On November 3, 2008 Joe Dumars traded Chauncey Billups, Antonio McDyess, and Cheikh Samb to the Denver Nuggets for Allen Iverson in attempt to rebuild on the fly. What resulted was a franchise-decimating mistake. A team that had spent the previous six years in the conference finals spent the following five years as a mess of an organization.
This offseason, Dumars attempted to rectify his mistake. He publicly stated his regret for the trade, signed Billups to a contract that will likely see him retire as a Piston, and offered an apology. But what if he, say, stumbled upon some book that gave some insights for time travel and was able to change the course of Pistons history? What would the past five years have looked like? Would the current future be as bright?
It's impossible to know all of the factors that went into the chain of decisions from Dumars that led to trading Billups to extending Rip to spending $90 million on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. It was clear that he was frustrated with the team's difficulty returning to the NBA Finals after three straight exits in the conference finals, declaring there were no "sacred cows" and firing Flip Saunders despite the best winning percentage for a coach in team history. It was clear that he wanted to revamp the roster while staying competitive.
But as we now know, Dumars put his chips behind the wrong player in extending Rip Hamilton. It should have been Billups that led the reloading efforts. At the time Chauncey Billups was arguably the best player in franchise history, and certainly the best on the team. Even after a career year from Hamilton, Billups eclipsed his win shares 13.5 to 7.7.
The frustration that existed around Iverson's dramatics, the petulance over the starting lineup, the lack of a rudder at point guard, the ending of the run of seven consecutive 50+ win seasons - all of this from the 2008-09 season would have been different had Dumars just stayed the course with Billups and let Hamilton, McDyess, and Wallace's contracts expire naturally.
Without the disappointment of that dismal season, perhaps Dumars would have been more patient. Perhaps willing to combine his reloading efforts with developing the talented youth instead of giving away Arron Afflalo and Amir Johnson over the summer. Perhaps Rodney Stuckey could have developed naturally rather than being forced into the point guard of the future role. Perhaps McDyess would have been willing to sign back on with the Pistons rather than bolt the dysfunctional mess to chase a ring with the Spurs. These moves may not have created an improvement in the team, but it would have helped the dramatic decline in talent that began to take place over the summer.
Cap space was Dumars' primary option to improve the team, and, as we experienced, there weren't many options for dramatic improvement through this route. But there was one: Zach Randolph. The Clippers were thrilled to take back cap space and Quentin Richardson from Memphis after less than a year of Z-Bo's bad shots that helped them to a 19-win season. But Randolph, finally playing alongside legitimate talent, reined in his shot selection to have a career year. Perhaps without the headaches created by Iverson, Hamilton, and Wallace, Dumars would have been willing to take a chance on the talented but frustrating player who has instead paid such dividends for the Grizzlies.
With this core, the Pistons would certainly have remained one of the top three teams in the East through the years led by the Cavs, Magic, Bulls, and Heat. Perhaps they even would have run the gauntlet to add another banner.
However, even if Dumars had still followed the course of signing Gordon and Villanueva, Billups' presence would have made this less disastrous. The roster would have been more balanced and the offense more stabilized - and, not to mention, Billups was also a much better player. Perhaps it would not have been a 50 win team, but it also wouldn't have been a sub-30 win team.
The obvious downside is that with the team remaining in contention, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond would not be wearing a Pistons uniform. Or at least, they probably wouldn't be. But one never knows.
Perhaps in that trade for Randolph, they would have also swiped the Clipper's 2010 first round pick and, without the Pistons ahead of them, Moose would still have been on the board. Or perhaps with the veteran presence secure in Billups, Dumars would have moved Prince for a first rounder to let Afflalo, Jerebko, and Daye fight it out at small forward. Or perhaps the next year they would have just ended up with Moose's primary competitor for the status of best big 23 years or under, Kenneth Faried.
But what about Drummond? Well, Billups and Randolph both suffered significant injuries the year of his draft. With the lockout and injuries, perhaps the Pistons would have just worried more about draft positioning. Or perhaps Dumars would trade one of his youngsters at the peak of their value rather than the lowest point, receiving a pick in return. Perhaps anything. There are just a lot more possibilities when a team is good.
Who knows? The lesson to be learned from the Billups fiasco is that there's always room for talent and talent should always trump. There may have been some young player hoped to replace Billups and he may have been missing something the front office wanted with his calm attitude during the playoffs. But the foolishness of trading Billups was immediately felt and has lingered for the past half-decade.
Let's hope these lessons were thoroughly learned. You know, just in case some similar situation arises.