Joe Dumars joins Isiah Thomas and owner Tom Gores during a ceremony honoring the Pistons 1989 NBA championship team last month at The Palace. (Clarence Tabb Jr. / Detroit News)
Auburn Hills — There’s no easy way for it to end, but the truth is, it had been ending for a while. For most of his nearly 30 years with the Pistons, Joe Dumars was basketball royalty, connecting eras and championships. The connection is broken, for several reasons, and it’s time for a change.
Dumars will step away as president of basketball operations and accept an executive advisory position with the Pistons, an announcement that could come as early as today. The Pistons missed the playoffs for the fifth straight season — the fourth time with 50-plus losses — and Dumars’ contract was not going to be renewed, according to a source familiar with ownership’s thinking.
This is no surprise, and should spark no outcry. That’s the sad part, actually, that Dumars’ storied run would end with such a thud of inevitability. He’d helped lead the Pistons to two championships as a player and one as an executive, a remarkable run. But in the 10 years since, his environment changed dramatically, and he struggled to change with it.
New owner Tom Gores essentially gave him three years, not necessarily to make the playoffs but to show progress. Gores spent money, allowing Dumars to land free-agent Josh Smith and trade for Brandon Jennings, and Dumars deserved that chance. But the Pistons have gone 25-41, 29-53 and 29-52 with disjointed rosters and underwhelming coaches, and the once-sterling culture has rusted away.
As crisis after crisis emerged, Dumars retreated further from the spotlight, which was a mistake. It gave the appearance of a leadership void, as if he wasn’t responsible for the mess. When he took over the Pistons in 2000, it was an aimless franchise, and that’s where it is again.
As the Pistons lost their home finale to the Raptors 116-107 Sunday, Dumars again was unavailable for comment.
Gores and the ownership group learned from this, too, and wanted to give Dumars a respectful exit plan. And now, the focus shifts to them. Dumars’ advisory role is loosely defined, but he’ll be outside basketball operations and won’t be involved in the search for his replacement. If he wants to pursue a management opportunity with another franchise, he’ll have that option, too.
Dumars was a reflection of the man who hired him and trusted him, owner Bill Davidson. Both were smart and quiet, not drawn to the spotlight. The moment Davidson died in 2009, Dumars’ path was altered, and now it could get noisy again at the Palace.
Gores must find his own Dumars, and it’s not about big names and fanfare. Piston great Isiah Thomas would be a showy choice, but he’s unlikely to be in the mix. Since entering the pro sports realm for the first time, Gores now must recognize savvy trumps showy.
Dumars will contend he made moves to appease the owner’s demand for an immediate impact, and it backfired. Frankly, I’ve never bought that excuse. If we acknowledge Gores and his inner circle aren’t basketball people, then I highly doubt they specifically demanded Dumars acquire Smith and Jennings and draft Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
The idea was for Gores to stir things up at the Palace, investing millions in renovations and revamping the business side. But basketball was Dumars’ domain, and all perceptions sprout from there. Gores had a major hand in the coaching situation and that was a mistake, although Dumars was allowed to fire Lawrence Frank and hire Maurice Cheeks. When Gores fired Cheeks on Feb. 9 over Dumars’ objections, the regime’s fate was sealed.
Dumars preferred to operate behind the scenes, which was fine when he was successful. But when times got tough, it hurt him, as he pinned culpability on an endless string of coaches. It became a franchise stripped of pride and a plan — far from the strength of the Bad Boys and the 2004 champs — and in need of a forceful leader, on and off the court.
Gores hasn’t shown he’s around enough, or inclined enough, to fill the daily leadership role. That’s pretty much what we expected from a billionaire businessman based in Los Angeles, and sorry sports fans, you don’t get to pick your ideal owner. If he hires the right people, it doesn’t have to be a problem. Until he hires the right people, it is a problem.
There’s a reason Tom Izzo’s name gets linked to the Pistons, as well as names like Thomas and Bill Laimbeer. Even if they’re unrealistic candidates, they have a connection to the area, and Gores craves a connection. That usually happens with wins, not names, and I expect Gores and his staff to conduct a wide search, and even try to unearth the league’s next bright young mind to rebuild the Pistons craftily. The new guy will hire the coach, and the coach must look for ways to surround Andre Drummond with pieces that actually fit.
