A trade sent Motown’s finest spiraling downward.
We’re talking about practice.
We’re talking about practice, man.
We’re talking about practice.
We’re talking about practice.
We’re not talking about the game.
We’re talking about practice.
We’re sitting here—
and I’m supposed to be the franchise player—
and we’re talking about practice.
I mean, listen:
We’re sitting here talking about practice—
not a game
not a game
not a game
but we’re talking about practice.
Not the game I go out there and die for and play every game like it’s my last.
But we’re talking about practice, man.
How silly is that?
— Allen Iverson, 2002
Loosen the earth. Plant the seed. Cultivate the soil. Water the ground. Thin the seedlings. Prune the growth. Protect the flowers. Pluck the fruit.
If the road to harvest was only so easy. Along the way there is disease, malnutrition, drought, pests. But those foes are fairly easy to thwart, if you know what you’re doing and follow your offseason blueprint.
What happens if the gardener is his own worst enemy? If too lazy, or too much a tinkerer, the fruit fails to mature, or never appears at all.
Don’t envy the basketball GM, particularly not one cast in bronze by the Hall. No amount of faith—or tinkering—will ever suffice. A demanding fan base, 24-hour sports talk, millions of dollars to dole out monthly, the knowledge that it’s unlikely you’ll walk out of your office for the final time of your own accord; all of these ensure restlessness, weight gain, worry lines, hair loss.
With apologies to Isiah Thomas and future Motown mayor Dave Bing, Joe Dumars is Mr. Piston. His career path is full of sweep and splendor: Rags-to-riches climb into the NBA, a decade as everyone’s favorite underrated superstar, back-to-back titles in a backcourt shared with the wickedly effusive Isiah, GM with a Midas touch.
Driving the team from the executive suites, Dumars has restored the Pistons to a prominence bordering on dynastic—six straight seasons that ended no shorter than an Eastern final, one title, and a core of players that captured Central titles in six of seven seasons.
The initial theme of the Dumars’ Detroit tenure was “Every Night.” The GM’s thinking? Play hard every night, restore the work ethic the Pistons of his own era were known to possess, and good things will follow.
It worked like a charm. The Pistons were scrappy. Every cliché you could pack into a defenseless paragraph, from blood, sweat, and tears, to unheralded players equipped with a shoulder chip, to prodigal sons mastering their roles, they all applied to Dumars’ new brand of Motown soul.
Chauncey Billups was on team No. 5, a bust? on the way to losing the question mark, transformed into the most confident quarterback in the League. Rip Hamilton, the stringbean halfcourt marathoner, jutted his chin out and saw no need to put on muscle to defend or rebound—he’ll be just fine scoring in bunches, thank you. Ben Wallace, an ultimate afterthought, turned Grant Hill’s dumping of Detroit like a clubhouse groupie into an Auerbachian masterstroke. Rasheed Wallace, picked up from Portland via Atlanta for a bag of basketballs and some Chrysler stock, extended the pivot to the arc and became a coach in the paint. Tay Prince, a Kentucky afterthought who Dumars imagined as a 21st Century Scottie Pippen, put a wingspan that seemingly stretched from sideline to sideline to devastating use.
Role players abounded—the unfailingly loyal Antonio McDyess, crackerjack sharpshooter Lindsey Hunter, whippersnap wild man Darvin Ham, and even Bobby Sura, who cleared the pizza boxes off the couch and committed to enough ab crunches to earn a title ring.
Joe D. simply did not swing and miss.
But in the afterglow of a title, no amount of Larry Brown “play the right way” pep talks could keep this coronated corps concentrating hard enough to repeat the feat as world champs. The once-hungry, driven, proud Pistons became schedule coasters, cruising into spring and expecting an annual switch flip to turbodrive them into June. Never had you seen such a talented group of
players teeter dangerously on the line dividing supreme confidence and misguided arrogance.
But as long as Detroit was chalking up division titles and booking flights to conference finals, not much criticism could be levied. Dumars’ one true personnel flub, after overdosing on Eurohype and plucking Darko Milicic with a No. 2 overall pick gifted the GM, was easy to overlook in the midst of a championship (indeed, Donnie Darko’s paltry 159 minutes on the books in 2003-04 didn’t forge his title ring any less bulky than Sheed’s or Mr. Big Shot’s).
