The Ballad of Joe Dumars

As Stan Van Gundy enters in to his totalitarian rule of the Detroit Pistons it signals the official end of a player having a nearly three decade run with a team. A former player that immediately moved to the front office, making no sideline appearances along the way. Here is his ballad.

The 18th pick of the 1985 NBA Draft was greeted with a reception congruent to the player’s personality: silent. The same way he moved into the top ten all-time NCAA scoring list at McNesse State University. His walk to greet David Stern seemed almost nervous. He initially looked to the floor on his way to the podium. Joe Dumars had officially arrived to the NBA.

His interview following his selection showed more of his soft-spoken and unselfish nature. He immediately had to field questions as to how he would function on a team that already had a dominant guard in Isiah Thomas. “I think I can make the adjustment” Dumars sheepishly replied. An eager team player excited to play with someone he admired. A far-cry from the brash, physical, and then unhappy Rick Mahorn the Pistons had acquired just a day earlier.

Even though the the 76ers with Moses Malone managed to sneak themselves a title, albeit in a dominant sweep, the 1980s NBA was dedicated primarily to the league’s two most prolific teams: Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. “Showtime” Lakers were the dominant team to start the decade.  as the NBA’s best and most entertaining team, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy thrived regardless of who the coach seemed to be. Though they seemed to thrive under the mafioso Pat Riley. The Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parrish led Celtics  were a 1980s Spurs: solid fundamentals and high levels of execution. Not to mention they had plenty of physicality (see Robert Parish forearm to Bill Laimbeer).

Near the end of this decade these two coastal royalties began to falter in the age old struggle against old age. Rather than casually pass down a torch, both teams clinged on their perennial success to the bitter end. Despite this, some team needed to fill the gap between the end of Celtics/Lakers dominance and the prominent rise of the basketball Messiah from North Carolina, Michael Jordan. Enter the Bad Boy Pistons.

Isaiah Thomas was the frontman for the group. He was the first and longest standing piece of the Pistons, drafted 2nd overall in 1981. Bill Laimbeer was next in a 1982 trade to Cleveland. With these two alone the team managed a bit of success, but wasn’t at the same level of the elite teams.  Dumars and Mahorn changed this with their arrivals in 1985.

The backcourt combination of Thomas and Dumars was difficult to guard and get through. Entering the league with a reputation for being a scorer, Dumars quickly became known for his defense. This paired quite well with a dominant defensive guard like Thomas. Chuck Daly’s team was forming an identity.  Despite a record and playoff result in the 1986-1987 season mirroring the previous season there were expectations for this team now.

Those expectations were met the following year during the 1988 playoffs. Off-season additions of John Salley and future Hall of Famers Dennis Rodman and Adrian Dantley. Dantley was a savvy veteran who served as a mentor for many of the Pistons, but formed a particularly close bond with Dumars. Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free-Press described them as “best friends”. A swollen Isiah Thomas ankle and a “phantom foul” by Lambier were the only two things separating this team from the start of a three peat in a seven game Finals series against the Lakers.

The following year would feature a rise in Dumars and the same finals matchup. Dumars’s stats saw an increase in nearly every category except steals, which dropped from 1.1 per game to .9. Midway through the season however, he would see his mentor, Dantley, be traded to the Mavericks for Mark Aguirre. His finest performances would happen during the 1989 playoffs on both ends of the floor, first being defensively. Starting in the playoffs the previous year the Pistons instituted a defensive strategy that would be later known as the “Jordan Rules”. Though this strategy ended up making Jordan deal with a lot of double teams, the primary defender he faced was Dumars. Jordan would later be quoted as saying that Dumars was the most difficult defender he ever faced. Then came the Finals.

