I'm still not sure how the 2004 Pistons beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals. It's been over 7 1/2 years and even after two titles, I'm still a bit bitter and perplexed as to how it happened. The denial runs deep. But what I do know for certain is that Joe Dumars, former star guard and two-time champion with the Pistons, was the General Manager and primary architect of that 2004 title team. What's amazing is that he built his team quite unlike any other champion in the last 30 years. The sport is built for to duos leading the way towards titles (Magic and Kareem, Shaq and Kobe, Robinson and Duncan, Michael and Scottie, Bird and McHale and so forth). Though not as common, even a single player can be turned into a June parade, as we've seen with Hakeem and Dirk, while surrounded by quality role players performing at the peak of their abilities.
What Dumars did was one of the biggest aberrations in a sport where there are few exceptions to the rule. He assembled a team representative of what is the most lauded quality of basketball - the fact that it is the truest example of team sports. Dumars took a bunch of spare pieces and managed to make no singular player more important than the sum of the parts. When you look back on every champion team since the early 80's, you can point a player on a title team and say "that was HIS team". The 2004 Detroit Pistons are the ONLY exception.
How did Dumars do this? He signed future NBA Finals MVP Chauncey Billups as a free agents and made a very shrewd trade for Rip Hamilton for a near-the-end of his prime Jerry Stackhouse. He manufactured a sign-and-trade agreement for a departing Grant Hill and managed to turn him into an undrafted young center named Ben Wallace. He took Tayshaun Prince with a late pick in the 2002 draft. He turned Bob Sura and some draft picks into Rasheed Wallace. All these moves were met with little fanfare and the best possible result. After 2004, Dumars kept the momentum going, sending the Pistons to another 4 Eastern Conference Finals by drafting guys like Jason Maxiell and Rodney Stuckey and signing Antonio McDyess.
I bring this history lesson to the forefront to illustrate why Joe Dumars still has his job. He has arguably been one of the worst GMs in the league the previous 4 NBA seasons.
After the aforementioned 2004 core aged and slowly disbanded, Dumars has made a series of confusing moves and universally criticized signings. Chief amongst them was using valuable cap room to pay over $20 million annually for Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, hiring two terrible coaches in two seasons (Michael Curry and John Kuester) and trading a still game Chauncey Billups for a washed-up Allen Iverson. Please note that I didn't even name the infamous drafting of Darko Milicic over All-NBA performers Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, as well as All-Stars Chris Kaman, David West, Josh Howard and Mo Williams.
While the Pistons should have been reloading or even rebuilding years ago, the effort has only begun in earnest the previous two seasons. Dumars has largely held onto his job because of the unbelievable amount of success he achieved his first half-decade on the job, but nearly everything he's done the past three seasons has failed miserably. It's stunning to see a perennial playoff team like the Pistons in the cellars of the NBA standings. Another 30 win season and a similar amount of locker room turmoil as 2010-2011 could spell the end for Joe D.
How will this play out?
Months ago new owner Tom Gores bought the team from the long held stewardship of the Davidson family. Gores promised to bring the Pistons back to prominence in a city that desperately needs its teams to not only be successful competitively, but financially. Obviously he knew that the Pistons weren't going to contending for championships any time soon and that the rebuilding effort had begun in earnest. The Pistons have very few pieces to trade off for picks or prospects and any future success will rely on great drafts and well-thought out signings. If Dumars were to be fired as so many people thought he perhaps should be, he would have been shipped out long ago.
Dumars' future largely relies on three different factors; how young players Greg Monroe, Austin Daye, Brandon Knight and Jonas Jerebko develop, if new coach Lawrence Frank and his promises of a better defense lead to more wins and how Rip Hamilton's exit from Detroit is handled. I hardly think that Gores expects anything more than between 25-30 wins and an low-playoff seed.
I believe in Lawrence Frank. He served last season as the assistant coach in charge of the Boston Celtic's defensive schemes and before that commandeered 4 New Jersey Nets squads that made the playoffs, each perhaps more undeserving than the previous year. Despite his appearance as a 5'6" toddler, teams consistently played hard for Frank and by and large exceeded expectations for how they were to finish. His commitment to defense and hard work is the key ingredient that seemed to be missing from a Pistons heritage showing nothing but those two qualities.
How will this affect the Pistons' season?
The questions regarding Joe's job security won't affect the Pistons season. Lawrence Frank was brought in to develop young players and get them to show the grit and determination associated with Detroit basketball. The players are going to play as they are paid, and without the same type of loyalty a player would show a coach, I doubt that they'll have enough attachment to their GM to play harder for his sake.
Joe's job security won't be evaluated in wins and losses, but rather if his draft picks show promise and how well the young players respond to the newly appointed coach. I personally feel as if Dumars should have been fired after the awful hiring of Michael Curry (who lost his locker room before the end of his first season!) and the catastrophic signings of Villanueva and Gordon. However, I think Lawrence Frank will exert the type of control and patience needed for a young team and the surprising Pistons making the playoffs as an 8th seed.
Player to Watch: Greg Monroe
Greg Monroe quietly had one of the best second halves not just for a rookie, but for a big man in the NBA. He averaged just under 14 points a game, 10 rebounds, while shooting 58% and turning the ball over just once a game. At 6'11" and 250 pounds, he is a legitimate power forward with great upside. Along with Brandon Knight, Monroe is one of the keys to the entire rebuilding movement in Detroit.
Best they can do: 14-52, 5th in the Central, 15th in the East
Lowest they can go: 35-31, 2nd in the Central, 6th in the East
Probable outcome: 28-38, 3rd in the Central, 8th in the West
Like this series? Check out the other Burning Questions leading up to the 2011-12 NBA season:
NBA Season Preview: Burning Questions for teams you don't care about
Burning Question #20: Can Sacramento keep their Kings?
Burning Question #19: Will the Rockets finally make a blockbuster trade?
Burning Question #18 - Will we be able to see Mark Jackson make “Hand Down, Man Down” pantomimes in the Warriors’ huddle this year?