Joe Dumars almost had it

This is not about revisionism. It’s not about defending or attacking previous moves with the benefit of hindsight. It’s not about offering some concrete opinion on whether a certain polarizing general manager should or should not keep his job. Those conversations are all pretty boring to me at this point. This is simply an admission that, prior to the 2008-09 season, the Pistons could’ve realistically compared to the San Antonio Spurs. The moves they made after that season started, however, have made that comparison an irrelevant one.

Vincent Goodwill of The Detroit News wrote this column contrasting the Pistons’ fall with San Antonio’s recent Renaissance. This passage, in particular, stood out to me:

Skill-wise, the players the Pistons acquired in 2009 (Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva, Austin Daye) aren’t dissimilar from what the Spurs have: shooters that can spread the floor and score in bunches.

But for whatever reason, it hasn’t worked in Detroit, and San Antonio no longer is the grind-it-out team that won the 2005 slugfest.

Goodwill glosses over some very specific reasons it hasn’t worked in Detroit — notably, that while Gordon and Villanueva occupy a huge chunk of Detroit’s salary cap, the Spurs have found floor spacers basically on the scrap heap. Guys like Matt Bonner, Danny Green and Gary Neal do the things that Gordon, Villanueva and Daye are supposed to do for a miniscule fraction of the cost, allowing the Spurs to spend money elsewhere. They also do it better, because unlike the aforementioned Pistons trio, those three on the Spurs actually do play defense. San Antonio might not be the ‘grind-it-out’ team they once were, but make no mistake, the Spurs are still a first-rate defensive unit. Cost is still the most important issue — a skill like ‘floor spacing’ is only a valuable one if you recognize it’s a commodity you can get at a discount rate. The Spurs recognize this. The Pistons didn’t.

I get why there are comparisons between Detroit and San Antonio and, to a lesser extent, Detroit and Boston. Those teams most closely resemble what the Pistons at the peak in the 2000s were — tough, stubborn, prideful, veteran, selfless teams that move the ball, play defense and sacrifice individual accolades to win games. And, Goodwill is right in a way, there is a comparison to be made between the Pistons and those teams. But it’s not comparing the moves of 2009 to what the Spurs have done and essentially throwing up your hands and saying, ‘Welp, the Pistons tried to reinvent themselves like the Spurs did, it just hasn’t worked out for a myriad of reasons.’

The truth is, the Pistons were very, very close to having what the Spurs or Celtics have now, and it has nothing to do with the ridiculously atrocious signings of 2009 or the poor decision to draft Daye backfiring. Basically, every move from that offseason on is irrelevant to the point I’m making here. The Pistons could be a pesky, competitive playoff team right now, led by a core group of tough-minded albeit declining vets who understand how to win in the playoffs and are supplemented by energetic, talented young players taking on major roles.

How Boston and San Antonio are doing it

The steps are fairly simple:

1. They identified their key core players — their ‘big threes’ — and have stayed blindly loyal to those players. They’ve re-signed them despite the fact that they’re expensive and aging. They’ve resisted the urge to trade them for younger players. These teams know that their star players will not last forever, but they also know that it makes little sense to blow up a team that is still capable of contending. From a financial standpoint, if you have a team that can advance a round or two into the playoffs, it would be very hard to turn your nose up at that extra income even if you know that the team may not be able to win a championship.That might actually be the situation Boston is in — I think it’s pretty clear Danny Ainge knows this team is good but probably not good enough to win a championship, which is why he seemingly got close a few times to dealing some of his key guys. I also suspect he ultimately resisted doing so because he realizes how hard it is to get back to the point the Celtics are at now, let alone getting back to being title contenders.

If these teams had made the decision to blow their rosters up, get younger, etc., they would know they were sentencing themselves to a fate of missing out on that playoff revenue with no guarantee they’d return to contention any time soon. The Spurs and Celtics seem to understand that it makes good financial sense to ride this out with their core guys as long as possible while filling out the roster with role players who help enhance the things their veterans can still do.

2. They’ve successfully infused young talent into the lineup. With the Celtics, Rajon Rondo has developed into their best player. They legitimately have a ‘big four’ (or still a ‘big three’ if you want to argue that Ray Allen is in too much of a complimentary role now to be a ‘big’ anything). But Rondo is not the only young player contributing. Avery Bradley emerged as one of the top defensive guards in the league this season. Greg Stiemsma has given energy and shot-blocking off the bench. They have two rookies — JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore — who, after sitting a lot this year, could follow a similar path as Bradley and earn rotation minutes next year as Bradley did this year.