A rematch from the previous year excluded Byron Scott and Magic Johnson due to respective hamstring injuries. With no Scott or Johnson, the Detroit backcourt was nearly unstoppable. Dumars averaged 27 in the four game sweep scoring over 30 twice. Floaters, fall-aways and crossovers accompanied his tight defense (including a game saving block followed by a save on David Rivers in Game 3). He was named the MVP of the series. The 1990 season followed with another rise statistically for Dumars, his first All-Star game selection, and another championship (despite the loss of his father).

The next five years wouldn’t be so great for Dumars. In 1991 Jordan became ready with Pippen at his side.Chuck Daly would leave following the 1991 season. In 1992 Ewing and the Knicks started to rise as well. In addition to other teams getting better, the Bad Boys had become old men. Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer would retire in 1994, along with Dennis Rodman getting traded to San Antonio. The draft that year would provide the new teal colored Pistons a spark in Duke University’s Grant Hill.

Dumars was now in the role of Adrian Dantley. He saw many much of himself in Hill, particularly in their quiet natures. Joe would give Grant advice and guide him though he didn’t think he needed much. “You don’t need a sledgehammer with Grant, just a chisel” he said in a 1995 interview. Dumars would see the playoffs three more times before his eventual retirement in 1999.

Few people make the transition from having a highly successful NBA playing career to having that same success on the sideline or in a front office position. In the last decade or so the first name that comes to mind is Larry Bird and his work with the Indiana Pacers (also Danny Ainge if you consider his playing career highly successful). Dumars also made the wonderful transition from the court to the front office.

He gained the position of president of basketball operations almost as soon as he stepped off of the court in a playoff loss to the Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, and “Thunder Dan” Miami Heat. What ensued was a thirteen year coaching carousel with the longest tenure being three years, a championship, and the signing of many washed up veterans. The first move he made was one that was a bit difficult for Pistons fans but ended up being very beneficial. Shortly before the 2000 season, the man he claimed made it worthwhile to continue to play, Grant Hill, was traded for Chucky Atkins and Ben Wallace, a future staple.

The next two years would feature just as shrewd moves made by Dumars. Rick Carlisle was put in as head coach. Mehmet Okur and Tayshaun Prince through the 2001 and 2002 drafts. Jed Buelcher, Jerome Williams, and former Michigan State star Mateen Cleaves into Jon Barry, Clifford Robinson, and former high school and college star Corliss Williamson in 2001. This was followed by a trade the next season for Richard “Rip” Hamilton losing Jerry Stackhouse. This was another highly questioned move considering Stackhouse had just scored 57 in a game that season. These moves led to a sixth man award for Williamson, defensive player of the year award for Wallace, and a coach of the year for Carlisle in the 2003 season.

The 2003 season contained a very important step before the 2004 championship season. Dumars signed a player that was inconsistent near the beginning of his career, but was fresh off of a breakout season in Minnesota. He was similar to Dumars in that he could play and wore the number four on his jersey (though this was not an option in Detroit). Dumars and the Pistons signed Chauncey “Mr. Big Shot” Billups to a six year $35 million dollar contract from free agency.

Even with his constant improvement in his short tenure, Rick Carlisle was let go and replaced by Larry Brown in 2004. Brown was known for his excellence in coaching and similar tenure lengths to Carlisle’s in Detroit. Dumars coupled this signing with an acquisition of Rasheed Wallace in a three team trade with Boston and Atlanta. Sheed would provide a lot of energy to a superstar deprived team as they won in five against the final Kobe and Shaq Laker team. Dumars has ended another Laker era. This time from the front office. The next season would be another Dumars led team to the Finals…with a different result. It would also be Brown’s last and the start of the Flip Saunders era. Lastly, the 2005 season was marked the start of what would become a trend for Dumars’s signing habits: aging veterans.

It started with the signing of Derrick Coleman. Coleman would only play five games for the Pistons as well as be a participant in the most entertaining game in NBA history. Coleman was obtained in a trade for a declining Corliss Williamson with the Philadelphia 76ers. 2005 also marked Dumars second subpar first round pick in Jason Maxiell (the first obviously being Darko Milicic in 2003). Maxiell was a watered down version of Ben Wallace (who he was supposed to replace), never quite becoming the shot blocker or defender Wallace was.

