The Rise and Fall of Joe Dumars


Matt Moore asked me to record an audio essay on “The Rise and Fall of Joe Dumars” for Voice on the Floor. You can listen to it on their site. (And while you’re there, poke around. It’s definitely one of the best new NBA sites.) If you’re more textually inclined, the transcript appears below.

Every major contributor to the Pistons’ run of success in the last decade has an iconic image. NBA fans know many of them. Pistons fans know all of them.

Chauncey Billups making a half-court 3-pointer against the Nets to force the first of three overtimes.

Richard Hamilton curling around multiple screens to hit a game-winning mid-range jumper with eight tenths of a second left against the Celtics.

Rasheed Wallace standing in front of his locker guaranteeing a Game 2 victory against the Pacers.

Tayshaun Prince backing up that Guaransheed with a come-from-behind block on Reggie Miller in the final seconds.

Ben Wallace holding the Larry O’Brien trophy high over his head in the middle of his cheering teammates.

Larry Brown sitting in the middle of a huddle and telling his team he loves them.

When you think of the Pistons’ greatness, you can see it. You can see it in Chauncey. You can see it in Rip. You can see it in Sheed. You can see it in Tay. You can see it in Big Ben. You can see it in LB.

You can see it in everyone – everyone except Joe Dumars.

While the talent he put together shined in front of 20,000 fans 100 nights a year, Dumars remained in the shadows. Literally.

He sits in a mid-level suite at The Palace. Occasionally, cameras zoom in on the dark space wedged above the lower deck and covered by the upper deck. You can make out a head, but if the graphic at the bottom of the screen didn’t identify it as belonging to Dumars, it could belong to anybody.

He comes out for a couple low-key press conferences a year, too, but that’s it.

When things were going well, Dumars never bragged. He never talked about himself. He never sought credit.

He still keeps himself out of the spotlight now, and maybe that’s why he’s so maligned..

When a man deserves praise, it’s difficult to bestow when he’s nowhere to be found. When a man deserves criticism, it’s easy to bestow when he’s nowhere to be found.

That’s why Dumars’ subtle sagacity was never appreciated as much as it should have been. If it had, perhaps, more people would believe he can turn this team around.

Dumars took a team that won 50 games in 2001-02, and in five years, completely turned over the roster – all while winning 50 years each year.

He built a title team without a major contribution from a lottery pick the Pistons drafted.

And perhaps my favorite accomplishment, he’s never been perfect.

He drafted Mateen Cleaves, Rodney White and Darko Milicic. He failed to re-sign Grant Hill. He hired Michael Curry. And that’s when things were going well.

But Dumars’ genius has always been his ability to fix his mistakes.

He turned Cleaves into another first-round pick and Jon Barry, who was instrumental in turning the team into a winner.

He traded White for a first-rounder used to acquire Rasheed Wallace.

He flipped Darko for a pick that became Rodney Stuckey.

He acquired Ben Wallace and Chucky Atkins in a sign-and-trade for Hill.

He fired Curry, his handpicked coach, after only one season.

That’s why the fall of Joe Dumars has been oversimplified.

Sure, trading Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson was a mistake.

Keeping Tayshaun Prince and Richard Hamilton is regrettable.

Signing Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva was questionable at best.

But give him a chance to fix his mistakes. Give him a chance to evaluate his team when it hasn’t lost 155 man games to injury. Give him a chance to operate without being handcuffed by the sale of the team.

Maybe Dumars will still fail. Maybe this special run is over. Maybe the Pistons should just appreciate what they had.

After all, Dumars was never supposed to be the GM. That was Isiah Thomas’ job. For years, everyone knew he would take over the front office after retirement. But a spat with Bill Davidson made him an outcast.

We didn’t realize it then, but Dumars – the quiet, thoughtful kid from Louisiana – was a much better fit as an executive than the impulsive and overly calculating Thomas.

And that’s why I can’t call this period the fall of Joe Dumars.

There is no fall of Joe Dumars. There will likely never be a fall of Joe Dumars.

His values are too resolute.

This is the man who stayed to shake the Bulls’ hands while his Bad Boy teammates walked off the court.

Not only did he win the NBA’s first sportsmanship award, rather than give it to him every year, the league named the trophy after him.

It’s silly to define Dumars’ record as a GM by just his last two years. It’s even sillier to define him by his record as a GM.

I can’t believe someone like that will fail. I keep telling myself he won’t fail because he’s too smart, too diligent, too focused. Although it might take time, he won’t fail. But maybe I just don’t want to believe he could fail – and I won’t.

So, yes, there was a rise of Joe Dumars. It began occurring Detroit when the Pistons drafted him in 1985.

But whether or not he turns this team around, there is no fall.