In retrospect, the Detroit Pistons’ knack for reaching the Eastern Conference Finals was probably the worst thing that has happened to them in the Joe Dumars Era.
Not that it wasn’t a terrific feat. Anytime you’re reaching the Final Four you’ve had a good year, and to do it six times in a row, as the Pistons did (2003-08), is nothing less than impressive.
But that sword has two edges.
First, the Pistons only parlayed two of those Final Fours into NBA Finals appearances (2004 and ’05). In the other conference finals, the Pistons were only moderately competitive.
They were swept in 2003 by New Jersey, blasted out in six games by Miami in 2006, in six by Cleveland in 2007 (punctuated by the Pistons’ inability/unwillingness to stop LeBron James in the lane in Game 5), and in six by Boston in 2008.
President/GM Joe Dumars had, as it turns out, some Fool’s Gold on his hands.
The Pistons were good enough to survive two playoff series in the traditionally weak Eastern Conference in those four years when they were eliminated, but when it came time to play the elite—or in the case of Cleveland, the up-and-coming—in the Final Four, the Pistons wilted under the pressure.
Dumars was teased into thinking he had a title contender in Detroit, when in fact he had nothing of the sort.
That kind of thinking, in concert with poor draft choices, questionable contracts and odd coaching hires, have put the Pistons where they are today: among the dregs of a still-poor Eastern Conference.
Now it comes out that Dumars not only doesn’t plan on dealing forward Tayshaun Prince by tomorrow’s trade deadline, the GM wants to explore re-signing Prince, who will turn 31 on Monday.
This is a disturbing thought that Dumars has rattling around in his addled brain.
Dumars has been slow on the take in massaging the Pistons’ roster, even when they were going to Final Fours. The great executives in sports don’t rest on their laurels, and aren’t afraid to upset the apple cart.
After LeBron James torched them in the 2007 ECF, the Pistons were ripe for change. That made two straight years of being bounced out in the Final Four, and that was the moment Dumars should have seized.
It was evident that the Pistons’ surprise championship of 2004, achieved without the quote-unquote superstar player that most champions have, was an aberration. And it should have occurred to Dumars, who isn’t a dumb-dumb, that his team simply wasn’t good enough to make it past the conference finals.
The summer of 2007 was when Dumars should have been aggressive in changing the dynamics of the Pistons roster.
The Pistons’ appearance in the 2008 ECF wasn’t much to shout about, either. The Celtics took them to the woodshed in the Pistons’ own building in the pivotal Game 3, after the Celts were stunned in Boston in Game 2. After tying the series in Game 4, the Pistons went down meekly—and in Rasheed Wallace’s case, shamefully—in the next two games.
Dumars sacrificed coach Flip Saunders after that, and hired the neophyte Mike Curry to coach. Then Dumars saddled Curry with the high maintenance Allen Iverson and left his coach to deal with the tempestuous Rip Hamilton, whose little world was upset when AI joined the team.
From 2004 to 2009, the Pistons didn’t make any bold moves, personnel-wise—with the exception of bringing in Iverson, which was just plain wrong—and they are now paying the price.
The free agent signings of Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon in the summer of 2009 were suspect when they occurred, and they are no less so today.
Now Dumars is talking about signing Prince to an extension?
The window of real opportunity for tangible, successful change has closed. Now all that’s left for the Pistons is a blow up and a total rebuild. All connections to the “good old days” of the mid-2000s must be done away with.
It’s not an easy thing to keep a franchise winning, year-after-year, for a decade. The Pistons almost did that, posting winning seasons from 2001-08. But it can be even harder—and gutsier—to tweak personnel when the wins are outnumbering the losses.
Joe Dumars isn’t a bad GM. But he’s not one of the best, either. It’s one thing to take a loser and take it upward when there’s nowhere to go but up. It’s an entirely other to keep the team in contention when there’s a target on its back—especially when there’s virtually no help from the draft.
Provided he’s asked to stay by new owner Tom Gores, Dumars must do what he’s done before, thanks to his own lollygagging: rebuild a Pistons team that is a conference bottom feeder.
Bringing Tayshaun Prince back flies directly into the face of that task.