Who Killed the Detroit Pistons?

Marshall ZweigContributor IIFebruary 10, 2014

This is simply Greg Monroe getting mugged. The question is, who murdered the Detroit Pistons?
This is simply Greg Monroe getting mugged. The question is, who murdered the Detroit Pistons?Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

What's happened to the Detroit Pistons is a crime.

And firing the head coach doesn't solve it.

Maurice Cheeks is gone. His coaching staff will likely follow Cheeks out the door by season's end, along with longtime general manager Joe Dumars. At that point, only a faded and fading Chauncey Billups will link the current Pistons to their 2004 championship.

Dumars engineered that team. And since the Pistons are a product of the Motor City, it's fitting that the fate of his engineering shared much with the General Motors EV1, the first mass-produced electric car.

The original electric car, the EV1. Its death was suspiciously similar to the Pistons'.
The original electric car, the EV1. Its death was suspiciously similar to the Pistons'.Anonymous/Associated Press

Both caught the public eye because of the manner in which they were built. Both were hailed as harbingers of a new era in their respective industries.

And both died agonizing, convoluted and suspicious deaths.

The fascinating 2006 documentary Who Killed The Electric Car? tried to unravel the EV1's mysterious murder. Today, we'll attempt to do the same for our beloved brethren in red, white and blue.

The 2003-04 championship Pistons team, who upset the mighty Los Angeles Lakers and its four future Hall of Famers, was a team without a superstar. It was the first championship unit in the modern NBA era to feature neither NBA first-teamers nor future Hall of Famers. The league was so unnerved by the squad's defensive prowess it changed important defensive rules immediately following the Pistons' championship.

Three of the key Pistons during their salad days.
Three of the key Pistons during their salad days.PAUL SANCYA/Associated Press

The year after they won the title, the Pistons were a Rasheed Wallace defensive lapse away from a second straight trophy. A dynasty seemed likely, if not assured.

Instead, the same starting five found themselves the losers of four straight conference finals. The core of the team was then broken up, with disastrous results. And today, four straight lottery picks later, the Pistons are a hodgepodge of puzzling pieces which result in an underachieving, inconsistent unit.

But if anybody thinks Cheeks is responsible, I've got a bridge in Zilwaukee to sell ya.

Well then, how did this happen? Who is really to blame for the death of the Pistons?

Perhaps a thorough investigation will help this clueless franchise get a clue about who perpetrated this inside job. Let's round up the suspects and interrogate the crap outta them, The Wire-style:


SUSPECT: Larry Brown

The Pistons were in their second straight NBA Finals appearance. But at a time when attention should have been on the players, their coach was getting most of the ink.

PAUL SANCYA/Associated Press

That's because Brown did nothing to squelch rumors about his candidacy for the president of basketball operations position with the Cleveland Cavaliers. That following a season where L.B. was absent for a number of games, supposedly due to health reasons.

Owner Bill Davidson was sufficiently—and rightfully—annoyed enough to part ways with the brilliant but famously nomadic coach.

The Pistons of that era, a team of castoffs and also-rans, were tailor-made for Brown's "play the right way" mantra. Further, they loved their coach. Had Brown stayed, the core might well have won perhaps another championship or two—which would certainly have given Dumars a very different perspective when Allen Iverson became available in 2008.

VERDICT: Guilty of ingratitude and shortsightedness.


SUSPECT: Flip Saunders

Brown's replacement was Saunders, an offensive-minded coach. This was not a bad hiring by Dumars, as league rules had clearly made offense a priority. But the hiring failed to take into consideration Saunders' laconic personality.

Saunders (left) and Wallace did not see eye to eye—and not just because of Ben's height.
Saunders (left) and Wallace did not see eye to eye—and not just because of Ben's height.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

After the passionate and engaged Brown, the much more detached and homeostatic Saunders failed to win over his team. Some of the players even mutinied, most famously Ben Wallace. They led the league in victories one year under Saunders, but never again reached the Finals. Moreover, the team's defense—their signature under Brown and former coach Rick Carlisle—was given short shrift by comparison.

At the time, Michigan State head basketball coach Tom Izzo and decorated winner Phil Jackson, who's garnered all of his championships by taking over teams who were already primed to win it all, were available. Imagine if either one of these gentlemen had gotten the job over Saunders. The Pistons might have a handful of rings, instead of just a fingerful.

VERDICT: Guilty of lack of enthusiasm and vision.


SUSPECT: Joe Dumars

Most fans like to point the finger at this guy. But I say Dumars owns a lot less of the blame than he gets. I have to defend him, simply because the evidence demands it.

Yes, he hired Flip Saunders. But Joe was forced into the hiring by virtue of Larry Brown's antics. Had Brown been content to coach the Pistons for the length of his contract, Dumars would almost certainly be hailed as the architect of a multi-championship team.