The Spurs have been even more successful in this respect. Like the Celtics, they have a slightly younger core player in Tony Parker who, like Rondo, has emerged as legitimately his team’s best player after spending his earlier years as more of a complimentary piece. They’ve also done extremely well finding young talent in the draft. They turned George Hill, another solid find for them a couple seasons ago, into Kawhi Leonard, the type of versatile, athletic perimeter defender they’ve sorely lacked. They found efficient shooters and defenders like Danny Green and Gary Neal for next to nothing. They constantly experiment with their D-League affiliate, always bringing in players for auditions to try and find role players who fit and are cost effective. Not every draft pick they’ve made has worked out. Not every D-Leaguer they bring up can play in the league. But they are constantly evaluating those spots on their roster, they maintain flexibility by not handing out many onerous long-term contracts to non-core players and it allows them opportunities to mix and match to find the right fit. They’ve had great success with that strategy.

3. Stability. Both teams have coaches who are respected in the locker room, and most importantly, whose star players buy into what the coaches want and police the locker room themselves. There’s a hierarchy in place, so when you bring in young players, they immediately know the work that will be required to get on the court and contribute. Like any veteran players, I’m sure Boston’s and San Antonio’s guys don’t like ceding minutes, but they also have an understanding that the ultimate goal is a deep playoff run, that rest is good and that helping develop young players who can contribute will ultimately lead to more postseason success. Minutes aren’t just given to young players, and they shouldn’t be. But when players like Bradley or Leonard or Hill or Stiemsma or Neal or Green legitimately prove they belong, the coaches are not afraid to play them and the veterans do not complain about losing minutes to them because they understand the bigger picture.

That stability is also important in that it allows those teams to bring in talented players who have been problematic elsewhere. When the Spurs traded for Stephen Jackson, he understood the expectations and there’s been nary a peep from him, other than him expressing how much he loves coming off the bench for the Spurs, since he arrived. Same with Boris Diaw, whose coach in Charlotte complained about him throughout the season until he was released. In San Antonio, he clearly understands his role and he plays it well.

Stability, consistency and trust are all important elements in those two locker rooms. I’m sure neither team is free of drama (especially Boston), and they shouldn’t be. But the point is, the coaches communicate, the front offices don’t undermine the coaches, the players understand what is being asked of them and, even in the instances where they want a bigger role, they still go out and do what they’re asked.

How the Pistons almost did it

The Pistons were so close to having this, so close that it’s almost painful to think about. But let’s do it anyway and see where they missed the mark on each of these categories:

1. They had a core, they just misidentified it. The Pistons had a ‘big two’ — Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups. The ‘third’ in their ‘big three’ is up for debate — it could be any of the Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince or Rip Hamilton group. All five guys were important. Wallace and Billups were the most vital, though, and they were the ones who were most easily cast aside for some reason. Wallace was the team’s identity, it’s heart and one of the most dominant defensive players ever. Billups was the team’s brain — I’m convinced that even though Michael Curry was pretty much a boob as a head coach, that 2008 team could’ve made another playoff run essentially being coached by Billups on the floor, had they not traded him.

But anyway, the Pistons decided to let a disgruntled Wallace go in free agency rather than give in to his salary demands and — gasp! — his desire to have the team more committed to the defensive intensity it played with under Brown. Later, the Pistons traded Billups for cap space. That’s the opposite of how Boston and San Antonio have handled their core players. In fact, Garnett, Pierce and Duncan in particular are probably wildly overpaid  if you are looking solely at what they produce at this point in their careers vs. the huge amounts of money each guy makes. But those guys are important to their respective teams for more than just what they do on the court. San Antonio and Boston know that if they let any of them go or made them mad with low-ball contract offers, they’d essentially be risking the delicate locker room and on-court balance they’ve developed over the years — their franchise face would suddenly either be gone or unhappy. The Pistons risked their locker room dynamic by low-balling Wallace and by trading Billups, and as we’ve seen over the years since, those risks did not pay off as the Pistons locker room devolved into one of the most toxic last season. The bottom line is they did not stay loyal to their two most vital cornerstones, and it helped breed a culture of mistrust between some remaining players and the organization.

2. They’ve successfully identified young talent, but failed miserably at infusing it into the lineup. As I said above, this is not about being a revisionist. But if they take a redo on the Billups trade and letting Wallace go in free agency, the Pistons very well could have a lineup that includes a still competent Billups (pre-injury) starting at point guard with Arron Afflalo and Rodney Stuckey as the young, supplementary guards, with one or both of those guys kicking down the door for full-time starting jobs by now. They would still have Jonas Jerebko (the pick used on Jerebko was acquired in the Carlos Delfino trade to Toronto) and they could also have Amir Johnson — imagine the energy that duo would provide off the bench — with Wallace in the occasionally still dynamic the elder statesman role he played last season as their reserve bigs. They probably still have Prince and maybe even Hamilton in the mix. Neither guy is in his prime, but both are still occasionally effective, especially in the right role. There are holes to fill — a replacement big for Rasheed Wallace and a versatile small forward would be nice — but assuming those eight guys are on the roster, I think the Pistons likely would’ve made a shrewd draft pick or two and acquired at least one other decent player via free agency or trade since, and those things would’ve made them at the very least a team capable of getting to the second round.

