Ten years after the Detroit Pistons won their second NBA Championship Title, all looked dull and dreary for the then teal and blue (and sometimes purple?) ‘Stones. They had talent. They had a new arena. They had Grant Hill and they had Jerry Stackhouse. But it wasn’t enough for them to compete for championships, or even playoff spots. The NBA was a bottleneck of a select few dynasties who seemingly controlled the league with free agent superstars. Two-time championship owner (and world’s biggest Pistons fan) Bill Davidson needed some sort of spark to bring another group of winning guys together. His answer was appointing recently retired Detroit star guard Joe Dumars as President and General manager of the organization. Joe D would take the all-but-irrelevant Pistons and fix them up with some new jerseys, new players and a new formula; a formula that would result in another championship for Bill Davidson.
Ten years have passed once again since Detroit has celebrated an NBA Championship, and once again, a new general manager will take the helm in hopes to resurrect a rich and wealthy basketball past. Yes, Joe Dumars will no longer be our president and general manager, and his last few years leading the red white and Piston blue have been less than exciting, competitive and fortunate. But we must remember Joe Dumars’ time as GM in Detroit for its highest point: through his creativity and relentlessness to win, Joe Dumars beat the system as well as he beat the odds, and formed—almost certainly—the most compelling team in Detroit sports history.
Maybe They Should Call it Specific Manager
The position of general manager in the NBA fascinates me. At its surface, it certainly is the easiest of general manager jobs in all of the four major American professional sports. I mean, think about it: you don’t have the amount of players (major and minor league) to draft and develop and follow like you do in the NHL or Major League Baseball. You don’t have to have the draft insight like you need in the NFL, as there are less needs to fill on a basketball court; if you get one draft superstar from college, that’s 20 percent of the team. The reality is, as an NBA GM, you only make a handful of important decisions a season. But in its simplicity, being an NBA GM comes back around as a complicated guessing game of pinpoint decisions that either leave GMs lingering with guilt or seeped in proud honor. Sometimes, it’s the genius idea of trading Jerry Stackhouse for Richard Hamilton. And sometimes, it’s a guy named Darko.
(As an aside, my friends and I have this conversation all the time, and here’s what we’ve decided about Joe Dumars’ worse draft pick:
I would take the Darko pick over and over and over again if it meant the 2004 NBA Championship.
Because what happens if Joe Dumars drafts Carmello Anthony in the 2003 NBA Draft? How does that change the makeup of the 2004 Pistons, and how would it change their fate? Does Rasheed Wallace become a Piston and take Detroit to the mountain top?
Who knows? There is no way of telling, but what we do know is what happened, and what happened all turned out great. I mean, honestly, what has Carmello ever done, anyway?)
That all being said, what follows is my claim on how Joe Dumars and the 2004 Pistons were the best team this city has ever seen. I don’t mean it was my favorite, necessarily. Let’s face it, the 1997 Wings, the 2006, 2011, 2013 Tigers and the 2013 Spartans are held in much larger accord in my heart. But the fact of the matter is, the 2004 Detroit Pistons go under the radar as one of the most interesting teams in modern professional sports. And it all started from the mind of Joe Dumars.
Building a New Type of Team
Born in September of 1990—technically, I’ve only see 1 Pistons championship in my lifetime. And growing up in metro Detroit during that time, it was all Red Wings all the time. The Pistons were teal, the Tigers’ best player was Bobby Higginson and the Lions were still the Lions, even with Barry Sanders. The Red Wings stole our 90s kids’ hearts, back then.
And while my parents fell in love with Steve Yzerman and company as I did, I was always told of the glory days of the Tigers and the Pistons in the 1980s. I knew that my parents took us to more Pistons and Tigers games for more reasons than ticket pricing and availability. Supporters of all types of athletics and any type of southeastern Michigan pride, my parents knew deep down inside that we were a baseball and basketball family. Going to The Palace on a regular basis, my parents told me tales of the legends of Isaiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer, and how that guy named Joe Duuuumars was once the leader of the teams that played at the Silverdome. My brother and I would go home and boot up NBA Live ’96 and eventually NBA Live ’99, in hopes of being our own GMs and taking the Detroit Pistons to the virtual promise land. Because in real life, Grant Hill and Jerry Stackhouse were fun to watch, sure, but there just wasn’t much of a team out there in Auburn Hills.
