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Biggest Disappointment: the Detroit Pistons' Summer of 2009

The last connection to the Going to Work starting five was once the weakest link.
The last connection to the Going to Work starting five was once the weakest link.

It's "Biggest Disappointment Day" around SB Nation today. All 30 NBA team blogs are exploring the day it all went wrong for their franchise, when the big bust was drafted, when the broken star was signed or when the team traded away its future. Over the years, Detroit has experienced all three of these in varying degrees of disappointment. None were as bad as the string of failures which culminated with the signings of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva on July 8th, 2009.

When you remove the context, it would first appear that Detroit has certainly had worse days. Darko Milicic immediately comes to mind, but the Pistons added another title the season after that draft. It's hard to suggest that Darko damned Detroit given the streak of sell-outs and playoff wins that followed for five seasons. Another bad day was November 3rd, 2008 (a date which I didn't have to look up) , when Detroit traded Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess for Allen Iverson. That was the beginning of the end in Detroit, but it wasn't the beginning of the shake-up that was so costly, it was the new foundation that Joe Dumars built with the subsequent cap space and draft picks.

Why was July 8th of 2009 the worst day for this Pistons franchise? It was the final stroke in a "reload" process that was intended to keep this team relevant, but instead pushed it off the cliff for three years and counting. Let's explore...

Summer of 2009 Transactions:


Draft Picks: Austin Daye, DaJuan Summers, Jonas Jerebko, Chase Budinger (for Houston)

Free Agents: Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva, Chucky Atkins, Ben Wallace, Chris Wilcox

Trade Acquired: none


Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess, Amir Johnson, Arron Afflalo, Allen Iverson, Walter Sharpe, Deron Washington

- - -

If you go back to the day of the Billups/Iverson trade, you've got to imagine that Joe Dumars intentions were somewhat defensible. If the goal was to use the expiring deals of Iverson and Wallace to build a new core in free agency, you can at least understand the strategy. However, it is rare for a team built in free agency to be successful, and the 2009-10 Pistons might represent the opposite end of the spectrum from the 2010-11 Miami Heat. Still, the idea isn't entirely unsound-- but the execution was miserable.

Within nine months, Dumars had "reloaded" an Eastern Conference Finals mainstay into a middling lottery team with a string of bad decisions. He shipped out two of his most promising young players in Arron Afflalo and Amir Johnson, he wasted two draft picks on poor players in an otherwise stacked draft class, he signed two expensive, defenseless, volume-scoring players in Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, and finally, he overvalued the wrong players in Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Rodney Stuckey.

The new core in Detroit was Rodney Stuckey, Ben Gordon, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Charlie Villanueva. This reflected two very profound changes in the philosophy of Joe Dumars: first, a departure from the defensive focus of the Going to Work years, and second, a sudden and very apparent inability to properly evaluate talent.

Let's explore each of those four steps in the summer of misery a bit closer.

1. The Trades

Beyond the Billups/Iverson trade, Dumars executed two trades in the Summer of 2009 that effectively gutted the team's youth movement. First, Dumars traded Amir Johnson to Milwaukee for Fabricio Oberto. Amir clearly had potential and when he was given playing time, he excelled on court. Sure, he had his headaches and still does, but he's been one of the more effective players in Toronto since the trade. Since this trade, Amir has started 102 games for Toronto, whereas Oberto was immediately bought out for the cap space to sign... Chris Wilcox.

The other failed trade sent Arron Afflalo and Walter Sharpe to Denver for the 2011 draft pick that would become Vernon Macklin. It was another cap-saving move, as well as a tribute to Afflalo who would clearly end up buried behind Gordon and Hamilton. This plays in to a point we'll explore shortly about Joe's poor talent evaluation. When you spend ~$20M/yr on shooting guards who were already less productive than the 24-year-old you just shipped away for nothing, you probably have no business keeping your job.

