Why the Pistons should keep Joe Dumars

In July 2009, Joe Dumars was in a race. It’s the same race in which every general manager competes – the ultra-marathon to a championship.

Dumars was running by a particularly dangerous stretch of terrain, right on the ridge of Cap Room Canyon, and getting tired. He had tried hitching a ride with Allen Iverson earlier in the race, but Iverson ran out of gas.

Dumars needed help. So, with Richard Hamilton already in tow, Dumars tied a rope around Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, hoping they could pull him further along. It proved to be a huge mistake. Hamilton, Gordon and Villanueva weren’t capable of getting Dumars closer to the finish line.

Maybe Dumars realized that. Maybe he didn’t. If he did, there still might have been time to cut the rope.

But before he could do anything Karen Davidson stumbled along and bumped into Hamilton, Gordon and Villanueva. They fell over the edge and into the canyon.

Tied to those three, Dumars went head over heels and was pulled down with them.

An isolated problem

Dumars’ recent failures crippled the Pistons. Karen Davidson’s sale paralyzed the franchise.

They’re both complicit in the Pistons’ downfall, but only Dumars deserves blame. Davidson never wanted to own the team, and her negative affects on the franchise were just a product of her trying to rectify the situation. Dumars’ errors were a product of him doing his desired job poorly.

Sale or no sale, extending Hamilton was a mistake. Sale or no sale, signing Gordon was a mistake. Sale or no sale, signing Villanueva was a mistake.

But – and this is why I’m willing to give Dumars another chance – the mistakes might have been correctable had the team not been for sale. I just don’t believe Hamilton, Gordon and Villanueva were instantly untradeable the moment Dumars signed them.

I have trouble believing Dumars wanted Gordon and Hamilton to play together in Detroit. Dumars supposedly had planned to trade Hamilton to the Jazz for Carlos Boozer, but Davidson nixed the trade. And if Hamilton had been traded sooner, maybe Gordon would have performed more in line with his contract.

And how can Dumars say this before last season:

KEITH LANGLOIS: I asked at your postseason press conference what you could do in your position to influence toughness. The coaches are in charge of making it a daily point of emphasis, but what you could do. And you said communication, making sure everyone was on the same page. And when I asked if that process had started, you said – immediately. Can you give us a sense of what type of response this communication has gotten.

JOE DUMARS: First of all, it’s been made crystal clear that if you’re not one of those guys that is exhibiting that, that it would be in your interest to start doing so immediately. So I think, first and foremost, that’s the point that’s been made. And if you don’t think that you can exhibit that, if you don’t think you can play that brand of basketball, there’s no sin in raising your hand and letting me know that I can’t play that kind of basketball. Because one way or another, it’s going to come to an end anyway.

…and keep Villanueva? Sometimes Dumars and I don’t see eye-to-eye on personnel, but can he really be the only person following this team who believes Villanueva has shown the requisite toughness? I just don’t buy that.

Dumars had never before been too stuborn to show failure and cut his losses.

  • He traded Mateen Cleaves a year after drafting him in the top half of the first round.
  • He traded Rodney White a year after drafting him at No. 9.
  • He traded Darko Milicic before the final year of his rookie contract began.
  • He traded Nazr Mohammed less than a year and a half after giving him a $30 million contract.
  • He fired Michael Curry, his hand-chosen and only internally groomed, head coach after only one season.

The pattern is clear. Dumars realized his mistakes and acted quickly. The Kings didn’t know yet Cleaves was a bust, and the Nuggets hadn’t yet figured out the same thing about White. The Magic thought Milicic could still improve drastically, and the Bobcats still saw the Mohammed who helped the Spurs win a title.

Davidson sold the team to Tom Gores last June. But by then, it was too late. Everybody knew Hamilton, Gordon and Villanueva were busts.  The trade market for those three had surely dried up.

Dumars biggest strength during the majority of his tenure – the willingness to quickly identify mistakes and the ability to correct them – had gone wasted. He’s stuck with the $133.2 million he gave those three players, minus whatever Hamilton gave back in his buyout.

Want to blame Dumars for signing Gordon and/or extending Hamilton when he wasn’t absolutely certain he could trade Hamilton? That’s fine. I do, too.

But so what? Dumars will have to deal with a situation like that again.

I don’t want Dumars to be punished for his previous mistakes. I want a general manager capable of building the Pistons into a championship contender.

Joe Dumars’ impressive track record

Joe Dumars built a championship team without help from moving up in the NBA lottery or an owner willing to pay the luxury tax. I’d argue no two forces outside a general manager’s control have greater influence on a team’s success.

  • The Mavericks, for years, spent well above the luxury tax to build a powerful and deep roster. Just the Lakers and Magic had higher payrolls than Dallas last season.
  • The Lakers were also frequent tax payers, and even when they won before the tax was instituted, their payroll ranked among the top of the league.
  • The Celtics were over the luxury tax the year they won the title.
  • The Spurs moved up to the No. 1 pick in 1997 to draft Tim Duncan and were only in the lottery because David Robinson suffered a season-ending injury.

Other than the Pistons, in the post-Jordan era,* only the Heat – who are on the verge of doing it again – won their title without benefitting from moving up in the lottery or paying the luxury tax. If the Pistons can get Pat Riley, I’d fire Dumars. They can’t.

*Yes, Michael Jordan played for the Wizards during what I’m calling the post-Jordan era. The era in which he ruled the league still had ended.

Dumars built a championship team from scratch. The only time the Pistons moved up in the lottery, he took Darko Milicic, a non-factor in Detroit’s years of contending. The luxury tax was never an option.

There are viable replacements available, likely including Kevin Pritchard and Mark Warkentien, if the Pistons want to fire Dumars. But no realistic replacement has built a championship team, and few generals managers – available or not – have been more self-reliant assembling a title team.

Building around Dumars, not over him

Firing Dumars would only punish him for his previous mistakes, which admittedly, were disastrous. But the Pistons’ horrid situation is a sunk cost. The next general manager will still have to deal with Gordon’s and Villanueva’s contracts and Hamilton’s buyout. Firing Dumars isn’t necessarily a step toward fixing the Pistons.

I don’t know exactly why Dumars gave so much money to Gordon, Villanueva and Hamilton. Maybe he overvalued offense. Maybe he undervalued statistical analysis. Maybe he feared Karen Davidson would close her wallet soon. I suspect all three factors played a part.

The game has changed – and not the way Dumars thought it would. Defense is still just as important, and statistics should inform decision more than ever before.

Dumars appears to be getting that now. The Pistons have gotten more serious about stats, with Dumars’ support. John Hammond might be gone, but new advisors, including Gores, are challenging Dumars. Dumars has spoken more about defense and toughness lately, too.

Dumars has shown – with the right voices around him, with an eye toward defense, with a committed owner – he can build a championship team. I think he has all that now.

Dumars is not a great enough general manager to go it alone. The last few years certainly proved that.

But Dumars has succeeded with the right pieces around him. A remarkable seven years of proving that should count for something, too.






Tags: Ben Gordon Charlie Villanueva Richard Hamilton

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