Joe D's reconstruction company
Dumars wrote his own rules to build an elite franchise
Chris McCosky / The Detroit News
February 3, 2006
AUBURN HILLS -- There must be days when Pistons president Joe Dumars looks out from his suite at The Palace, in the din of yet another sellout crowd, his basketball team the absolute scourge of the NBA on the court and the toast of it off the court, and thinks, "No way this can be happening."
Two years ago, the Pistons were champions. Last year, they fell one game short. Today, they are 38-6 and marching steadfastly toward a third straight NBA Finals appearance.
The Pistons are a model of efficiency, the league standard in terms of team building, salary-cap management, marketing and community service.
"I have spent a great portion of my career trying to define and refine a system where a well-managed team can do well without regard to market size," NBA commissioner David Stern said in a telephone interview. "That is done through the draft, through trades, through free-agent signings and through cap management. Detroit, under (owner) Bill Davidson, Joe Dumars and (Palace Sports and Entertainment president) Tom Wilson, has been a poster child for that approach."
Again, Dumars has to pinch himself.
Less than six years ago, none of this seemed remotely possible.
Road less traveled
Dumars retired after a glorious 14-year playing career in 1999. His last game was the deciding Game 5 of a first-round playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks, played in front of a small crowd, in a dank college gym outside Atlanta (Philips Arena was being constructed).
Amidst reports of heavy partying by several of his teammates the night before, the favored Pistons fell flat, 87-75.
"That gave me some insight, right there," Dumars said. "I had been through the days of totally unselfish teams (with his Bad Boys of the late 1980s and early 1990s), where winning is the only priority, to the selfish, individual, I-gotta-get-mine mentality. I saw how that evolved.
"I remember when I took this job, I told Mr. Davidson, 'We have to get back to the mentality of the team comes before anything else.' "
But the deck appeared stacked against him when he took over basketball operations the summer of 2000. The team had just been swept out of the first round of the playoffs by Miami, and was operating under interim coach George Irvine.
Grant Hill, the team's franchise player, was a free agent. Less than two months after Dumars took over, Hill informed him he was going to Orlando.
On the Pistons payroll at the time were the albatross-like contracts of Lindsey Hunter (owed $13 million at the time), Loy Vaught ($15 million), Christian Laettner ($6 million), Jud Buechler ($12 million) and Eric Montross ($10 million).
Somehow that summer, from that tablet, Dumars began forging the foundation of a championship team.
It started with arranging a sign-and-trade for Hill, which brought Ben Wallace and Chucky Atkins. He got Dallas to take Vaught and Laettner and Milwaukee to take Hunter, creating the cap space he needed to start building a team.
"Joe is a special guy," said Grizzlies coach Mike Fratello, who has helped build playoff teams in Atlanta and Cleveland. "He's blessed with great ability to understand what great, championship teams are made of, the chemical balance, so to speak.
"I got the chance to talk to him at that time about how he was going about building the team, and he had a game plan. He had it all mapped out."
But it was a different kind of map. Dumars wasn't interested in using any of the time-worn formulas.
"I just thought that keeping the status quo, doing it the way it had been done the last 30 years, that meant that you got in a long line with everybody else," Dumars said. "And you wait and you hope over a 20-year period that your number would come up and you'd be lucky enough to win.
"I just thought the status quo was a mundane, boring way to go about it. I felt like there were different ways to have success."
The book on team-building at that time said you had to get two superstars and then fill in your roster around them. The superstars ate up the bulk of your cap space and you tied yourself to them and hoped it would float.
Dumars knew that wasn't going to work, especially in his market. Too many losing years, too much fan apathy at that time -- superstars weren't lining up to come to Detroit.
Dumars had to write his own book.
"What impresses me about Joe, he built that team and he didn't do it with known quantities," said Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh, who has built title-contending teams in two different eras. "He has real insight into players and how their talents would fit into the system he was trying to build. He built that team without what you would say were any real star players. That's tough to do."
'Joe understands team'
Dumars didn't build the foundation on talent, he built it on character. He wanted a team that reflected the ideals of the city it played in -- tough, strong work ethic, show up and fight every night.
"It's going to sound simplistic, but you have to get good people," Dumars said. "Once you have that, anything is possible. People talk about the dynamics of sports, about bringing guys together to become a team -- I don't see how the people aspect doesn't become the biggest thing."Talent is obvious. You can see talent a mile away. You've got to get beyond that. You are talking about cohesive basketball and there is no sport that takes more cohesion than basketball. You have to be on the same page. Understand this, we have turned down some trades for some really good players because we felt personally they wouldn't fit with what we are doing here."
Understand this, too -- and Dumars is the first to admit it -- he got some breaks.