Dumars (right) and Cleaves.
Dumars (right) and Cleaves.PAUL SANCYA/Associated Press

Yes, he drafted Mateen Cleaves. But remember, that was one of the worst draft classes in NBA history. Three of the top five picks that year were complete busts. And Cleaves went at No. 15!

Could Dumars have chosen Jamaal Magloire? Yeah. But the Pistons were way, way, way off the map at that time. Drafting a hometown hero was the right thing to do.

Yes, he drafted Rodney White. But White was a consensus steal with the ninth pick that year. Had he had the 10th pick, Dumars would likely have chosen another hometown hero, Zach Randolph, and altered his legacy considerably.

Dumars (right) with the pick he will inevitably—and unfairly—be associated with.
Dumars (right) with the pick he will inevitably—and unfairly—be associated with.Allen Einstein/Getty Images

And the same is true for Dumars' most famous blunder: Darko Milicic. At the time, Milicic was the talk of the league pre-draft. Plus Tayshaun Prince had just thrown a coming-out party in the playoffs to stake a claim at the small forward position.

Had the Pistons' lottery ball taken a different bounce, and Dumars wound up with the third pick instead of the second, the Nuggets would likely have grabbed Milicic instead, and the Pistons would have had Carmelo Anthony all these years, with Prince as a bench player.

Speaking of Prince, does anybody give Dumars credit for his successes? Tayshaun was a steal. But so were Mehmet Okur and Carlos Delfino. So were Jason Maxiell, Arron Afflalo and Amir Johnson (who's finally come into his own in Toronto). And while Prince was a sophomore at Kentucky, Dumars made arguably his greatest move as a general manager: convincing the Orlando Magic to do a sign-and-trade for Grant Hill.

As great as Hill was, I'd rather have the guy on the left. And we wouldn't have had him without Dumars.
As great as Hill was, I'd rather have the guy on the left. And we wouldn't have had him without Dumars.DUANE BURLESON/Associated Press

Lest you forget, Hill was a free agent. He could have signed anywhere and given the Pistons nothing in return. But Dumars convinced the Magic to give the Pistons Chucky Atkins and Ben Wallace. Atkins was a valuable contributor during the Pistons' surprise playoff runs under Rick Carlisle, and was traded for Mike James, whose defense off the bench was a significant factor in the team's championship playoff run.

And Wallace…well, he became the image of the Pistons, not to mention the best defensive undersized big man since our own Dennis Rodman.

Was Brandon Knight the wrong pick? Maybe. But he's doing quite well for the Milwaukee Bucks, and again, when Dumars picked him he was considered a draft-day steal.

Dumars didn't miss on Greg Monroe, nor on Andre Drummond, despite the negative buzz that had caused Drummond to fall so low.

Personally, I think one of Dumars' bigger draft mistakes was Trey Burke. But be that as it may, the point is this: I say Dumars' draft picks have been the same selections, by and large, most general managers would have chosen at the spot at which the Pistons chose.

After his previous season, who wouldn't have pulled the trigger on the Billups/Iverson deal?
After his previous season, who wouldn't have pulled the trigger on the Billups/Iverson deal?David Zalubowski/Associated Press

There's more: Dumars gets flack for trading Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson. But that flack is, I believe, terribly unfair. The team had failed to live up to expectations for years preceding the trade, and the fanbase was absolutely getting restless. Further, Iverson was coming off a season where he averaged 41 minutes, 26 points and seven assists per game.

Given those factors, who in their right mind wouldn't have at least seriously considered that swap?

Dumars also gets criticized for the Ben Gordon-Charlie Villanueva signings. But most fans don't know the signings were supposed to be a part of the Pistons getting premier low-post player Carlos Boozer. The problem was, new owner Karen Davidson reportedly nixed the deal to keep the Pistons' contract lengths more attractive to prospective buyers.

We'll discuss Iverson and especially Karen Davidson in more detail. Dumars has to shoulder a lot of the responsibility, no doubt. But he was in a no-win position more often than most Pistons faithful realize.

VERDICT: Guilty of relying on scouts and conventional wisdom too heavily, and of staying with a rudderless ship too long.


SUSPECT: Allen Iverson

Imagine if A.I. had brought his same scoring, slashing and distributing to the red, white and blue. Winning is a healing balm unparalleled in sports. Shooting guard Richard Hamilton would likely have gotten over his malaise over losing backcourt mate Billups much more quickly. Iverson likely would have gotten another contract, or Dumars could have traded him at the deadline for a big-time player to grow with, giving the Pistons not just cap room, but visibility to lure the upper echelon of free agents.

Iverson's motor lost a gear when he put on red, white and blue.
Iverson's motor lost a gear when he put on red, white and blue.David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Instead, A.I. had either lost a step or decided to hold it back. The union was a disaster.

Personally, I believe Father Time had stolen that burst from Iverson, and the little man with the big heart just couldn't admit it or face it. But either way, his failures spun the team in a much different direction than it might have gone had he succeeded.

