Owner Tom Gores got fired up about some of the Pistons' exhibition games this month. (Duane Burleson / Associated Press)
When Tom Gores bought the Pistons 2-½ years ago, the franchise was stuck on stale, in need of an infusion. He promised to assess it, and then make an impact.
This might be the legitimate start of it. When the Pistons open the season tonight, they’ll unveil fresh, expensive pieces, including prized free-agent Josh Smith. They brought back a favored son in Chauncey Billups, traded for enigmatic talent Brandon Jennings and have a budding star in Andre Drummond. Given support and the money to back it, Joe Dumars shook it up, and we’re about to see how it shakes out.
Last year, Gores said he expected to make the playoffs, but the Pistons finished 29-53 and Lawrence Frank was fired. Now after an offseason of shrewd moves by Dumars, and the hiring of Maurice Cheeks, the Pistons are considered a real playoff contender. And Gores sounds like an owner ready to demand more.
“I do expect success this year,” Gores, 49, said. “Last year I was hoping to get in the playoffs and I was disappointed. If we don’t get in this year, it’ll be a huge disappointment.”
In an exclusive interview with Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski, Gores hit on a range of topics, from his conversations with Detroit businessman Dan Gilbert to his increasing urgency. Gores praised Dumars and said the long-time GM was not on the hot seat. But he also made it clear expectations were ratcheted.
During a 45-minute conversation, Gores said he was happy with the Pistons’ home at The Palace but open to conversations about moving downtown. He also said he’d be more visible, evidenced by his on-court high-fiving with players after Smith hit a 3-pointer to win an exhibition game. After a difficult transition, now is the time to gauge the progress of the new regime. Safe to say, Gores is as excited as the fans to see how it unfolds.
'I do expect success'
Wojnowski: You said last season you expected to make the playoffs and it didn’t happen. The Pistons made lots of moves this offseason, signing Josh Smith for a lot money, and I assume expectations are higher?
Gores: Absolutely. We’ve done a lot of what we wanted to do, and at the minimum, our expectation is the playoffs. Really, that’s the minimum. We need to keep developing our young talent, too. We said we’d spend the money and people wondered if we would. And we did.
Q: It seems like you’re pushing harder now, wanting more.
A: We took a philosophy, Joe (Dumars) and I, to win now without sacrificing the future. I really think we accomplished that. Obviously the business is very tricky, but we had to create an urgency. The fans need it, the Pistons need it.
Q: You added Smith and Chauncey Billups and traded for Brandon Jennings. Were you pleased with how quickly you guys were able to remake the roster?
A: We feel we got some tremendous talent, great pieces. We went for it this summer. Opportunities came up very, very fast. Some folks in the league were surprised how quickly we moved; some thought we couldn’t attract free agents here.
I will say, I was getting a little antsy talking to our basketball operations, saying, ‘Guys what moves are we gonna make?’ We went after talent maybe the rest of the league didn’t expect.
Q: You mentioned Dumars. He’s in the final year of his contract, and there hasn’t been public talk of an extension. I have to ask: Is Joe on the hot seat?
A: He’s not. Joe and I collaborated on these moves, we talk every other day. He’s done everything we’ve asked, and his basketball organization is really solid. I’m excited where they’re at. I don’t think I could’ve asked for more this summer
Q: Then why no contract extension?
A: We haven’t talked about it. I really respect this about Joe — his focus is on the Pistons, on winning. He knows we have a job to do this year. The good news is, we’ve done all these move hand in hand.
Q: So Joe has not asked for clarity on his situation?
A: He has not. We’re doing our jobs. Joe also understands you have to prove it, just like I have to.
Q: Is it fair to say some jobs are on the line this year?
A: I wouldn’t say it’s fair to say that. There is a lot of good stuff we’ve done, and some things we can’t control. It’s like I tell my kids — there’s a lot of pressure, but just do your work. I do think we’ve done our work. I feel good about it.
