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Joe Dumars and the Dark Side of the Force

Joe Dumars built a defensive dynasty in the last decade, but has fumbled its legacy into mediocrity. Is it time to consider new management in Detroit?

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In the late 1970s and early 80s, George Lucas made a brilliant, visionary trilogy of films that redefined the genre of science fiction. Star Wars was one of the most successful titles in film history, seeing a greater return on investment than any other film of its time. Lucas fought so hard to get this film made that he waived a director's fee with the studio, asking instead for licensing rights which the studio thought to be worthless. These rights have earned Lucas hundreds of millions of dollars-- and ownership over the most valuable franchise in science fiction history.

22 years after Lucas introduced Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader to the world, he tried his luck again with a new series of films. While before Lucas was forced to rely on ingenuity, crafty production techniques and no-name actors, he now had a billion dollar budget to play with. He spent this budget on bad acting, poor direction, no discernible storyline and lots of special effects and marketing. The result alienated the fans of the original trilogy, angered critics and made "Jar Jar Binks" a household name.

George Lucas and the studio had hoped to create a market success based on the cult success of the original Star Wars trilogy. When compared to Lucas's original works of genius, the new films were a failure. But hey, this is a basketball blog. You're here to read about basketball.

Here's for a quick transition: Joe Dumars is the George Lucas of basketball.

In the 2000-01 NBA season, Joe Dumars inherited a 32 win team as the President of Basketball Operations. Within four years, he turned the tide of the teal years and created an underdog champion out of undervalued, over-achieving, no-name stars. He did so with crafty trades, visionary draft picks and brilliant moves in free agency. The team Joe Dumars built was one play away from being an NBA dynasty, a team that dominated the Eastern Conference for six straight seasons.

Where George Lucas rode his original stroke of genius for 22 years, Joe Dumars needed to change very little to maintain his team of contenders. Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace remained together for nearly six years, winning 256 regular season games for a 71% record. Joe had afforded himself the luxury of standing pat, where developing draft picks, fighting for free agents and upgrading by trade were not a necessary part of his presidency. Joe's genius had built the most dominant defensive force of the last decade, a team that would tie the record for six straight conference finals appearances.

Today, the Pistons are on-pace for a projected 28-54 record, the worst record the franchise has seen since the 1993-94 season. Joe Dumars himself was that team's scoring leader, putting up 20 points a game in a backcourt with a soon-to-retire Isiah Thomas. It took 10 years for that team to get back to a championship, and sadly there is little conclusive evidence to suggest that this Pistons team is any closer to the same kind of return. Of even greater concern is that the man responsible for the Pistons dominance of the last decade is equally responsible for its downfall.

Somewhere in all that winning, it would appear that Joe lost his edge. In time, the complacency that kept the Pistons from the NBA finals was one of management, not of personnel. Something needed to change, and Dumars was ultimately responsible for righting the ship. Yet the changes he made, and the lack of vision behind them, have led to the greatest reversal of success in recent NBA history. It has become clear that the man in charge of these Pistons is a very different executive than the architect of the Going to Work Pistons of the 2000 decade.

Since the 2004 championship, Joe has had three primary successes as GM:

  1. Acquiring Antonio McDyess as a free agent in the summer of 2004.
  2. Hiring Flip Saunders as head coach in the summer of 2005.
  3. Drafting Rodney Stuckey with the 15th pick in the 2007 NBA draft.

Several of Joe's minor successes have become failures themselves:

  • Joe selected Arron Afflalo with the 27th pick in the 2007 NBA draft. This summer, Joe traded Afflalo to Denver for a second round pick in 2011. Arron Afflalo now starts for the Denver Nuggets, shooting 45% on 3-pointers. Meanwhile, the Pistons are the worst 3-point team in the league, shooting 29.1%
  • Joe selected Jason Maxiell with the 26th pick in the 2005 NBA draft. A week before trading Chauncey Billups, Joe offered Jason a $20 million, four year contract. This contract is far above market value for a player of his production, in a league stacked with undersized, energy-player power forwards.

