Remember Dumars for his best, not this Pistons mess
Joe Dumars, I’m told, might step down this week. There should be applause. Not the cynical applause of critics who think Dumars is why the Pistons have sunk in recent years. Applause for one of Detroit’s most intelligent, talented and decent sports legends, who is ending nearly 30 years of service because he still stands for what this franchise was, and likely can’t stand what it has become.
As a player, Dumars was unique in Pistons history, a shooting guard good for 20 points and five assists a game, yet whose defense was his calling card, the best Michael Jordan ever faced. He was an NBA Finals MVP, the steady anchor of the Bad Boys’ rollicking ship and a consistent face of positivity in the community. Name one bad headline Joe Dumars ever made off the court. There should be applause for that.
When owner Bill Davidson first asked him to be president of basketball operations, Dumars wisely inquired whether he could take a year to learn the ropes of NBA management, travel around, study how winning teams became winning teams. The affectionate relationship between Davidson and Dumars is one of the NBA’s great unwritten stories.
Most mornings, Davidson would come to the practice facility, get a rubdown from the team trainer and talk to Dumars for hours about business, character, ethics, the old days. Dumars, a kid who met his future wife because he loved listening to her father tell stories on a Louisiana porch, soaked up the old man’s lessons. He absorbed Davidson’s devotion to Detroit and his belief that you don’t lose your soul just to win or make money.
Together they earned an NBA championship and went to six straight Eastern Conference finals. An elderly Jew who lived through the Depression and a young African-American son of a truck driver, they were the league’s best example of intergenerational diversity and success. There should be applause for that.
The highs and lows
Dumars, now 50, treated players fairly, honestly and professionally. He kept them informed if they were on the trading block. He had them to his home, mentored the younger ones, shared laughs with the older ones. There’s a reason you’ve almost never heard a traded or cut player bad-mouth Dumars. That should bring applause as well.
True, the man who built the 2004 championship team has had his stumbles. Nobody now thinks Darko Milicic was worth the second pick in the 2003 draft (although plenty did then). And the 2008 trade for Allen Iverson (although partly about money) was a terrible turn. Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings and other recent moves are questionable, but you are limited when you’re a losing team with an impatient owner (more on that in a moment).
Remember, no GM is infallible. Jerry West is considered possibly the best ever. But he left the Lakers (and their L.A. allure) for Memphis, where his first team lost 54 games and his last, five years later, lost 60. The Grizzlies never won a playoff round in his tenure.
Milwaukee’s John Hammond was the NBA’s executive of the year in 2010; this year his Bucks are the worst team in the league. Danny Ainge, hailed as a Boston genius, traded his biggest stars last year; now the Celtics are behind the Pistons.
The job is a roller coaster. The salary cap is insanely frustrating. Dumars has won and lost. But if you think he suddenly lost his keen ability to evaluate talent, you don’t know him or basketball.
The Gores approach
Take a look at when things began to really sink for this team, around 2009. What happened? Davidson died. The rudderless franchise went into a choking limbo for two years, all moves tinged with making the team attractive to a new buyer. Finally that new buyer, Tom Gores, arrived, and he has been, quite frankly, one long cringe. Outside of dancing, placing himself in the middle of spotlights, shoving Phil Jackson embarrassingly into the mix and insisting Mo Cheeks be fired after 50 games, what has he contributed?
Dumars apparently warned Gores’ group early that you can’t treat an NBA team like a private equity investment – stripped, polished and sold off in five years. It requires a winning culture, an atmosphere that guides personnel. San Antonio has it. For a long time, Boston and the Lakers had it. And yes, Detroit had it.
But you can’t create it from a mansion in L.A., you can’t do it by chasing glitzy names (heaven help us if Isiah Thomas returns to the front office), and you can’t do it by issuing public ultimatums – all of which Gores has done.
And all of which, I’m guessing, is why Dumars has had it. Once you’ve enjoyed a certain professionalism and attitude, it’s tough to adjust – especially to an approach like Gores’. Sometimes, in sports, the tides just change.
So Dumars, as he has told insiders, will politely step down as his contract expires, although Gores might offer him a letterhead position of some kind. Harp if you will about Charlie Villanueva, but also mention Andre Drummond’s stunning potential. Complain about missing the playoffs, but don’t forget six straight years of at least three rounds.
Above all, don’t let the current circus put a clown face on Joe Dumars. Through all this, he has maintained his dignity, never stooping to swipes or finger points. He is one of the best to come down this pike, in short pants or long ones. And while it’s too late to change his mind or his exit, it’s not too late to applaud – and we should. He deserves that.