A season after he retired as a player, the organization hired Joe Dumars to be their President of Basketball Operations.
Basketball in Detroit went from hiding in the shadows to being the face of an entire metropolitan area.
Joe D was about to win the game by changing the game. NBA basketball in the late 90s and early 200s was not much different than it is now. This was a post Michael Jordan era built on superstars and super signings. You had two easy ways to create a winning product in the NBA: you could (1) sign a team-changing free agent or (2) lose a lot and draft high—frequently, and hope that you’d stumble across the next Kobe or Tim Duncan.
That’s what makes Joe D and his GM career so compelling. He realized that the Pistons simply weren’t going to draw the big free agents to the “small market”. And, in many ways, even the NBA draft was a crapshoot. As Joe D had seen, and as he would find out, even highly-touted “obvious” draft picks didn’t always pan out. Joe D knew he was going to have to battle the superstar teams with defense and team fundamentals. He could only assemble such a team by finding specific pieces and he had no choice but to accomplish it—for the most part—through gutsy trades.
Under Joe D’s management, the Pistons organization adopted the mantra of “going to work”. You may recall each player introduce each night’s game: “It’s time Detroit, let’s go to work”, followed by a gospel-funk pump-up anthem that featured work whistles and metal clanking that instilled the Detroit power of a blue collar attitude. And no doubt, that’s what the Pistons organization was going for; they wanted to show the fans that their team was taking their lunch pails and going to their job just like everyone else in the city.
But I always thought that there was an underlying double meaning to that mantra and song. To me, it was also Joe D telling the fans: “Hey, this is gonna be different. It’s going to be nuts. We’re gonna try some things that are unconventional, but if we can press the right buttons, this crazy basketball experiment is going to work.”
And it did. Here’s how—
Joe D wasted no time in shaking things up. In a somewhat controversial first trade, Joe Dumars sent star draft pick and attendance-drawer (and all around awesome dude) Grant Hill to the Orlando Magic for Chucky Atkins and some guy named Ben Wallace. Ben Wallace was considered undrafted dead weight. In an offensive-minded NBA, trading Grant Hill for a center who was better at weaving baskets than shooting balls through them was insane. What no one understood at the time, however, was this was the center (literally) of the type of team Joe Dumars envisioned. It was going to have to start with defense and rebounding.
As we know now, Ben Wallace was every bit of what Joe needed. He didn’t lead the team in scoring, of course. But he was your man guarding down low. He was the blocking shots and grabbing boards to a clip that gave opposing offenses around the nation reason to Fear da Fro. In my mind, Ben Wallace is the epitome of what made Joe Dumars a genius in building a team, for Ben’s career before and after his time with the Pistons (in his first tour of duty) was almost non-existent, because he wasn’t surrounded with the talent to support him. Ben’s talents as a starter were best served on a balanced team.
And that team had to find offense from somewhere.
The Big Shot
Greg Kampe used to make the point that while the 2003-2004 Detroit Pistons were a defensive minded club (they finished 24th in the league in points per game that season), they still averaged 90.1 points per game. The point was: you can be number 2 in the league at opponent points per game all you want, but you still need to put the ball through the hoop.
The leader of the Pistons offense would be the only starter on the 2003-2004 team acquired through free agency. Chauncey Billups was the 3rd overall pick of the Celtics in 1997. His career until the 2001-2002 season, however, was an up and down one. In an era of superstar guards, Chauncey struggled in finding his identity. He would play on four teams in his first four seasons. After a successful year with the Timberwolves, Chauncey took to free agency and was sought out by Joe Dumars where he was promised to be the leader at point for a brand new-looking Detroit Pistons team that Joe envisioned doing big things in the Eastern Conference.
What Joe’s most important free agency signing would result in was the leader of a championship squad. Chauncey would call the plays and lead the offense. If a key offensive moment was needed, the ball was in Chauncey’s hands. Billups wasn’t putting up 45 point games, and he wasn’t a flashy superstar by any stretch of the imagination. But if the game was on the line, you could count on Chauncey to be responsibly clutch. It was the kind of demeanor that earned him the nickname, Mr. Big Shot.
