Somewhere along the way, somehow, the Detroit Pistons became an afterthought even to their fans. They long ago stopped being the Bad Boys and became simply bad. Joe Dumars was the tie that bound those eras, but even that tie became frayed.
Dumars learned recently that the Pistons would not renew his contract as president of basketball operations, so he presented it as his decision and stepped aside Monday. To make him the fall guy for owner Tom Gores seems sinfully wrong, but that’s just about how it adds up.
The Pistons (29-52) will finish off a sixth straight losing season tonight at Oklahoma City, the fifth consecutive season without a playoff appearance. There was not a single sellout in 41 home games at the 22,000-seat Palace and three crowds were announced in the 11,000s, meaning the place was barely half full.
The Palace used to rock. That stretch of I-75 from downtown Detroit north to Auburn Hills was a bumper-to-bumper stress test on game nights. Dumars, a consistent point producer at guard who did anything but rest on defense, won two NBA championships as a player and was the MVP of the 1989 Finals.
As the franchise’s top executive he used a reasonable payroll to put together an interesting collection of characters — a core of Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Ben Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, and Rasheed Wallace — that somehow clicked and went to the Eastern Conference finals for six straight seasons, 2003-08, and won it all in 2004.
Some might suggest the Pistons’ slide began with one of the NBA’s all-time draft day busts, but that’s simply not true.
Yes, Dumars drafted 7-footer Darko Milicic ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh in 2003, but many NBA executives and analysts had the tall Serb as a consensus No. 2 pick behind LeBron James. It surely didn’t pan out that way, and while the “what if” game is intriguing, the Pistons still won plenty in the aftermath.
The serious slippage may well have started in ’08 when Dumars, for reasons mostly in line with the salary cap, decided wrongly that it was time to be out with Billups and in with the mercurial Allen Iverson, a move that decimated the team’s chemistry and put the ball in young Rodney Stuckey’s hands.
Then came a series of questionable free-agent signings, capped by the staggering four-year, $54 million deal given Josh Smith, who plays an unnamed position somewhere between small forward and power forward, prior to this season.
The biggest setback for Dumars was probably the 2009 passing of longtime Pistons owner Bill Davidson, with whom he had a tight relationship. For a stretch after Davidson’s death most all personnel and financial decisions were molded by his widow’s desire to make the bottom line attractive to a buyer.
That created some risky free-agent moves that didn’t pay off. Since Gores bought the team, his impatience to win led to panicked deals like Smith’s and greased the coaching carousel that plagued Dumars throughout his tenure.
In a city where the Tigers have been flying high, where the Red Wings are in the playoffs for a 23rd consecutive season, and where even the sad-sack Lions have a nucleus of skilled players that begets hope, the Pistons are the forgotten team.
Sure, some of that is on Dumars. But scapegoat? In our what-have-you-done-lately culture, it seems wrong to forget what he did well for so long.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.