I love Joe Dumars.
Since the 2001-2002 season the Detroit Pistons have been a model franchise. Short of winning multiple championships, an inevitable if somewhat foolish measure of worth, Detroit has in fact been THE model for building a perennial 50-game winner and legitimate title threat in the post-Showtime, post-Jordan era.
Reports indicate that Dumars is ready to break up the core of the Pistons as we know them, moving perhaps even two of the “original four” (i.e., Billups, Hamilton, Prince, and Wallace) this offseason. Dumars has taken a first step towards retooling on the fly by dismissing head coach Flip Saunders and reportedly naming assistant Michael Curry as the new head coach. Although I am not a huge Detroit fan, especially since their title season, I nonetheless adore Dumars as an executive. If this is indeed the end of DE-TROIT BAS-KIT-BALL!!! as we know it, we as NBA fans (especially those of us who follow Eastern Conference teams) owe Dumars and that group a debt of gratitude.
One of the things baseball, my first love, has over football and basketball is how it valorizes championship-caliber greatness alongside consistent, high-quality play. They need not detract from one another; they can in fact enhance one another. The Braves’ 13 division crowns under Bobby Cox underscore how truly special the Yankees’ four World Series titles were under Joe Torre. Both architects and their achievements are universally respected, though obviously not afforded the same reverence. In the NFL however, it’s still basically “you’re a bum until you win a Super Bowl.” Media and fans typically only validate consistent high-quality performance in retrospect, after a Super Bowl title. NBA fans and media are a tad less fixated on a title, but they are still far more likely to damn a team with faint praise than celebrate something less than a title. I expect to hear (probably from the players themselves) a lot of quotes right out of the Post-Season Remorseful Quotes Handbook, particularly if/when one of the original four is traded. But I won’t pay much attention to them. Getting to two straight NBA finals and then three straight conference finals is impressive as hell. To those who will inevitably devalue even that accomplishment because it came against Eastern Conference dreck, I would note that since realignment Detroit’s record against the Western Conference divisions is 28-12 (Northwest), 35-13 (Midwest), and 28-12 (Pacific). This has been an elite team–period.
Even though I love you Joe, nobody is above criticism and some goes to you.
Dumars says the Pistons lacked competitive fire. That may be, but they also lacked fuel for their fire (read: depth). Detroit’s ability to stretch leads and put teams away in the last four minutes, was almost patented the year they won the title. In more recent years though, some of their performances in “big games” have been curiously uneven. I’m quite certain they didn’t forget how to play, and I doubt they’re less interested in winning. Dumars’ role in the team’s malaise is so obvious that it’s sometimes hidden in plain sight. The rotation is paying the opportunity costs of choosing Darko Milicic over a literal handful of other quality NBA players in 2003. It is difficult to overstate how awful the 2003 draft was for Detroit and for Dumars. When you miss badly in a draft you tend to feel it 3-5 years later, not so much right away. Detroit has been able to defray the “opportunity costs of Darko” but they’ve grown with time and they’ve come due. It’s not simply that Darko didn’t live up to the hype but rather that the 2003 draft was unusually deep and that so many of the players Dumars passed over for him ended up on Eastern Conference teams. Of the top eight players selected (LeBron, Darko, Carmelo, Chris Bosh, Wade, Kaman, Hinrich, and TJ Ford), Darko is the worst by a landslide. My point is not to play 20-20 hindsight, but rather to point out how dire the consequences of that pick were. Really only now, five years out, can we say with reasonable certainly what it cost them: almost assuredly one more NBA Finals appearance. What was lost with that pick is certainly as important as any Rasheed Wallace technical foul, Chauncey Billups’ hamstring, or any sense of self-satisfaction. It is a testament to Dumars skill, and eye for veteran talent that the Pistons kept themselves in contention for as long as they did, but I have to say I was a bit surprised and a little saddened to see him publicly question his players’ dedication the way he did.