VERDICT: Guilty of normal human aging.


SUSPECT: Karen Davidson

This is the suspect the great majority of fans fail to consider. That's for the same reason it was easier to hang lying about an affair on Bill Clinton than it was to hang the Iran Contra affair on Ronald Reagan: level of complexity.

It's much easier to say Dumars procured the wrong players than it is to understand he was likely very limited in what he was allowed to do.

Davidson never shared her husband's passion for the game. But her rumored business edicts may have decimated the Pistons' roster.
Davidson never shared her husband's passion for the game. But her rumored business edicts may have decimated the Pistons' roster.Paul Sancya/Associated Press

Let's back up. In his final years, the Pistons' beloved owner Bill Davidson made it clear: the Pistons would remain in his family after he died. He even told the Detroit Free Press' Mitch Albom that he had set up the process by which the family would run the team.

But a mere nine months after Bill's passing, widow Karen Davidson put the Pistons up for sale.

Her husband had the steady hand and unwavering passion of a winning owner. Davidson, from all appearances, just wanted to cash out.

To wit: it is rumored she killed Dumars' aforementioned Boozer trade, as well as stopped the team from hiring fiery head coach Avery Johnson. Dumars was likely limited in the amount of money he could commit to one player as well, which might account for the two-headed monster of Gordon and Villanueva.

Would you view the glut at shooting guard several seasons ago differently had we made this trade?
Would you view the glut at shooting guard several seasons ago differently had we made this trade?Duane Burleson/Associated Press/Associated Press

To any fan who doubts this rumor, think about it: Dumars was a Hall of Fame shooting guard. Do you really think he wanted no fewer than three starting-caliber shooting guards—Hamilton, Gordon and Rodney Stuckey—on his roster at one time? You may not like Dumars, but give him credit for not being insane.

The only logical explanation for the glut at the 2 has to fall at the feet of Karen Davidson. I can't blame her for her lack of interest in the team on the court: some people just don't like basketball. But I say even if a team is privately owned, a sports franchise is to some degree a public trust. And to the degree that it is a public trust, if Karen Davidson did block the Boozer trade, she betrayed that trust.

VERDICT: Guilty of putting valuation over victories.


SUSPECT: Tom Gores

Gores is behind Cheeks being fired. But is he also behind Josh Smith being signed?

Once again, I question the notion Dumars would have signed Josh Smith with the intention of starting him at the 3. Come on, guys. Even the most casual NBA fan knows Smith is terrific around the basket, and a train wreck away from it.

Look at these stats, compiled by John Schuhmann: the Pistons rank 29th in mid-range field-goal percentage (34.8 percent) and dead last in three-point percentage (30.6 percent). They’re also the third-worst three-point shooting team of the last decade, and could easily become the worst before season's end.

Those lowly stats are due in no small measure to the performance of Smith, who according to ESPN is the league's worst shooter.

I say Gores (left), not Dumars, was responsible for this mishmosh of a roster.
I say Gores (left), not Dumars, was responsible for this mishmosh of a roster.Duane Burleson/Associated Press/Associated Press

But Smith's trouble with hitting an outside shot, and his penchant for shooting it anyway, was well-known before Dumars signed him. Could the GM really have convinced himself Smith's shot would start falling just because he put on a Pistons uniform?

I can't prove it, but again, reason dictates Gores was behind Smith's signing. He's a flashy guy, and he likely wanted a flashy free agent in the fold. Not only that, but he declared this mishmosh of a roster a postseason squad, going so far as to issue a playoffs-or-else ultimatum.

Who but the architect of such a unit would have the hubris to declare such a thing?

Let's put it this way: we knew Bill Davidson. We loved Bill Davidson. Bill Davidson was a committed and wise owner.

Tom Gores is no Bill Davidson.

VERDICT: Guilty of lack of basketball wisdom.


It's clear from the verdicts above: everybody's guilty. It was the same with the EV1: oil companies, car companies, the government, the California Air Resources Board, consumers and the hydrogen fuel cell all conspired to kill the electric car.

Can the Pistons rise again, as did the electric car (here in the personage of the Nissan Leaf)?
Can the Pistons rise again, as did the electric car (here in the personage of the Nissan Leaf)?Paul Morigi/Associated Press

But here's the thing: the electric car has risen again, under a new formulation and different patents. And plug-in vehicles are becoming more and more popular. For example, twice as many Nissan Leafs were sold in 2013 as in 2012.

I believe the same thing can happen to the Detroit Pistons. They can rise again. But I believe there has to be one clear voice.

I am among the few who still back Dumars, because I do believe he was forced into far too many of his unwise decisions. In other words, he may have killed the Pistons, but it was involuntary manslaughter.

But I only back Joe if he gives Gores an ultimatum: I do it my way or I'm out, whether by your hand or mine.

Because if he does that, and he gets to remain another year, next season we will finally have only one person to blame if the Pistons remain DOA.