This year is the first in a decade that Joe D. is going to have to face some music. His Pistons are floundering, a team destined to finish in the .500 range and snap its streak of six straight Eastern finals.
Players play, coaches coach, and GMs take hits. And Dumars’ are coming, deservedly, because his Detroit 5 are leaving behind a foul stench in arenas from coast-to-coast.
How did things fracture so fast, and so significantly?
The GM put his superstar corps on the trading block immediately after Detroit’s loss in the 2008 conference finals, and while today’s multimillionaires shouldn’t need a tap on the tushie at every turn in order to aspire to stretch beyond the “zombies” that Dice scolded his teammates as last season, shuffling perennial 50-plus winners en masse to the auction block doesn’t necessarily engender loyalty, either.
Next, Joe D. jettisoned Flip Saunders, a coach whose skills had been endlessly debated en route to an average of nearly 58 wins per season in Motown. In Saunders’ stead, Dumars inked last summer’s Next Great Coach, Michael Curry, who’d spent one season as a Detroit assistant.
To be fair, in spite of a deer-on-interstate look in his eyes after postgame losses, Curry has proven able. In a Pythagorean sense (not to get all Statistically Speaking up in your craw, but Pythagorean W-L basically strips away coaching and estimates a team’s won-loss record based on point differential), Detroit should be sub-.500 right now.
Tabbing wet-eared Rodney Stuckey as the team’s only untouchable was peculiar, to say the least, but it wasn’t the Architect’s final bum note of the offseason. No one will ever know if Dumars was simply playing chicken with himself, but forcing the heart of the Pistons (Billups) out of town at the dawn of the 2008-09 season heaped undue pressure on his sophomore understudy. The fact that the player dealt away to free up Stuckey’s spot is having a better campaign than anyone he left back in Detroit has been enough to sour the whole season.
As far as desperate measures go, Dumars’ trade of Billups and McDyess for the original Beanie Baby gangsta, Allen Iverson, would have been reasonable under different, daresay dire, circumstances. From a team that had such a track record of success, however, the trade was a surprisingly arrogant, fantasy league move.
Dumars bought into the notion that he could “make” AI fit in the Detroit system, in spite of ample evidence to the contrary. After all, Iverson was unable to “fit” in Denver, where he was flanked by a Defensive Player of the Year in Marcus Camby and a transcendent superscorer in Carmelo Anthony. AI’s Denver years made for some great magazine covers, but zero playoff series wins.
If there was a weakness to those Pistons clubs that tended to toy with the regular season and fall just short in June, it was sustained focus and discipline—and Dumars chose to acquire one of the less disciplined superstars in the game. Indeed, as proven to comic effect stretching all the way back to Philadelphia, Iverson is a player so good he doesn’t need, and knows he doesn’t need, to practice. Gasoline, meet flames.
And even from a straight depth chart standpoint, Dumars chose to ignore the fact that the trade left him with no proven point guard and two minutes-eating shooting guards in AI and Rip, fellas who would spend quarter after quarter circling the paint like spinning tops. All that movement is great—but who’s gonna pass the perpetual motion machines the ball?
Nugs coach George Karl is beside himself with joy over the lack of “lost possessions” that are headlining Denver’s rise in the West this season. He estimates that the Melo-AI Nuggets rushed themselves into a dozen or more bad shots per game, and with Billups now palming the stick shift, waste has been eliminated. You sense a little of the same going on with the boys in blue and red now, shots being rushed onto the box score, so congrats, new Pistons, you’ve turned into the old Nuggets.
It’s no dis on AI to say that his acquisition—essentially a straight-up deal for Mr. Big Shot, as Dice bounced himself right back to Detroit in one of the NBA’s sillier salary cap loopholes, the “player buyout”—has totally torpedoed Detroit’s season.