Gores is a novice owner but I don’t think he simply wanted to bring in his own guy. He wanted it to work with Dumars but the setup between the two didn’t mesh. Dumars had a wonderful one-on-one relationship with Davidson and the mutual trust directly led to success, from the 2004 championship to the six consecutive Eastern Conference finals appearances. Dumars made clever moves and a few big gaffes — I’m legally required to mention Darko Milicic — and he built something special.
When Davidson died, everything changed, and while Dumars isn’t blameless for the downfall, the challenges were immense. Karen Davidson kept the franchise in limbo while trying to sell it, although she certainly didn’t order Dumars to waste millions on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva. Gores removed most restrictions and gave Dumars freedom to spend, and it could not have gone any worse, too painful to warrant more patience.
It’s too bad, it really is. Detroit is a unique sports town in that its legends endure. The Bad Boys recently celebrated their 25-year reunion and ESPN will debut a “30 for 30” documentary this week on the group. The past five years have been turbulent, but appreciation for what Dumars accomplished should grow over time.
He came here quietly, with little bluster, and apparently will leave the same way. As he rose from small-college guard to three-time champion, he deftly adjusted to his surroundings. From guarding Michael Jordan to rebuilding the Pistons, Dumars did it with a steady calm, knowing how to defend and when to give up the ball.
It’s time now. Pick a villain if you must, but I don’t think it’s necessary. The NBA is a brutal business, and the way it worked before wasn’t working any longer.
Despite decent intentions from those involved, this day was coming.
■ Drafted by Pistons out of McNeese State in the first round, 18th overall, in 1985.
■ Shooting guard on Pistons’ back-to-back NBA championship teams in 1989-90.
■ Four times named to the NBA All-Defensive first team.
■ Played entire NBA career with Pistons, from 1985-99.
■ His No. 4 was retired by the Pistons in 2000.
■ Named Pistons president in 2000, and team won the NBA title in 2004.
The Dumars file
The notable moves by Joe Dumars as GM of the Pistons:
Coaches hired and fired
■ George Irvine (2000–01) — 46-60 record
■ Rick Carlisle (2001–03) — 100-64
■ Larry Brown (2003–05 — 108-56
■ Flip Saunders (2005–08) — 176-70
■ Michael Curry (2008–09) — 39-43
■ John Kuester (2009–11) — 57-107
■ Lawrence Frank (2011–13) — 54-94
■ Maurice Cheeks (2013–14) — 21-29
■ John Loyer (2014) — 8-23
■ Grant Hill, traded for Chucky Atkins and Ben Wallace (2000)
■ Jerome Williams, traded for Corliss Williamson (2001)
■ Mateen Cleaves, traded for Jon Barry (2001)
■ Jud Buechler, traded for Clifford Robinson (2001)
■ Jerry Stackhouse, traded for Richard Hamilton (2002)
■ Michael Curry, traded for Lindsey Hunter (2003)
■ Zeljko Rebraca, Bob Sura, Chucky Atkins, Lindsey Hunter and two first-round picks, traded for Rasheed Wallace and Mike James (2004); Hunter returned to the team a week later.
■ Elden Campbell and a first-round draft pick, traded for Carlos Arroyo (2005); Campbell returned later in season.
■ Nazr Mohammed for Primož Brezec and Wálter Herrmann (2007)
■ Chauncey Billups, Antonio McDyess and Cheikh Samb traded for Allen Iverson (Nov. 3, 2008); McDyess returned to the team one month later.
■ Arron Afflalo, Walter Sharpe and cash to the Nuggets for a 2011 second-round draft pick (Vernon Macklin)
Notable draft picks
■ Mehmet Okur, second round, 38th overall, 2001
■ Tayshaun Prince, first round, 23rd, 2002
■ Darko Milicic, first round, 2nd, 2003
■ Carlos Delfino, first round, 25th, 2003
■ Jason Maxiell, first round, 26th, 2005
■ Rodney Stuckey, first round, 15th, 2007
■ Arron Afflalo, first round, 27th, 2007
■ Jonas Jerebko, second round, 39th, 2009
■ Greg Monroe, first round, 7th, 2010
■ Brandon Knight, first round, 8th, 2011
■ Andre Drummond, first round, 9th, 2012