Q: You celebrated on the court the other night after Smith won an exhibition game at the buzzer. Do you plan to be around more this season?
A: I do. The first couple of years, the team was really in transition. At times, if I got involved, I might have gotten in the way. But if you’re not here, that doesn’t mean you’re not doing the work behind the scenes. Now we’ve solidified the team and it’s time for me to be more visible.
Q: The Pistons were 54-94 your first two seasons. Is patience waning?
A: I do expect success this year. There’s no doubt what our goals are, in the locker room and the front office. I also have to be patient with myself. I expect to be a great owner with great results.
Q: Have you enjoyed owning the Pistons?
A: It’s been a lot of work, but I have enjoyed it. The first year, it was really just about putting all the people in place. I enjoy that it’s a piece of the community. I grew up here, that really gets you embedded.
Q: Along that line, you just donated $250,000 to the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy in Detroit. What spurred that?
A: For me and my family, my wife Holly, education is so important. As much as we need the comeback in Detroit, one of the longterm ways is education.
Palace is home for now
Q: OK, let’s talk about Detroit. Other owners — the Ilitches, the Fords, Dan Gilbert — have invested heavily here. Is that something you’d like to get more involved in?
A: My first order of business is the Pistons. We live at the Palace, we want to make sure our fans have the full experience.
But I’m open. I saw Dan (Gilbert) last week, we spoke, and we’re gonna get our people together. We have a common interest in Detroit. I told Dan, we’re always willing to speak if something makes sense.
Q: Well, a new downtown arena is in the works for the Red Wings. At some point, would the Pistons be interested in moving there?
A: We’d have to be convinced it’s good for our fans, good for the state. But like I said, we are open. We have such an amazing facility at The Palace, it’s our home. As important as Detroit is, the whole state of Michigan is important, too.
Q: There were lots of empty seats at The Palace last season. How much did that trouble you, and how much did it push you to make changes?
A: I can’t say it hasn’t bothered me. But I believe in the fans of Detroit, and we’ll ultimately get what we deserve. If we do this right, we’ll get the fans. If we don’t, we won’t. Attendance is looking up, and that probably has a lot to do with the changes we made, and people realizing we’re serious about building a team.
Q: Among the changes was the firing of Lawrence Frank and the hiring of Maurice Cheeks. Was that difficult, because Frank was a guy you wanted, right?
A: I’m the No. 1 person accountable for everything. It was a difficult move at the time but something we needed to do. Lawrence is a quality coach, but we felt we were in such an important time, and the team lacked some chemistry and enthusiasm.
Q: What are your impressions of Cheeks?
A: I like the way Mo gets to know the players one on one. He’s been clear and consistent with what he expects, and at the same time he really understands players. The biggest challenge is, will our talent mesh together? It’s not going to come easily, but I’m confident it will happen.
Q: Some experts are calling the Pistons one of the most-improved teams in the league. Exactly how strong is your expectation to make the playoffs?
A: I think we’re in a position to be very demanding. We’ve made the moves, we got the talent, we got the experience. Last year I was hoping to get in the playoffs and I was disappointed. If we don’t get in this year, it’ll be a huge disappointment.
Q: You do sound antsy.
A: I just don’t want to disappoint the fans. The biggest thing I deal with is, I hadn’t done anything. Now I’ve got to do more. Joe and I don’t want to sit still.
Q: You live primarily in the Los Angeles area and have so many business interests, I wonder if anyone ever has approached you about selling the Pistons?
A: Nope. They probably know I wouldn’t do it.
Q: You invested in the team and The Palace financially. It seems you’re investing more and more emotionally. As the season starts, how do you feel about your team?
A: We gotta let it play out, but everyone is feeling the urgency. I am a little nervous for the game. I got excited at that (exhibition) game because we haven’t had a lot of that. Now we have players with fresh starts. I’m very, very excited about the possibilities.