He had no idea Wallace would become such a dominant defender and the eventual face of the organization. Trades for me-first players like Allen Iverson fell through. Chris Webber turned down a maximum contract offer.
"For me to sit here and make it sound like everything we did was part of some master plan would be insincere," Dumars said. "We got some breaks. Some deals that we were looking at doing, that didn't happen, turned out to be incredible for us. You make mistakes. There was the Rodney White draft and Mateen Cleaves and some other stuff.
"Not everything has worked out perfectly, but enough has worked real well that we have become one of the elite teams in basketball."
Dumars, mistakes and all, changed the culture of the organization. It started with Wallace, Rick Carlisle, Jerry Stackhouse, Corliss Williamson, Cliff Robinson and Michael Curry. It took a huge step forward when Chauncey Billups was signed and Stackhouse was traded for Richard Hamilton.
Add a brilliant late first-round draft pick in Tayshaun Prince, and Dumars' improbable three-team trade that landed Rasheed Wallace, and here we are.
"Sitting back as a fan and watching Joe Dumars, he has an uncanny ability to see something in a player that relates to his particular system that other teams just don't see," Stern said. "Whether you are talking about a Ben Wallace or a Chauncey Billups or, I mean, name a player."
The Pistons were in the lottery in 2000-01. Their record since is 246-126 -- better by far than the 12 other lottery teams from that season. Only five of those teams have winning records since 2001.
"Joe understands team," said ESPN analyst Greg Anthony, who has been considered for general manager positions with several NBA teams recently. "Basketball is not about having the five best players. It's about having five players that play the best together. It's a puzzle. You have to know how to fit the pieces together and that's what Joe Dumars has been able to do better than anybody."
No end in sight
Here's the scary part:
With the age of the core group of players, the mix of veterans and youth and the salary cap flexibility still intact, Dumars has the Pistons poised to be good for years to come.
"One thing I learned in sports is, you don't stay the same," Anthony said. "You either get better, or you get worse, as an athlete, a team and as an organization. Joe gets that.
"You think about his moves, people questioned the firing of Rick Carlisle, but he got Larry Brown and took his team to another level. Then when Brown left, he went out and got Flip Saunders, the guy he needed to take his team to an even higher level."The key is, the players have been young enough where they still hadn't played their best basketball. Chauncey and Rip are having career years. Rasheed and Ben are just 31. And Tayshaun might be the most talented of all of them. He's nowhere near the player he's going to be in three years. There is going to come a point where Tayshaun becomes the (main) guy."
Which is why Dumars locked Prince into a six-year deal earlier this season. Hamilton is on the books through 2010. Rasheed Wallace is here through 2008-09. Billups can opt out of his contract after next season.
This summer, Ben Wallace will become a free agent, but Dumars already has structured his payroll in a way that will enable the team to make Wallace the richest Pistons player ever.
"Moves that we made two years ago (trading Williamson, not re-signing Mehmet Okur) we made because we knew this day was coming," Dumars said. "We are prepared for this. We didn't just wake up six months ago and say, 'Uh-oh, Ben's going to be a free agent.' "
This proactive management style has won admiration from a master of proactive management, Stern.
"It's about managing for the future," he said. "It's thinking not just about how many wins you may get this year, but where are you going to be three or four years out. It's understanding that the success you may have now will force you to make some adjustments financially down the road. The reward for the success of your players is that they may cost you some more money.
"You have to manage ahead, and Detroit has done that."
The Pistons, though their $57 million payroll is over the cap, were about $5 million under the luxury cap threshold this season. If all goes as planned, they could have a $9 million cushion next summer.
That kind of financial flexibility on a championship-contending team is almost unheard of these days. Dumars says it's all a product of the culture here.
"We have created such a culture of unselfishness here, nothing is bigger than the team," Dumars said.
"It's sort of feeding off itself now. When people come here, they expect to fit into a system. They know we don't have that new wave, individual mentality. They know we don't tolerate that here. So, if you choose to come here, when you step in here, you know what the law of the land is."
That law extends into contract negotiating, as well.
"We've been able to negotiate with guys because they understand this is something special and they want to be a part of it," Dumars said. "Maybe they could squeeze a few dollars more out of somebody else, but they realize that the few extra dollars they may get won't trump what's going on here."
What's going on here is a phenomenon. Making a run at one of the best records in NBA history, shooting for a third straight Eastern Conference title, playing before sellout crowds at home, being one of the league's hottest road acts, hearing visiting crowds chant, "Deetroit Basketball" at every venue, with the security of knowing the window isn't closing any time soon -- if it's a dream, Dumars doesn't want to wake up.
"Let me enjoy this for a minute," he said. "Please."
You can reach Chris McCosky at (313) 222-1489 or firstname.lastname@example.org