Shedding Iverson’s contract indeed will allow for cap freedom in future seasons. But devaluing a team in order to attract stars to play for you is never a solid strategy. It didn’t work then in Chicago for the post-MJ era, when GM Jerry Krause thought Bulls Mach II would be comprised of guys ignoring a razor-thin roster and dazzled by six trophies; the ol’ sign ’em first, listen to frustrated trade demands later strategy. Second City dreams of Duncan and TMac quickly segued to Eddie Jones and finally settled at Ron Mercer and Eddie Robinson. It’s not going to work now for Memphis, or Charlotte, or even the New York Knicks, for glitz and glamour will not supplant the promise of a title, even for a max-contract player.
Dumars acquired Iverson thinking, understandably, that worst-case, the Pistons win 50, lose in the second round, and then circle toys in the Sears catalog with all their salary cap space for years to come, if need be. Even a sub-.500 season won’t take all the luster away from six straight conference titles and a solid young core. Right?
But if you’re Chris Bosh, does De-troit Basket-ball look more alluring than playing in Miami right now? Chicago? Phoenix? Somebody—it’s looking more and more like a lot of somebodies—is going to be gravely disappointed come 2010, when player movement could be frozen for any number of reasons, from wins and losses to new collective bargaining to a dollar all of us hope won’t be downsized into a ruble in the coming months.
Last Tuesday night, after Bulls muscles stiffened during a long Red Kerr halftime tribute, Detroit stormed out to second half double-digit leads that managed to dissolve against a Chicago team that has shown the courage of a Lion and brains of a Scarecrow in repeated last-minute meltdowns, home and away.
The Pistons were in command throughout the second half until, suddenly, they weren’t. Rip’s miss on a point-blank two-footer begat Sheed’s wild n’ crazy desperation corner trey with 12 seconds left on the shot clock begat the 6-5 Stuckey’s pancaking of Ben Gordon in front of the Motown bench, a play which accomplished a dubious trifecta: Bulls lead, BG four-point play, and Stuckey stapled to the Detroit baseline with an injured leg.
The Bulls, a team pushed by trade winds and buoyed by a 20-year-old rookie, stormed back from 15 down with eight minutes left on a team that aspires to the title hunt. Humph. Hitsville has soured to Splitsville, and the Detroit 5 were as shell-shocked as you’ll see a team in February.
Rip, who has limped into a reserve role compliments of third-wheel AI and a wracked hammy: “I don’t know what’s wrong. I’m hurting too bad.”
Tay, on Detroit securing its first losing month in five years: “I could not explain what’s happening if I tried.”
Coach C, biting his lip while revisiting his club’s complete collapse in the hustle categories: “We were out- executed.”
AI: DNP-Flu, perhaps a result of studying too much Dee-troit Basket-ball game film: No comment.
The Motor City locker room, once mad laughs with D.J. Rasheed Abdul manning the iPod, has taken on a bit of mausoleum flava. For good reason: A Pistons team hasn’t been navigating this long without a GPS for years. No matter what stat you slice it with—straight averages, PER, per minute—the core four Pistons of AI, Rip, Tay, and Sheed are producing at or near career lows. Most damning of all, with only the one significant personnel flip (Big Shot to AI), Detroit has tumbled from a sixth-best offensive efficiency and four-best defensive efficiency in 2007-08 to 19th and 12th today. The team still plays at a snail’s pace, but what was once an effective gameplan wrapped up in that tortoise shell is now just plodding, bad basketball.
Sheed, among others who might have helped provide additional enumeration, left quickly on Tuesday, without offering much by way of postmortem. Just a year after he and I playfully teased each other up in Milwaukee in the aftermath his lefty trey in the All-Star Game, it was takeaway in Styrofoam and a quick exit.
Back then, a year ago, with the unflappable Flip at the helm and Captain Chauncey steering the ship, the Pistons were poised to punch another ticket to the NBA Finals. Cracks showed, of course, even then: Billups sleepwalked and Sheed yawned Detroit into a fall-from-ahead loss in Brewtown.
But subtracting Billups, the closest thing the Detroit clubhouse had to a conscience, has proven a fatal error.
Dig the seeds up in haste, before the sun has had its chance to shine and the clouds conjure rains to nourish, and there is nothing left to harvest. Impatience breeds regret.
Come April, Farmer Joe will wish he could rewind this failed, barren season—or fast-forward to the next.