The Pistons had cap room this summer. Joe Dumars used it. Detroit was that team willing to pay Josh Smith like an All-Star. They were that team waiting with open arms and a face-saving offer for a disgruntled Brandon Jennings. Those acquisitions have raised Detroit’s ceiling, a bit. But they have also layered it over with concrete for the next few years. This is becoming a pattern.
We can’t flame Dumars without remembering that he did build an NBA Championship Team. That team was the result of early, shrewd moves by him. He got Ben Wallace in a sign-and-trade for Grant Hill. He signed Chauncey Billups as a free agent. He swiped Rip Hamilton from Washington. He drafted Tayshaun Prince with the No. 18 overall pick. He took a major risk bringing in Rasheed Wallace mid-season in 2003-04, which panned out.
Dumars built a stout, physical and unselfish defensive team. That core, coupled with Larry Brown’s coaching, won the title in 2004 and reached Game 7 of the Finals in 2005. It was a great run. The team has been in persistent decline since.
Part of the problem goes back to the 2003 NBA Draft. Dumars, seduced by some awesome workouts, picked Darko Milicic at No. 2 overall, ahead of Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade. Detroit has had the chance to make such a pick twice since drafting Isiah Thomas in 1981. Dumars spent it on a guy who scored 152 points for the Pistons in 96 appearances.
This gaffe came nowhere near the Len Bias tragedy in human terms. But, considering basketball, the pick had a similar effect to what that did to the 1980s Celtics Dynasty. Instead of having a next generation star to pick up the baton, the Pistons just aged and faded. They stayed good enough to compete and fall short for a few more years. Then plummeted.
Dumars had a choice, to revitalize or to gut. He tried to do the former and hit that nebulous point in the middle, much worse than either option.
The Pistons traded Chauncey Billups, with three years left, for Allen Iverson’s expiring contract. It seemed like a decent move, on paper. Iverson, however, was a dumpster fire, deactivated before the season ended. His departure with Rasheed Wallace in 2009 did give Detroit cap space. But that was not the road to salvation. First, it was the shallow Summer of 2009, not 2010. Second, even if had been 2010, the Pistons are not and will not be in play for top free agents.
Suburban Detroit is not a bad place to live, if you’re a veteran who wants to live a low-key lifestyle and set up your kids in nice schools. If you enjoy nightlife and nice weather or are a star wishing to market himself, Detroit will not be your first or even your fifth choice. Detroit can sign mercenaries. A franchise-changer has to come via trade or, more likely, through the draft.
Dumars had cap room in 2009. He was not going to save it for a LeBron run in 2010. He used it on what was available, signing Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, who were supposedly entering their prime. Gordon never approached what he did in 08-09 with Chicago. The Pistons gave up a first-round pick to foist him on Charlotte. Villanueva, still with the team, is a bench player who shoots under 40 percent from the field. Those signings only exacerbated the Pistons’ decline.
Roster management problems have been compounded by coaching instability. Dumars has little patience for coaches. He wanted less discipline when Larry Brown left in 2005, so he hired Flip Saunders. Three failed attempts to reach the Finals later, he wanted more discipline so he hired inexperienced Michael Curry. One sub .500 year later, he wanted more experience, so he hired John Kuester, promising him the “most job security of anyone in the NBA.” Two sub .400 years later. Kuester was out. Two more sub .400 years later, Lawrence Frank was out and Maurice Cheeks, Dumars’ 8th coach in 14 seasons, came in.
This summer, the Pistons faced almost an identical situation to 2009. The team had cap room. Dumars spent it on what he could, two high volume, low efficiency scorers. (Kudos to whoever first made the “rebuilding Detroit brick by brick” joke on Twitter)
These signings should be better than Gordon/Villanueva – it’s hard to envision them being any worse – and, perhaps, could get the Pistons back to the playoffs in the East. But was that slight increase worth mortgaging the future again? Will their combined “star power” be enough to reverse the Pistons’ first to worst attendance plunge? Probably not.
Dumars won an NBA title. He has been a fixture with the Pistons for nearly 30 years. He has had more job security than perhaps any other NBA GM. He could have used that leeway to gut the team and to bottom out. Assemble young, cheap pieces. Wait for the right opportunity through the draft or a trade to rebuild. Instead, like a GM kept fearful year to year, he has chased modest gains at the expense of long-term flexibility. It’s quite easy to see the Pistons in this exact position, two coaches later and near the bottom of league attendance, when Josh Smith’s contract runs out.
Maybe Dumars found the right mix this time. More probably, the Smith and Jennings signings keep Detroit in the worst position in the NBA: just good enough to keep failing.
[Photos via USA Today Sports]