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SLAM looks back at Joe Dumars’ playing career on his birthday

Joe Dumars turned 48-years-old today, and SLAM re-ran a magazine feature on Dumars written by Alan Paul in 2006 to commemorate Joe D’s birthday. The story discusses Dumars’ success as an exec with the Pistons, at the time, in the midst of their run as the dominant team in the Eastern Conference. But the most interesting parts are Dumars rising from little known small college player to key part of championship teams in Detroit.

Dumars, a scorer in college, talks about how he became more versatile in order to earn minutes on an already good team with established players. This passage stood out to me:

With (John) Long gone, the Detroit backcourt became Thomas and Dumars, with Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson coming in to relieve them both. It proved to be a devastating three-guard rotation, with a combined average of nearly 50 ppg and a great deal of versatility.

“I started at the two and Isiah at point guard, but all of us could play either position, which made it easy,” Dumars says. “It never fell on one guy. The first time I saw Isiah get overplayed, I went back and got the ball and he went to the two, and that’s what we did for the next 10 years.”

I’ve always felt like this experience has been the foundation for how Dumars evaluates talent as president of basketball operations. As we’ve seen, he frequently takes on players whose skillsets don’t translate seamlessly to traditional positional constraints. Sometimes, it has been pretty successful: Chauncey Billups wasn’t a traditional PG prior to signing in Detroit, Corliss Williamson wasn’t a traditional small forward or power forward and Jonas Jerebko was effective at multiple spots as a rookie. On the flip side, players like Rodney Stuckey and Austin Daye, both because of inconsistent coaching and development issues, haven’t found a spot on the floor where they look totally comfortable at all times.

It’s easy to knock the Pistons for their recent results. But I think Dumars’ reasoning behind preferring versatility is a sound one that was proven to work on the Bad Boys era teams that were filled with guys who could play multiple positions and roles.


  • May 24, 20112:11 pm
    by Laser


    see, i tend to chalk this up to the irresistible urge people have to make excuses for joe dumars, approaching his current roster with the attitude that it was a good central idea and makes sense in the context of his experience and career.
    versatility is nice, but it’s a luxury. first off, you should build a team around solid position players. it’s primarily a point guard league, so start with a point guard. good big men tend to be a close second in terms of having a real impact. if these positions were secure, then you maybe surround them with some interchangeable parts.
    when dumars was asked what kind of team the pistons had (considering that nobody could consider it a defensive team anymore) he said it was a “versatile” team. not only is this not a great answer to that question, but it wasn’t even true. positional versatility only means so much when the flexibility means everyone on the roster can play the 2 or the 3. you only need so many guys who can play a given position. individual versatility doesn’t translate to a versatile team. a versatile team can put out a varied range of lineups: an offensive lineup, a defensive one, a quick lineup, a big lineup, etc. the pistons didn’t really have those kinds of options. they could send out a unit with a very tall perimeter, but their front line size kept them “small” overall. they had no truly big lineups, no defensive units, and not enough playmaking no matter who was out there.
    a sound strategy is to put a few cornerstones in place and build around them. because you have five men on the court at all times, you really only need one or two players in the rotation who are positionally versatile to have a high degree of flexibility. you don’t need ten guys who can play the 3, and this roster proves that you probably don’t WANT them either. the pistons drafted three versatile combo forwards last year, but they’d be a much more versatile team (or at least have the potential to be) if they’d drafted one of those guys in addition to a point guard and a center.

  • May 24, 20112:43 pm
    by Patrick Hayes


    “a sound strategy is to put a few cornerstones in place and build around them.”

    See, this is the thing though: it’s HARD to find cornerstones. It’s not like you can just pluck one or two and then start worrying about your complimenting pieces (unless you’re the Heat, Lakers, Celtics, etc., who can offer nice markets/climates and winning teams). Dumars struck out on the players he thought would be and paid like cornerstones in hamilton, Villanueva and Gordon. But his strategy of finding useful players who can help at multiple positions in the draft or as free agent bargains like McGrady isn’t a bad one.

    • May 24, 20114:44 pm
      by Laser


      i don’t disagree that it’s hard to find real cornerstones, but it’s not like the pistons haven’t had ample opportunities to obtain them if they did their due diligence.
      just for a few examples: back when this team was replete with assets and options, they could have flipped their existing players for a solid foundation piece or two and gone from there. instead, dumars turned his embarrassment of riches into allen iverson and later gordon and villanueva, none of whom could be considered by anyone to be cornerstones. obviously his first mistake was to hitch his wagon to stuckey (likely based in large part on an assumption that the pistons would not have the opportunity to draft that caliber of player again any time soon. god, the irony!), which started a snowball effect of franchise-crippling decisions.
      being removed from the organization and its bad decisions and understanding that this is a point guard (and, to a lesser extent, big man) league, i was a big proponent of drafting ty lawson. instead we got austin daye, a theoretical matchup nightmare in a best-case scenario, but an absurd choice for a team without any playmaking on the roster.
      also: versatility is nice, but last year’s team was a fantastic exercise in why a team made entirely of interchangeable parts with no roles is not a good strategy. the first half of the season, the offense consisted entirely of passing the ball around the perimeter, finding an isolation match-up, and taking a bad shot. everyone on the perimeter took turns sharing playmaking responsibilities, everyone looked confused (nobody more so than me), complained about roles, etc. if you take a look at a team like the bulls, they’re able to overachieve with a successful ten man rotation (including, essentially, three shooting guards in the mix) because everyone has a role. it mostly starts with keeping the ball in the point guard’s hands so the shooters can space the floor and slash if need be, the big men set picks or post up, etc. there’s a system. and the pistons were infinitely better and more watchable once they started operating in a more structured offense with a primary point guard.
      a small number of highly versatile players (like a tayshaun prince, for example) goes a long way in terms of a team’s overall versatility. we’ve already seen what a conglomerate of combo forwards and combo guards with no structure looks like, and it stinks.

      • May 24, 20114:47 pm
        by Laser


        i’m not trying to be argumentative here, btw. i just feel like the world has heard enough excuses for joe dumars to last a lifetime, and we’re spine-tinglingly close to the time where he can finally get moving and prove someone right one way or the other.

  • May 25, 201111:32 am
    by Jacob


    The problem is that those players (Thomas, Dumars, Billups) are truly unique and had just the right mix of players around them to make it work – the ‘secret’ as Bill Simmons calls it. The more I think about it the more I realize that the 2004 title team was an exception to the rule that you need a superstar to win a championship. They made it work but essentially every other championship team of the last 30+ years had at least 1 bonafide superstar/all-star/all-nba player when they won. It might not be the best strategy to replicate what was a unique situation and an exception to the rule and hope it works again. That said, I have the utmost respect for Joe D and think he deserves a chance to make this team a contender once again.

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