Now, it’s important to note that keeping Wallace and Billups would’ve been expensive. Considering the Davidson family’s ‘no luxury tax’ policy, it would’ve meant that someone from the Rasheed Wallace-Prince-Hamilton group may have had to go for cost reasons earlier than anticipated, simply because the Pistons wouldn’t have been able to afford a starting five as expensive as those five all got. But, from an identity perspective, I think it was most important that the Pistons kept Billups and Wallace as cornerstone players while they were up to it and then, later, in the transitional veteran roles that Hamilton and Prince were miscast in in 2009.

Is that team a title contender? Definitely not. And I’m thoroughly happy the team has Greg Monroe, who might be worth all of the losing the last few seasons. But the point is, the Pistons were forced to rebuild themselves because they failed spectacularly at developing the immense young talent on their roster. If they’d done a better job, as the Spurs and Celtics have, at integrating young players into key roles in their lineup, they would’ve had deeper benches in the playoffs, they would’ve been able to rest starters more in the regular season and they would’ve had assets who would give them flexibility to improve the roster through trades. The frustrating element in this is, like the Spurs, Detroit has an exemplary track record when it comes to finding value with late first round and second round picks. But for a five-year period or so, they were a complete failure at young player development.

3. They allowed their locker room culture to crumble due to instability. The Pistons, at one time, employed someone who is now arguably a top three coach in the league in Rick Carlisle. They fired him after two years. They also fired Larry Brown, a Hall of Fame coach, after two years. They allowed an overmatched coach, Flip Saunders, to stay on the job too long even when it was clear he wasn’t respected in the locker room. Then, they compounded the issue by replacing Saunders with an even more overmatched coach in Michael Curry. Then they compounded it again by replacing Curry with the most overmatched head coach of them all, John Kuester.

Who knows if Dumars would’ve kept Carlisle or Brown longer if it was solely his call. There’s good evidence that Bill Davidson hated both of those guys. The fact that Dumars sat with Carlisle at the press conference announcing Carlisle’s firing leads me to believe that they at the very least had a good working relationship. I have no idea if Dumars wanted it to continue, and I highly doubt Dumars would make the tacky move of saying those decisions were all the fault of a dead man who can’t rebut the claims, so we’ll probably never know truly whether or not Dumars wanted to ditch either of those coaches.

As far as Saunders, he wasn’t the worst hire they could make. He had a good relationship with Billups from Minnesota and he was the biggest name on the market at the time. He was a great regular season coach, struggled making adjustments in the playoffs and several on the team seemed to tune him out. It happens. He just got one year too long on the job. The final two hires were clearly miscalculations that Dumars has to own all by himself.

Anyway, the locker room culture was impacted both by the hiring of coaches that the players didn’t believe in or respect, by the fact that, often, the front office enabled players who were undermining or disrespecting the coach (cough * Rasheed Wallace * cough) and by the fact that the remaining veterans post-Billups trade, particularly Hamilton, were increasingly resentful towards and distrustful of the organization because of the perceived lack of respect shown for Billups. Those types of things just simply never, ever happen in San Antonio.

Does it matter?

Not at all. The Pistons are on a different path now, so it’s irrelevant really to look at ways they’ve diverged from San Antonio since the days the two teams were routinely compared as the league’s model organizations in the mid-2000s. It has been too long since the Pistons have had any success, it has been too long since Billups has been traded, to rightfully compare those organizations anymore. The organizations just don’t have anything in common. Maybe San Antonio will fall off similarly to how the Pistons have at some point, though I have my doubts as long as the people running that organization remain in place.

The point to all of this is simply to say that the moves the Pistons made after trading Billups are irrelevant to the discussion. They would have something similar to what San Antonio has now (though probably not as good as this version of the Spurs, a team that is really, really good and fun to watch if you’re not watching the playoffs) if they hadn’t made the Billups trade, if they hadn’t splurged wildly in that 2009 offseason. The moment they traded Billups for cap space they were committing to a very different organizational philosophy than the one embraced by San Antonio. Here is the conclusion from Goodwill’s column:

The bottom line is this: Unless all three facets of an organization are in lockstep, maintaining a run as impressive as what the Spurs are on, is nearly impossible.

I agree with this. The Pistons were one of very few franchises in a position to have that kind of stability. Unfortunately, although some things that have happened in the last few years were beyond the control of the front office, the team has also willingly made a lot of bad decisions that prevented them from maintaining any kind of stable environment.

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