The Pistons would be remiss to leave Chauncey Billups’ number 1 unretired, in my opinion.
The Man in the Mask
The point guard and the center were set, but Joe D needed someone to support Chauncey in the back field. A sure-handed, scrappy and fearless shooting guard would be essential. While the armchair GMs in metro Detroit knew we already that in Jerry Stackhouse, Joe Dumars saw more potential in another team player hanging out in the nation’s capital. In 2002, Joe pulled the trigger on trading Jerry Stackhouse for Richard “Rip” Hamilton.
Rip would be more than supplemental to the Piston’s offense. Weaving around defenders, Rip caught the competition dead in their tracks with his patented stop-and-shoot tactics. When a broken nose left him with a now-popular plastic facemask, Rip would become fan’s masked vigilante shooting guard superhero.
Ben, Chauncey, Rip and coach Rick Carlisle brought the Pistons back to relevancy. In the 2002-2003 season, Joe Dumars’ strange NBA formula was starting to work. Carlisle and company lead the Pistons to a 1st overall seed in the Eastern Conference with 50 wins that season. The Pistons had our attention. Detroit fans were all in, and we couldn’t believe that we were doing it without a superstar.
The playoffs that year began with a then-new 7-game first round battle with the 8th seed Orlando Magic. In the NBA, a 1 seed beating an 8 seed is a sure thing, and it looked like the Pistons were a shoe-in for a semi-finals appearance. Until superstar Tracy McGrady and the Orlando Magic began the series by taking a 3-1 lead. I recall very well, we were demoralized as fans. The chances that the Pistons were going to come back and win the series was extremely low. More than that, it appeared that perhaps Joe Dumars was indeed insane to believe he could win a championship without a superstar. I remember very vividly the conversations that were going on when it seemed like the Magic were going to make history and topple a 1 seed in the first round: you can’t win in this league without a superstar! Look at T-Mac and the Magic! You can win as many games as you want in the regular season, but in the playoffs, you need a superstar.
Staring history down the barrel, Rick Carlisle had to mix thing up. What he did was throw rookie Kentucky draft pick Tayshaun Prince into the lineup to help stop T-Mac. Prince did more than that. He went off, producing on offense, too and earning himself a starting position on the Pistons for the remainder of the playoffs in 2003 all the way until he was traded in 2013.
People like to dog Joe D’s draft decisions, but Prince was a steal of a draft pick. A steal that would be forever immortalized by a block…
The Final Pieces
The Pistons fell short in 2003, losing in the Eastern Conference finals. For many GMs, Rick Carlisle’s accomplishments that year would have earned him a blank check. But Joe Dumars wanted to place another ring on the hand of Bill Davidson, and he wanted it to happen right away. The resulting move was the relief of Carlisle and the hiring of veteran coach Larry Brown.
Brown would continue the Pistons regular season success in 2003-2004. But halfway through the season, Joe Dumars knew his puzzle needed one more corner piece. He traded the farm for veteran power forward Rasheed Wallace.
The rest is history.
This is the point in which everyone knew something special was happening in Auburn Hills. Call it spirit. Call it character. Call it pizzaz. Whatever it was that Rasheed brought to the table, he filled a gap no one knew was hollow before he arrived. While Chauncey lead the team on the court, Rasheed lead the team in the spotlight, taking every post-game interview as an opportunity to get into the heads of his fans and opponents.
Much Deserved Gratitude
It’s easy for sports fans—especially Detroit sports fans—to have short-term memories. There’s no sugar coating it, the last five or six seasons at the Palace have been brutal. We were up so high and have fallen far low, but we would be irreverant to not give thanks where the utmost thanks is due.
Joe Dumars brought us two championships as a player, and another as a magician general manager. It’s a difficult job, and he deserves all the accolades, because I wouldn’t trade that 2003-2004 season for anything (okay, maybe a Tigers World Series win…).
So, thanks, Joe D. Thanks for this…
And, especially, for this…