Joe Dumars era, defined by change, brought down by what Dumars never learned to change


The vision changed too many times, and now, the general manager had to also.

Joe Dumars has overseen several iterations of Pistons Basketball, the team changing identities too rapidly under his watch despite a reputation for measured stability. The latest change, made official today, removes Dumars from his role as general manager.

On days like this, it’s impossible not to reflect on Dumars’ reign – and how much he’s changed since it began in 2000.

He once praised players like Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace for contributing without the ball in their hands.

Then, he said the league was going another direction.

He needed players who could break down opponents off the dribble. Rodney Stuckey became a sacred cow.

He emphasized players who could play multiple positions. Ben Gordon got a fat contract, and Richard Hamilton received an extension.

He coveted stretch fours. Austin Daye was drafted in the top half of the first round, and Charlie Villanueva drew a sizable contract.

But the NBA hadn’t changed as sharply as Dumars believed. Defense remained a priority to successful teams, and as Dumars de-emphasized it in Detroit – through his actions, though not his words – the Pistons fell into the cellar.

Again, the plan changed.

Suddenly athleticism became Dumars’ necessity. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope passed Trey Burke in the draft, and Josh Smith received the largest per-year salary in team history.

The result of this latest, half-baked scheme? A mess on the court, yet another season that ends before the playoffs and Dumars effectively being fired from his position (even if it’s disguised as an accepted demotion).

And don’t get me started on coaches, who’ve changed more rapidly than Dumars’ philosophy. George Irvine, Rick Carlisle, Larry Brown, Flip Saunders, Michael Curry, John Kuester, Lawrence Frank and Maurice Cheeks were all scapegoated for Dumars’ failings.

Today, the tables have turned. Dumars is taking the fall for, at least in part, mistakes made by others after years of doing the same to his coaches. So, I have no sympathy – sadness yes, sympathy no – for Dumars. What goes around comes around, and Dumars put himself in this position

Nearly a decade-and-a-half of change came to this, but throughout the destructive transitions emerged three constants that led to Dumars’ downfall: failed pursuits of superstars, repeated unwillingness to challenge players and a lack of long-term planning.

Failed pursuits of superstars

Dumars began his tenure with a flop.

Tasked, above all else, with re-signing Grant Hill, Dumars helplessly watched the Pistons’ biggest star since Isiah Thomas leave for Orlando.

As the narrative went, Dumars realized right then and there he didn’t want superstars. Detroit was a blue-collar city, and the Pistons would win through effort and teamwork.

It’s a great story. It’s just not true.

Dumars always wanted a star, and he never hid that.

He tried to sign Chris Webber, and he tried to trade for Allen Iverson years before he actually did. In fact, Dumars put the writing on the wall while he was still playing. Jackie MacMullan of Sports Illustrated:

"Retiring Detroit veteran Joe Dumars’s final gift to the game was the advice he gave Philly guard Allen Iverson during the season. Dumars says he reminded Iverson to keep doing the right things. "He was very receptive," Dumars says. "Allen is what I call an ‘environment guy’ Put him with the right people, and he’ll be fine."…"

Dumars believed he had that environment when he actually traded for Iverson, convincing himelf the Pistons were somehow organizationally superior to the rest of the league.

They weren’t.

And not only did it cost them Chauncey Billups, Dumars’ miscalculation further eroded the Pistons’ culture. But it didn’t stop him from seeking that superstar.

It was almost as if he believed paying Ben Gordon and Josh Smith like superstars would turn them into ones. Instead, both players – and many others like them – sulked and regressed due to Dumars’…

Repeated unwillingness to challenge players

What did Dumars do best? Trading and drafting – two areas where he was trying to outwit other general managers.

But when it came to free agency, Dumars, a former player, never had the stomach for using leverage on former players. He gave out big contracts, enabled bad behavior and then fired coaches to back his players.

As I wrote at one point when the John KuesterRichard HamiltonTayshaun Prince fiasco reached boiling point with the Philly shootaround boycott:

"Dumars has left his coaches on an island to fend for themselves and done so under the guise of providing freedom for the coaches to run their teams. This wasn’t a sinister decision by Dumars. He thinks it’s best course for the franchise.But the side effects of the philosophy – four fired coaches in six years and near-consistent player bickering between – negate the positives of Dumars’ hands-off policy.Dumars gives his coaches enough rope to hang themselves, and when the noose is tightening, Dumars still won’t step in to help the man he hired. He’ll just provide the final yank."

The title of that post? “Joe Dumars let the Pistons’ intra-team bickering go too far – and now he can’t keep John Kuester/ can’t fire John Kuester

How does a general get to the point where he can neither effectively keep or fire his coach?

A lack of long-term planning

Under Dumars, the Pistons never properly rebuilt.

His first direction as general manager was to make the team good. It sounds simple, but it’s a difficult plan to execute, and Dumars did it amazing well. He mined the league for undervalued players like Ben Wallace, Clifford Robinson, Chucky Atkins, Corliss Williamson, Jon Barry and Zeljko Rebraca – and everyone fit together seamlessly. He then flipped several of those players to upgrade Detroit’s talent, and the team won a championship.

The Pistons are revered for being the rare team to win a title without a star, but that’s an improper label. Ben Wallace, at that time, played like a star. He didn’t hold the stature, and his elite-level peak was short. But in that moment on the court, the only things that mattered toward Detroit’s championship hopes, he was a star behind only Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. (Shaquille O’Neal lacked conditioning and motivation, and Kobe Bryant hadn’t yet learned how to assert himself without harming his team.)

What really set the Pistons apart: They won a championship without significant contribution from a lottery pick they drafted or acquired on draft night. Dumars should be hailed for how meticulously he built that 2004 team without getting bad first.

Really, it was part of an incredible run of general-managing. As I wrote a few years ago:

"In 2001-02, Detroit won 50 games with a starting lineup of Chucky Atkins, Jerry Stackhouse, Michael Curry, Ben Wallace and Clifford Robinson.The Pistons won at least 50 games the next six years. Last year, the final season of the streak, Detroit started Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Antonio McDyess and Rasheed Wallace. And the entire bench was different, too.No other team has ever completely turned over its roster during a streak of 50-win seasons."

Anyone complaining that it’s impossible to rebuild on the fly is wrong. Dumars already did it once.

But it’s such a difficult route to go, Dumars erred by trying to catch lightning again. The Pistons’ next general manager will be fortunate to have Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe’s bird/matching rights, but it very easily could have been John Henson and Ekpe Udoh’s.

Dumars left the Pistons in better shape than he found them, but they were a lost franchise in 2000. Now, well… I guess not all that much has changed.