FOR BETTER OR WORSE, DUMARS TAKES PISTONS

LATER TODAY, the Pistons will name Joe Dumars their president of basketball operations and George Irvine their coach. This is interesting news, maybe even good news. But it is pretty much like saying, “We’ve got the tanks and the maps; all we need now are the soldiers.”

In the NBA, as in war, the soldiers are the story.

And for now, the one soldier the Pistons need most is still weighing his options. That would be Grant Hill, who will become a free agent July 1. The rest of the players, the ones who are signed and the ones who are unsigned, can all go. Hate to be blunt, but they can. From Lindsey Hunter, who has been here the longest, to Jermaine Jackson, who has been here one season. They are all expendable. They can all be traded or cut.

And don’t be surprised if they are. Because I have known Joe Dumars a long time, and he has always been a purposeful man. He doesn’t do things for show. And he certainly didn’t take this job for the money. To be honest, I’m not sure why he took it, since his basketball legend is secure, he has his championship rings, he could be traveling the world with his family and a bottomless Diet Coke.

Instead, he agrees to a four-year deal to run his old team. Why? Since he hates desk jobs and doesn’t need the cash, believe me, it’s for the challenge. And the only way this job is a challenge is if Dumars has complete control.

Which means forget about Tom Wilson, Rick Sund or anyone else in the Palace organization whose title might suggest that Dumars reports to them. Uh-uh.

From here on in, the Pistons are Joe Dumars’ team to raise or to raze, and the only person he answers to is the man who signs the checks: Bill Davidson.

And Davidson is as sick of his franchise’s mediocrity as anyone.

First task? Keeping Hill, of course

There will be a press conference for Dumars this afternoon, but let me save you some time. Here is the biggest question, which I asked Dumars on Monday.

“Is your first task to woo Hill back?”

Here is Joe’s answer: “It’s not like I just started working here. Grant and I talk all the time. We have known each other since his rookie season. If I haven’t developed a relationship with him over the past six years that can stand on its own merits, then I’ve been doing something wrong.”

Translation: Dumars thinks Hill will return. I do, too. Maybe a one-year deal
— which would be smart on Hill’s part. His alternatives aren’t better elsewhere. And he likes the idea of staying put, if he can win.

But a one-year deal means the clock is ticking for Dumars and Irvine. No five-year plans here. Action, action.

Or, to put it bluntly, get out the broom.

First thing I would do? Unload Christian Laettner, who has proven to be a non-factor on the court and a negative factor in the locker room. Package him. Lose money on him. But make the deal.

Same thing with Loy Vaught and Terry Mills, whose best days were long ago and 45 minutes away, in Ann Arbor.

Role players like Jerome Williams, Jud Buechler and John Crotty could end up staying, but they should first be considered bait — for other players or salary-cap cutting.

And I definitely would see what starters Hunter and Jerry Stackhouse fetch on the open market, and would not hesitate to make a deal. I know Stackhouse had a great season, but that’s exactly what makes him valuable. Let’s face it: The Pistons need a big man. Hill needs a big man. And Stackhouse might be the only bait that can hook a big fish — or at least clear salary cap room to sign one.

Besides, if the Pistons aggressively pursue free agent Jalen Rose — as the whole world knows they will — where would Stackhouse fit in? How many 6-foot-7 swingmen can you start at one time?

Dumars can still afford to smile

Here’s another question they will ask Dumars today: Why a three-year deal for Irvine?

“I know what people think,” Dumars said. “Why not a bigger-name coach? But a big-name coach only means he did something big someplace else. It doesn’t mean he’s going to do it for you.

“When it boils down to it, you have two ways to go in coaching decisions. I’ll take substance over flash.”

Translation: Irvine knows how to coach today’s players. He leaves his ego at home. Besides, Dumars, who remembers a once-disrespected coach named Chuck Daly, knows it’s how you manage your players — not how you yell at them or draw plays on a chalkboard — that wins these days.

Still, Irvine will go only as far as his talent. Which puts the onus back on Dumars. He will have to work the phones hot and heavy. Whom he signs, whom he cuts, whom he trades for and whom he drafts — in other words, the soldiers, not the tanks — will be the measure of his success and his legacy.

“We’re not as stuck as people think,” he said. “I have immersed myself in so many scenarios. Our hands are not as tied as people say.”

As for Dumars’ easygoing personality? Won’t he have to lose that in the front-office trenches?

“Why?” he said, amused. “Why can’t I say ‘no’ and still smile?” A novel idea. The Pistons need more of those. After all, things could get worse at the Palace, and things could get better.

But with four first-round playoff exits in the last five years, things couldn’t get any more predictable.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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