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Resurrecting a Winner

As the Pistons' president, Dumars has boldly built a team in his image

June 06, 2004|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — When the Detroit Pistons last encountered the Lakers in the NBA Finals, Joe Dumars was front and center, leading the charge to a Piston sweep. The high-scoring guard was the Finals most valuable player in 1989, when the Pistons overpowered the injury-depleted Lakers to win the championship.

This time, his role no less vital, Dumars plots the Lakers' demise from behind the scenes. Club president since 2000, the six-time All-Star has built the Pistons in the image of the teams he helped win titles: gritty, determined, physical.

"It feels better doing it this way," a beaming Dumars told reporters Tuesday night after the Pistons defeated the Indiana Pacers to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 1990, when they won a second title. "I didn't do anything but play in the championship days. This time, I put the whole thing together.

"I got the players, the coaches, the scouting staff, everything. And then you had to hope that it jelled and everything worked out."

It worked out, all right.

And two days later, his team one of only two playing into the middle of June, he still could barely contain his enthusiasm for what he had brought together.

"I'll always have the feelings of a player," he said, "but being in this position is extremely gratifying, and I wouldn't trade being here for anything else."

The Pistons, 32-50 only three seasons ago, have shot to the top in the East and will play the Lakers in the Finals starting tonight at Staples Center.

As a high-scoring guard who also was a strong defender, Dumars was a self-proclaimed "cerebral" player who, when he retired in 1999, was second on the Pistons' all-time lists in points, assists and steals. But he was, as one writer put it, a player who produced "spectacular results with an unspectacular style."

As an executive, he has tended to shun the safe plays.

Not content with anything less than a title run and not afraid to tinker with success or leave himself open to second-guessing, Dumars, 40, assembled a championship contender with a series of bold moves.

He traded the Pistons' most visible players, Grant Hill and Jerry Stackhouse, and fired a division-winning coach, Rick Carlisle.

"I'm not averse to taking risk," he acknowledged, "but I have to feel that the upside truly outweighs whatever downside there is."

His first major move, in August 2000, was sending Hill to the Orlando Magic in a sign-and-trade deal that brought Ben Wallace, an unknown, undersized 6-foot-9 center -- who developed into a shot-blocking, rebounding menace and the foundation of a team in transition.

Two seasons later, the tireless Wallace was the NBA's defensive player of the year, Dumars was the league's executive of the year, and the Pistons, having made an 18-game improvement, were Central Division champions.

Accepting the award voted upon by his peers, Dumars said the accolade dispelled the "dumb-jock myth," and then he got back to tinkering.

Looking forward, he jettisoned his starting backcourt. He signed free-agent point guard Chauncey Billups, primarily a backup with the Minnesota Timberwolves, and made him a starter. And, in a deal that sent Stackhouse to the Washington Wizards, he acquired Richard Hamilton, a skinny star-in-the-making guard who had led Connecticut to the 1999 NCAA championship.

Defensive demons, the Pistons again won 50 games and another Central Division title. They made it through the first two rounds of the playoffs. But after they were swept by the New Jersey Nets in the Eastern Conference finals, Dumars decided they'd gone as far as they could go as constituted.

He fired Carlisle and hired Larry Brown, the former Philadelphia 76er coach who had wearied of trying to convince Allen Iverson of the importance of practice.

Weeks later, the Pistons held the No. 2 pick in the draft and had a chance to take Carmelo Anthony, who had just led Syracuse to the NCAA championship and was viewed as a can't-miss prospect, a high-scoring small forward who could immediately add punch to the Pistons' punchless offense.

Instead, the Pistons took a Serb, Darko Milicic, who had just turned 18 but was 7 feet tall and still growing and, Dumars told everyone, could become a star.

The jury's still out on that one, but Dumars is unapologetic, even after Anthony took the Denver Nuggets to the playoffs and was runner-up to LeBron James in rookie-of-the-year balloting. He had faith in his young small forward, Tayshaun Prince, and was building a contender to last. Though still developing, Milicic could give the Pistons an imposing inside presence for years to come.

With Brown in charge and Milicic rarely leaving the bench, adding fuel to the debate, the Pistons again were sailing toward the playoffs this season. They were only 16-13 in late December, then won 13 in a row, matching a franchise record, and were a matchless defensive presence.

On their way to limiting opponents to 84.3 points a game, the third-lowest scoring average in NBA history, they were 34-22 on Feb. 19.

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