The herd of aging veterans grew with the additions of Dale Davis in 2005, Tony Delk in 2006, and hometown hero Chris Webber in 2007. While they did lose quite a few role players, (with the exception of Ben Wallace leaving) the starting lineup involving Rasheed Wallace, Billups, Prince, and Hamilton had stayed intact. Dumars made sure to keep his core guys. This helped the Pistons to achieve the feat of reaching six straight conference finals from 2003-2008.

Flip Saunders had the highest winning percentage of any Pistons coach since they had moved to Detroit from Fort Wayne. After the sixth conference finals loss, however, Dumars was no longer content. “Everybody is in play” he said in a 2008 interview. He stuck to his word.

At the start of the 2008-2009 Dumars fired Flip Saunders, replaced him with assistant Michael Curry, and traded Billups for another superstar veteran far past his prime: Allen Iverson. “The Answer” was not the solution for the problems that the Pistons had at the time. Neither was Michael Curry. 17 PPG was a far cry from the 30+ production we Iverson nearly a decade earlier. The offseason addition of Will Bynum was not the best back up plan either. This was the last time the team made the playoffs, but no thanks to Curry. The team finished with their first sub .500 winning percentage since 1999. Curry and A.I each exited at the end of the season.

The 2010 season were when things began to get bad. Enter John Kuestner.  Much like Dumars’s own experience, the core of the 2004 championship team was aging and leaving. Rasheed Wallace left for Boston. Dumars continued his trend of signing old former stars, this time a familiar face, by adding a now older and less effective Ben Wallace for the remainder of his dwindling career. Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva joining the team were a slight alteration to the old veteran trend, but they could not compensate for the disappearing core.The draft picks were not working out extremely well either.

2005 pick Jason Maxiell started the season under his third coach in five years. 2006 pick Will Blalock lasted only one season not filling the role of Billups predecessor. 2007’s Aaron Afflalo was scrapped for a second round pick. 2009’s D.J White was instantly traded for Walter Sharpe. The new rookie class of DaJuan Summers, Austin Daye, and Jonas Jerebko did not show a change in trend (despite the high effort from Jerebko). 2007’s Rodney Stuckey was on his third coach in three seasons, but still managed to have a career year and serve as a bright spot. With an aging group of veterans and struggling young players the team found winning to be quite difficult posting a 27-55 record.

In the 2010-2011 season Dumars hopped back on the washed up veteran horse by signing Tracy McGrady. T-Mac’s production was nearly half of what it was during his prime. Dumars still had not learned his lesson. His drafting abilities seemed to have improved though based on his selection of Georgetown’s Greg Monroe. Despite this, the team performed poorly and the carousel continued to spin.

Lawrence Frank showed no signs of reviving this team. He was helped by Dumars greatest addiction with a trade of Ben Gordon for Corey Maggette. To start the 2012-2013 year, with Ben Wallace retiring and Rip Hamilton leaving for Chicago, Tayshaun Prince became the final member of the 2004 squad. Prince would leave for Memphis the following year.The center had formed a singularity.

The new Detroit Pistons were full of talent still. Continuing with the draft momentum of 2010 the team added Brandon Knight and Kyle Singler in 2011. Dumars then would draft Andre Drummond in 2012. This fresh young core of players has struggled thus far under the tutelage of Frank, Mo Cheeks, and the even worse John Loyer (according to ESPN). In his final year of 2014 Dumars had his old habit creep up one final time by signing Josh Smith, the patron saint of bad shooting, and former floor general Chauncey Billups.

The losing finally caught up to Dumars, when he lost his job. As Chauncey Billups stated “That’s the NBA, sometimes it’s just time for a change, and obviously that time’s now, but what he did here was remarkable”.

Stan Van Gundy inherits his dictatorship from a man who was an integral part of a franchise for 30 years.

     

 

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