February 2, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Joe Dumars optimistic he can reshape Pistons into a champion

Auburn Hills -- The window is closed. But opportunity is knocking.

At least that's the optimistic view on Groundhog Day for the Pistons, now that Joe Dumars finally has lowered the curtain on his team's run of championship-contending teams from the last decade.

Gone is Tayshaun Prince, the only player left from the roster that won an NBA title in 2004 and played in six consecutive Eastern Conference finals. And here Dumars is again, flush with cash to spend and the freedom to make moves.

Problem is, the last time around — in the summer of 2009 — Dumars essentially flushed his good fortune down the toilet.

So, yes, he's aware we're all a bit skeptical when it comes to his next moves, though you certainly can't argue with Wednesday's three-way trade that packaged Prince and Austin Daye — another of Dumars' more-recent mistakes — and brought a veteran point guard in Jose Calderon in return.

"I wish we all could bat a thousand," said Dumars, who's clearly not batting anything close to that. "But, you know, you live and learn."

And, in Dumars' case, you learn to live for another day, and a chance — probably his last — to make amends.

As the Pistons head toward this summer's free agency with $25 million or so in salary-cap space, fans undoubtedly will have flashbacks to 2009, when Dumars plunked down $90 million for Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, two players who proved to be free-agent busts, at best.

But as he looks to the future, Dumars not surprisingly has a different view. He says this current situation reminds him more of 2001, when the Pistons — having lost Grant Hill in a sign-and-trade deal to Orlando — finally shed those awful teal uniforms and started piecing together a championship team.

"It's a completely different scenario," he says of his two career crossroads as an NBA executive.

Foundation in place

The difference, he insists, lies in the intent. Back in 2001, Dumars was building from the ground up. Four years ago, he was trying desperately to avoid tearing down what he'd built, an exercise made even more futile when the owner put a "For Sale" sign out in front of The Palace.

"Talk about lessons learned," Dumars sighed, when I reminded him of that again Friday. "When you're doing it on the fly, you're just trying to mix and match and patch holes. You're trying to stretch the window. And then you get to a point where you're like, 'OK, we've squeezed as much as we can. It's time to build it.'"

It was past time, of course. But regardless, this time "there's more clarity" and "more of a foundation" in place, Dumars said, with a new owner in Tom Gores and a talented young trio in Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight. Drummond, the rookie center, might be the only one of the three destined for stardom, but it's certainly a nice start.

So is the deal for Calderon, a pending free agent who just might end up sticking around, "because it's clear we need a true point guard on this team," Dumars said. Knight obviously isn't one — not yet, anyway — as efforts like Friday night's against Cleveland (20 points, 10 assists, six rebounds) have been more the exception than the rule.

Equally obvious is that there's plenty of building yet to do.

Barring a late playoff run, the Pistons figure to add another lottery pick in June. But this summer's free-agent class is sorely lacking in star-caliber talent, so Dumars might have to wait until 2014 to make a big splash there.

In the interim, though, the Pistons are now everybody's best friend, the team to call when you're jammed up and need to get bailed out of luxury-tax jail.

"What cap space does now is more than just allow you to target free agents," Dumars said, "It allows you to be creative in acquiring guys."

New cap rule aids Pistons

That's because the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement added some teeth to penalties for exceeding the salary cap. Starting next season, teams over the tax threshold will pay a much steeper rate, and repeat offenders will pay dearly. Already, we're starting to see the fallout from that.

Oklahoma City couldn't afford three maximum-salary stars, so they had to unload James Harden in a trade with Houston. Memphis felt it had to dump Rudy Gay, who's still due $37 million over the next two seasons, which is what led to Wednesday's deal with Toronto and Detroit. Dumars was making his own pitch for Gay as far back as a month ago, by the way.

Teams such as Miami, Boston, Chicago, Brooklyn, New York and Golden State might face similar decisions soon. Meanwhile, teams like Detroit and Cleveland — a LeBron James reunion is possible, if you can believe it — stand to benefit.

"The flexibility right now in the NBA is a huge asset for any team," Dumars said. "The way things operate now, teams have to make moves for financial reasons. And you want to be in a position to benefit from that."

Dumars has the Pistons in position again. But they've been here before, and it hasn't always been to their benefit.



Pistons president Joe Dumars is aware some are skeptical he can rebuild the Pistons into a contender again. / Steve Perez/Detroit News
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