One of the most extraordinary careers in Detroit sports is over.
Joe Dumars still has a paper title at the Palace of Auburn Hills — he’s now an "adviser" to owner Tom Gores — but his 29 years as a key member of the Pistons organization ended with Monday’s front-office shakeup. While members of Gores’ inner circle are preparing the team for the draft and free agency, Dumars will be looking for a new job.
"It’s time to turn the page on a wonderful chapter and begin writing a new one," Dumars, who resigned, said in a statement released by the organization. "I’ve had the pleasure of working with some great people throughout the last 29 years as both a player and executive, and I’m proud of our accomplishments. Tom Gores and ownership is committed to winning and they will continue to move the franchise forward."
His time in Detroit began while Ronald Reagan was president and included three championships and multiple stretches of terrible basketball. He’s the only person in the city’s long sports history to win a championship as a player and then build another title as an executive.
It could have been even better. He could have added a third championship as a player if Isiah Thomas didn’t sprain his ankle or if Bill Laimbeer hadn’t been called for a questionable foul against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and there might been a second as team president if Rasheed Wallace hadn’t left Robert Horry open behind the 3-point line in 2005.
No one would have ever imagined this was possible when the Pistons were getting ready to make the 18th pick in the 1985 draft. Many local fans wanted them to take Michigan State star Sam Vincent, but they chose a guard from McNeese State instead. In the days before the internet, it would have taken a devoted college-basketball fan to have even heard of Dumars before draft day, much less have seen him play.
Just to make the team, Dumars had to beat out the team’s fourth-round pick, North Carolina State guard Spud Webb. The Pistons waived Webb in training camp, but he signed with Atlanta to start an improbable 12-year NBA career.
With that done, Dumars was on his way to the Hall of Fame. He spent the first half of his rookie season coming off the bench, but he replaced John Long in the starting lineup in January and never looked back. With the exception of a two-month stretch of the 1995-96 season, when Doug Collins used him as the team’s sixth man behind guards Lindsey Hunter and Allan Houston, Dumars stayed in the lineup until he retired in 1999.
If he had walked away from basketball at that point, he would have had a permanent place in the team’s history. There was was the iconic block-and-save of David Rivers’ go-ahead 3-pointer at the end of Game 3 of the 1989 Finals on his way to winning the MVP after Detroit’s sweep. There was also his 33-point performance in Game 3 the next year, less than two hours after the death of his father, and his key baskets down the stretch two nights later.
Later, as the last of the Bad Boys, he played on the terrible Pistons teams of the mid 1990s, then helped turn Grant Hill into a superstar as the team began to rebuild under Doug Collins.
When Dumars’ playing days were over, he spent a year learning his way around the front office, then took over as team president in the summer of 2000. One of his first moves seemed to be a huge blow for the franchise, as Hill decided to leave for Orlando as a free agent.
Dumars, however, salvaged the situation, reaching a sign-and-trade deal where Hill — his career soon to be in ruins because of his foot and ankle injuries — went to the Magic in exchange for Chucky Atkins and an unknown, undersized post player known mostly for his offensive ineptitude.
Dumars recognized that, like Dennis Rodman, there was a place in the NBA for a defensive and rebounding specialist, and Ben Wallace became the first key acquisition of the next great Pistons team. Two years later, Dumars drafted Tayshaun Prince, traded for Rip Hamilton and signed Chauncey Billups as a free agent.
There was still one piece remaining, and Dumars took care of that when he traded Atkins, Hunter and two first-round draft picks for Rasheed Wallace and Mike James. That trade won the Pistons a championship, but ironically came back to haunt him a decade later. The first-round pick that Dumars sent to Atlanta became Josh Smith, one of the players most responsible for Dumars’ Pistons career coming to an end.
That would come years later, though. First, Dumars would once again become a hero in the city after the Pistons brought William Davidson another title, and the near-miss in 2005 didn’t change things. The team continued to contend for titles until Nov. 8, 2008 — the day that the Pistons traded Billups to Denver for Allen Iverson.
The move destroyed the team’s chemistry, and while it brought the Pistons salary-cap space that Dumars felt he needed to rebuild, he wasted it on big contracts for Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. Symbolically, the end of Dumars’ reign as the franchise’s decisionmaker comes just as Villanueva’s albatross of a deal finally comes to an end.
With the team hamstrung by the bad deals, Dumars also struggled with coaches, failing badly to find a winner. Michael Curry was followed by John Kuester, Lawrence Frank, Maurice Cheeks and John Loyer, without any of them managing to win a single playoff game.
His final chance came this season, but instead of giving Gores the playoff team he so badly desired, Dumars put together a dysfunctional roster that featured three high-profile post players — Andre Drummond Greg Monroe and Smith — no 3-point shooting and a point guard, Brandon Jennings, who was unable to run a halfcourt offense. The group played poorly under Cheeks, then collapsed entirely when Loyer took over after 50 games.
In the end, Dumars was undone by his inconsistent eye for talent. Although he found underrated gems to build the championship team and find draft picks like Drummond and Monroe, there were too many other mistakes.
Even before 2004, there had been high picks wasted on players like Mateen Cleaves, Rodney White and, most famously, Darko Milicic.
Even the good players Dumars did find tended to blossom in other cities. Arron Afflalo and Amir Johnson became key players after being traded.
For now, Dumars has been exiled to "adviser" status, but it seems likely that a man with his resume will find work in the NBA. Many others have shuffled from one front office to another with much less to show for it.
"Joe Dumars is a great champion who has meant so much to this franchise and this community," Gores said. "We are turning the page with great respect for what he has accomplished not only as a player and a front office executive, but as a person who has represented this team and the NBA with extraordinary dignity."
When Dumars does land elsewhere, it will be the first time he’s been employed by someone other than the Pistons since he left the McNeese State Cowboys and Lake Charles, La., in 1985.
He’ll leave behind enough moments — good and bad — for several careers. But certainly he’ll be remembered most for the three championship banners that will forever hang in the Palace of Auburn Hills rafters.