (i.e.: not very good) numbers.

Stuckey (per-36 minutes): 15.1 points/5.5 assists/2.5 turnovers/3.9 rebounds/1.1 steals, 43 percent shooting, 104 offensive rating, 110 defensive rating, .073 win shares/48 minutes, 14.8 Player Efficiency Rating (PER).

Iverson (per-36 minutes): 17.2 points/4.8 assists/2.5 turnovers/3.1 rebounds/1.6 steals, 42 percent shooting, 102 offensive rating, 109 defensive rating, .065 win shares/48 minutes, 15.9 PER.

I’m not saying I’d be thrilled with either of those statlines from my starting point guard. But in less than 200 games of, at-best, league average production, Stuckey had been anointed a franchise savior and hastened the departure of two All-Stars in Billups and Iverson from Detroit because of Dumars’ belief that Stuckey had the makings of an elite point guard. Stuckey out-played neither of those All-Star players to earn that distinction. Dumars had previously built his team on the foundation of guys who, in some cases, had to fight just to have a NBA career. Making things so easy for Stuckey to ascend to a starting job and primary role was extremely damaging to Detroit’s previously well-known chemistry and helped create a young players/veterans divide that was evident through last season.

The fallout

A series of events that spiraled out of control because of an over-reaction to a loss against a Boston team that was favored in the conference finals anyway has helped tarnish Dumars’ formerly pristine executive legacy. Over-committing to Stuckey too soon was a mistake.

Dumars, for better or worse, is forever tied to Stuckey. Worse than the Darko Milicic pick, worse than letting productive players like Carlos Delfino, Amir Johnson and Arron Afflalo go for next to nothing, worse than taking small forwards with all three of his picks in the 2009 NBA Draft, Dumars made a major mistake with Stuckey: he went against the harmonious environment where minutes and reputation are earned through winning that Feldman wrote about in his post yesterday. That was the first and biggest domino to fall in Detroit’s locker room going from one of the league’s best early in the decade to arguably the league’s worst last year, based on the number of squabbles and incidents that leaked out.

On some levels, Dumars’ being enamored with Stuckey made sense. Stuckey is a big, strong guard from a tiny college who became an unlikely first round pick by an already good team. Dumars was a big, strong guard from a tiny college (McNeese State) who was an unlikely first round pick by a team, led by Isiah Thomas, starting a long run of playoff success. That’s what it took for Dumars to get his ‘guy.’ Maybe he looked at Stuckey and he saw a young version of himself, a guy he could mold and help become a really good NBA player and player who rival GMs would look at when he’s a finished product and say, “Man … that Joe Dumars is a genius for finding Rodney Stuckey.”

Stuckey was given a team that other players felt was theirs. He wasn’t yet mature enough to handle that responsibility. That’s not his fault. The organization and, consequently, fans, expected him to develop into an All-Star. He hasn’t, but he has far exceeded the performance of most players picked where he was in the draft. He’s a good player. He’s not an All-Star or franchise player, and that’s not his fault either.

After four seasons in the league, Stuckey has incrementally improved (notably, he gets to the free throw line more). He’s a guard who has never developed the matching basketball IQ and requisite point guard playmaking ability to match his immense athletic gifts. He still barrels into traffic, often forcing up a bad shot or realizing too late that he’s taking a bad shot only to kick it out to someone else with a bad pass. He still does not give consistent effort defensively. He still hasn’t developed a jump shot that can be described as reliable (although he seems to finally be making progress on that front in this fifth year in the league). He still shoots too low a percentage for a guard who gets a lot of shots in the paint. Stuckey was benched twice for disciplinary reasons stemming from his fights with Kuester in 2010-11 and he lost both the starting point guard job and starting shooting guard job as a result of those discipline problems in the span of the 2010-11 season.

Billups played for five teams in five years. There was a time that it looked like he wouldn’t make it in the league before he made the most of an opportunity as a backup in Minnesota. He fought his way into the T-Wolves rotation, eventually became a starter when Terrell Brandon got hurt, he signed with the Pistons and made himself into an elite point guard, he won a championship, he won a lot of games and the second he went to Denver, he helped transform the Nuggets from a fringe playoff team into a team that advanced all the way to the Western Conference Finals and gave the eventual champion Lakers a tough series in 2009. Billups is the guy everyone wants to follow. Billups instills confidence. When he tells people to keep working or gets on players for being in the wrong spots or not playing hard enough, he has credibility because he’s been through virtually all of the highs and lows a NBA player can experience.

There is a reason why one of those two players is considered simply a solid NBA player and the other is considered a leader of men in the league. Billups has clout and confidence and inspires others. Those were qualities that Dumars didn’t properly assess when he traded him and they were qualities he didn’t properly look for in his replacement.

The responsibility for Stuckey’s Detroit tenure rests with Dumars. It became clear early on in Stuckey’s career that he was Dumars’ ‘guy.’ And as we’ve seen with other GMs, when they have a ‘guy,’ their career becomes tied to that player.

Stuckey is still young. There’s still a shot he can reach those All-Star expectations the organization unfairly placed on him at a young age, although it’s a shrinking possibility at this point in his career. Dumars and the organization did Stuckey no favors by setting the bar so high. Stuckey’s failure to attain those lofty heights will, in the long run, be something Dumars ultimately deserves more blame for than Stuckey.





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