2. The Free Agent Signings

All of this talent was traded away or allowed to expire to make room for the ultimate rebuild-- the free agent signings of Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva, Chris Wilcox, Chucky Atkins and Ben Wallace. Ben Wallace was signed as an afterthought, but wound up retiring after some very productive twilight years. The Benaissance, coined by yours truly, made these years bearable. Yet Gordon and Villanueva were expensive disasters that should have been seen a mile away. Neither player had ever done anything of consequence on the defensive end, both were startlingly inconsistent and had a knack for shooting their teams out of games.

These were failures that the team is still suffering from. Presently, Charlie Villanueva is still eating up the team's cap flexibility with his immovable $16.5M contract. Moving Ben Gordon required giving up a lottery pick and taking on another useless, expensive player. At the end of the day, the solution at shooting guard wasn't the $35M Dumars spent to extend Richard Hamilton. It wasn't the $55M it spent on Ben Gordon. It apparently wasn't the Arron Afflalo the team gave away for nothing. The solution at shooting guard is apparently the "point guard of the future" that facilitated the Billups/Iverson trade four years ago...

3. The Failed Valuations

If it weren't for the over-valuation of that point guard of the future in Rodney Stuckey, would Dumars have even executed that Billups/Iverson trade? It's one of two examples that year where Dumars improperly evaluated his talent. He established two players as keepers for his starting lineup: Rodney Stuckey and Tayshaun Prince.

Joe's commitment to Tayshaun signals, for me at least, the earliest failure that signaled the end of the dominance of the 2000s. It may not be apparent to many, but Prince had established himself as the weakest link in the playoffs for three seasons in a row. The Eastern Conference had changed since 2004, and the small forward position had become big, bulky and strong-- a far cry from the finesse forwards Prince was so effective against. It wasn't just his inability to defend Paul Pierce and Lebron James, it was his failure to do anything of consequence on the offensive end at the same time. In the last three season-ending playoff series, the most important games of the season, Prince had averaged 26%, 32% and 24% shooting, respectively. He was the worst player on the court when it mattered most, three seasons in a row, and he's the one starter from the Going to Work crew that Dumars wanted to keep.

4. The 2009 Draft

This draft class was one of the deepest of the last decade. Detroit had four picks in this draft and they blew two of them and gave one away. Usually it's hard to knock a team for not getting much out of a 15th pick and a 37th pick, but this draft was still rocking in that range. The next player they picked is a prime example of this-- and Dumars deserves kudos for discovering Jonas Jerebko. Yet the selection of Austin Daye, a player who largely mirrored the problems the team had with Prince, and DaJuan Summers, a guy whose last name was wrong, these set the team back.

If the consensus at DetroitBadBoys was drafting for the Pistons that night, Ty Lawson and DeJuan Blair would be Pistons right now. I say this because, like other issues above, this criticism is not based on hindsight. Pistons fans were skeptical on Austin Daye just as they were skeptical on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. Why is it that the fans could smell the stink before the storm but Dumars was smiling?

Finally, the Foresight

I wanted to go back and grab a collection of quotes from various DBBers about these transactions before they happened. A lot of us warned about Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva when the rumors began about Detroit's interest. A lot of us were crushed by the DaJuan Summers / Austin Daye draft picks the moment they happened, and the guys we wanted went on to be starters in this league. Since we're looking back at the biggest disappointments for this franchise, I encourage those who were around in 2009 to go back and search through a bit of your own comments of foresight. Share them below, because a bit of gloating is in order. While I'd prefer a winning team over a community that was smart enough to recognize this mess before it happened, that isn't in the cards right now.

Personally, if there was anything I could redo for this franchise, it started on November 3rd of 2008 and it culminated on July 8th the following year. It's been a hard time since, but here's to hoping that the worst is behind us.

Update -- in Pistons-related news, the Orlando Magic's biggest disappointment was Grant Hill, according to the Orlando Pinstriped Post.