As Pistons president Joe Dumars enters his 10th season as the team’s general manager, there is no question he’s been one of the better GMs in the NBA during his tenure.
Dumars turned a team that went 32-50 in his first year as GM (2000-01), into a 50-32 team during the 2001-02 season. The Pistons went on to win the 2004 NBA championship, reach the 2005 NBA Finals and play in six straight Eastern Conference finals (2003-2008).
The Pistons took a step back last season, going 39-43 and were bounced from the NBA playoffs in the first round by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The question now is, “Can Dumars do it again?” Can he rebuild the team and get it back to the level it was at for most of the decade?
To be truly considered one of the NBA’s all-time great general managers, Dumars has to show he didn’t just catch lightning in a bottle and that he can build a championship contender again.
Dumars overturned nearly the entire Pistons roster in the offseason, bringing in eight new players and a new head coach in John Kuester.
The two biggest moves were the signing of Ben Gordon (five years, $55 million) and Charlie Villanueva (four years, $35 million), grabbing two players coming off career years and entering their prime — Gordon is 26 and Villanueva 25.
“It was important for us to come out of free agency with a couple of guys who could really grow with us right now,” Dumars said. “All of those guys are around 25 years old, from Villanueva to Ben Gordon to Chris Wilcox. All those guys are right around the 25 range.
“Then you have the rookies, who are all around the 21-, 22-year-old range. That’s what you have to do when you’re building, you gotta get the right pieces that can grow with you for the next five or six years. That’s kind of the method we used before. We caught guys like Rip (Hamilton), Ben (Wallace) and Chauncey (Billups) and all those guys were around 24, 25 years old. Six-, seven-, eightyear run, then you have to start looking at doing it again.”
The big story nationally has been the free agent class of 2010, which will feature LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh among others. Many NBA teams have positioned themselves to make a run at some of those big names in 2010.
Dumars went another route, adding several pieces this past offseason instead of waiting, and stands by that decision.
“The choice was to either sign two really good players like those guys, or do nothing the whole summer and add no one or lesser players for one year deals,” Dumars said. “What we’ve done over the last decade, there was no thinking like that, ‘We’ll just do nothing for a year, lose and then we’ll hope someone comes here in 2010.’ That’s not a strategy. That’s rolling the dice and not knowing what you’re going to get.
“It’s easy to say that when you’re not sitting in this seat, but when you’re sitting in this seat and you have to put a product on the floor every year, and you’re trying to tell your guys you’ve built a culture here over the past decade, and then all of a sudden you’re going to do nothing except lose for a year. That’s more fantasy basketball people than real GMs. You can do that in fantasy basketball, but not real GMs.”
Dumars’ approach will likely prove to be a smart decision, as most of the 2010 hype will prove to be just that — hype — and most of the big names will resign with their current teams.
During his tenure, Dumars has not been afraid to take a different approach, and it has been widely successful.
Critics of Dumars often bring up the Pistons drafting Darko Milicic No. 2 overall in 2003, ahead of guys like Carmelo Anthony, Wade and Bosh. But people don’t realize that almost every GM in the league would have made that pick.
Dumars’ only other lottery pick during his tenure was also a bust (Rodney White, No. 9 overall in 2001), but most years the draft is a crapshoot if you’re not at the top, and even then it’s not an exact science.
The fact that Dumars has found guys like Tayshuan Prince (23rd overall in 2002) and Rodney Stuckey (15th in 2007) adds to his résumé. People who criticize Dumars’ drafting ability also fail to remember the Pistons didn’t have first-round picks in 2004, 2006 and 2008 because of trades.
Dumars’ second major blemish as GM is last year’s trade of Chauncey Billups to Denver for Allen Iverson. The Pistons struggled after the trade, as they got an Iverson who had lost a step or four. Chemistry issues added to the problem.
Meanwhile, Billups led the Nuggets to the Northwest Division title and Western Conference finals.
The true impact of the trade has yet to play out, though. The Iverson deal was a one-year experiment, which failed, but mostly a salary-cap move.
How the deal will truly affect the Pistons begins this season, but will play out over the next few seasons.
Dumars said earlier in the offseason this is the first season in a while where the Pistons can’t realistically talk about winning a championship, but followed that by saying he wants to make sure the team is heading in the right direction.
“I won’t sit and judge our team based on a championship or not this year,” Dumars said. “I won’t sit and judge our team based on the win and loss record. When you are building a base like we are right now, what you do is, you look to see is your team getting better as the year goes on. You can see that with the naked eye. You can sit and watch and see if a team is getting better or not. There have been teams before that ended up with great records, but you could say, ‘Man they started off hot and faded down the stretch.’
“Where we are right now, it would be a disservice for me to sit here and try to put a number on, ‘We have to have this number of wins’ or ‘If we’re not in the Finals …’ That’s not who we are right now. We are a team that is building with a new group of guys. Just as back in 2000, 2001, ’02 and ’03, I didn’t try to start to put numbers on it. I just knew how to build and that’s where we are right now.”
How Dumars builds this current group over the next few seasons will help determine his long-term legacy.
If the Pistons never return to the Finals, he will likely be remembered as a good GM. But if he can build another championship team, then he will be talked about as one of the great GMs in NBA history.