Noting those successes, the list of failures in judgement by Dumars is staggering:

  • Made a draft-day trade of DJ White for Walter Sharpe in the 2008 NBA draft. Joe acquired Walter Sharpe, a narcoleptic who played 12 games in a college season before receiving an academic suspension (this stuff writes itself!), over DeAndre Jordan, Mario Chalmers, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Luc Mbah a Moute.
  • Hired Michael Curry as head coach. I could stop this article right here.
  • Traded Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess for Allen Iverson. This was billed as a "reload, not rebuild" acquisition, and failing that, an opportunity to become the top player in the 2009 free agent market. The "reload" was a failure, in terms of record and roster morale, and the Pistons were swept from the first round of the 2009 NBA playoffs.
  • Immediately extended Richard Hamilton with a three-year, $34 million contract. This alone would have been entirely acceptable, but shortly after...
  • Signed Ben Gordon to a $55 million, 5-year contract. That's $89 million between two players that play the same position. Both players are slightly overpaid in contrast to their production, with the former having little trade value at this point in his career.
  • Drafted four small forwards in the 2009 NBA draft. He drafted Austin Daye over Ty Lawson, DaJuan Summers over DeJuan Blair, and traded the Chase Budinger pick to Houston.
  • Turned down a trade of Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Rodney Stuckey for Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen. Note that aside from the talent element of this trade, both Celtics players were expiring contracts, alleviating the failure above of doubling-down $22M/yr. on two shooting guards. (note- Adrian Wojnarowski, linked above, was perhaps this summer's earliest and most accurate source of player transactions. If someone in the Pistons organization passed on a trade, Dumars is ultimately responsible.)

Before exploring what could-have-been, it's important to note that the above failures are not forgivable in hindsight. In terms of the 2009 NBA Draft and the way Joe Dumars used his free agent budget last summer, a large contingent of fans and sports writers were against the acquisition of Ben Gordon or the draft picks Dumars chose. This is a case of an historically below-average draft GM and one who has never had a significant free agent budget to play with. All of the moves in recent years came to a climax this summer-- Joe swung hard, and missed even harder. The community here, by committee, would have handled this summer far better than the man who actually pulled the trigger.

So in light of these failures in judgment, how would the Pistons roster have looked today if the right decisions above were made? Here's a depth chart:

PG Rajon Rondo Ty Lawson
SG Ray Allen Arron Afflalo
SF Jonas Jerebko Chase Budinger
PF David Lee DeJuan Blair
C Ben Wallace DeAndre Jordan

What's noteworthy about that lineup? All of these players except for David Lee and Ray Allen were on rookie or vet minimum contracts. The flexibility there is staggering. Detroit would have still had plenty of 2009 free agent money to play with, and plenty more for 2010 with Ray Allen's $20M expiring. A core of Rajon Rondo and David Lee, both top 5 in their positions according to PER, could be worthy of contention with wise tertiary moves.

The most disappointing truth is that far beyond a reasonable doubt, this could have been our roster going in to the 2009-10 NBA season. It must be mentioned again, this is not a case of "hindsight is 20/20". A large contingent of Pistons fans, here and elsewhere, begged for these very moves before Joe even pulled the trigger on his own.

Last week, the trade deadline for the 2009-10 NBA season passed, without a whimper from the Pistons' front office. The time for looking back at what could have been is over. If a lesson is not learned by these failures, however, history is doomed to repeat itself.

Joe Dumars was a brilliant, visionary GM. He built the most dominant defensive team of the last decade, earning a championship in 2004 and barely missing another in 2005. He's had recent successes in Jonas Jerebko, Ben Wallace and MFWB (to the padawans, that stands for the Midichlorian Force of Will Bynum). Fans need to understand, however, that the mistakes Dumars has made in recent years cannot be undone, and that the Pistons' hopes for redemption now reside solely in the fate of numbered balls bouncing around in a lottery machine. Even then, should those numbers produce a favorable pick, it is less than likely that a draft decision will be made wisely.

Let's face it. A team built around Rodney Stuckey, Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva is likely to never reach contention. Change is needed. With the passage of the 2009 trade deadline, I, no longer trust the Joe Dumars of today to manage that change.

Building one of the greatest teams in franchise history is a stunning achievement. Like George Lucas, however, Joe Dumars has ridden that success to a point where he has tarnished his own image and the value of the franchise he represents. It is 2010, six years since the Pistons won an NBA title. Dumars' moves in the last two years show no shred of hope that the Pistons will get there again in another six.

It's not up to us to weigh Joe's fate. That old cliche says "basketball is a business", and it'll be tough for the future buyer of this team to determine that business has been good under Dumars as this new decade begins. So I ask you-- has business been good? That's not an easy question to answer without talking about what Joe did six years ago.