Card Shark Joe Dumars Has Been Toothless Lately

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Card Shark Joe Dumars Has Been Toothless Lately
(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
(author's note: this article was written mere hours before it was announced that Dumars fired coach Michael Curry)

Joe Dumars needs a new deck of cards. For better luck, if nothing else.

The deck from which Dumars has been dealing cards to himself for the past several years must be crooked or stacked against him. Either that, or he’s just simply a bad dealer.

Dumars, the Pistons’ president and GM, drew Blackjack in 2004, when his team upset the vaunted Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. A year later, his card total was 22, as his Pistons lost to the San Antonio Spurs in seven hellish games.

Since then it’s been a lot of bad hands.

But Dumars can blame no one but himself. He’s been a one-man act at the table, functioning as both dealer and player. Joe D has played no hand that he hasn’t dealt to himself.

Tonight, when the clock strikes 12:01 a.m., the NBA free agency period begins. Dumars is about to play another self-dealt hand.

Armed with a boatload of cash—thanks largely to expiring contracts coming off his books due to pre-meditated moves—Dumars will go shopping. He has, roughly, some $20 million of salary cap space with which to work. He fully expects to sign two impact players, adding to a roster that is in dire need of a makeover.

Problem is, Dumars’ card sharking has left a lot to be desired since the 2005 Finals.

It used to be that we looked the other way, politely, when Joe drafted, because his other personnel moves were so successful. Free agency and trades were his thing. The draft was something that he did because it came around every summer. Joe would make his pick and then we’d watch him either sit on the bench, be traded, or both.

There were a couple of nuts for the blind squirrel: Tayshaun Prince in 2002 and Rodney Stuckey in 2007 come to mind.

I needn’t run through the rest of them, because it’s all been told before.

So we excused Dumars’ misses at the draft, and there were plenty of them, because he was able to fortify the roster in other ways.

Now he can’t even do that anymore.

It started, you could say, with his curiously large contract with center Nazr Mohammed, signed in 2006 in the wake of Ben Wallace’s fleeing to the Chicago Bulls via free agency.

There were a lot of Tony Delks and Flip Murrays in there as well, and still we nodded in semi-approval, because the Pistons kept traipsing to the conference finals every spring.

But they were spinning their wheels, and by the time anyone realized it, not the least of whom was Dumars himself, the Pistons were helplessly stuck in the mud while their previously vanquished competitors in the East passed them by, gleefully.

Last summer, after the Pistons unraveled in the Final Four against the Boston Celtics, Dumars told us that everyone was expendable. In a press conference laced with both anger and exasperation, Dumars vowed that there “were no sacred cows.” His words.

But the summer of 2008 came and went with nary a peep from Auburn Hills.

Then, early in the season, Dumars made his big, bold move: trading Chauncey Billups to the Denver Nuggets for Allen Iverson, straight up—a trade supposedly calculated in its making. The one where he gets all that money from Iverson’s expiring contract should AI not be re-signed.

Well, the trade was a disaster. Iverson indeed will not be back and so now Dumars has all that dough.

It's been said that this offseason is the most important and crucial of Dumars’ nine-year tenure as team president.

The Pistons, based disproportionately on what Dumars does this summer, will either return to prominence fairly quickly or will tumble into the NBA abyss, where they may remain for years.

Some say they are already dangerously close to that abyss. The roster doesn’t strike a whole lot of fear into opponents. The front court consists of still-inconsistent Jason Maxiell, an aging Rasheed Wallace and an even more aging Antonio McDyess, neither of whom may be back anyway.

Rip Hamilton and Prince are the only two established NBA starters who are likely to return next season.

Don’t come at me with Stuckey talk or Will Bynum talk. Neither point guard has proven a lick. Each of them has shown spurts, but neither has come close to producing, night after night, over the course of an 82 game schedule.

When Dumars took over in 2000, he was hit immediately with the Grant Hill defection. But Dumars took those lemons and made a big, refreshing pitcher of lemonade, vis-a-vis the Ben Wallace acquisition. He added Hamilton and Billups in short order, rooking the other teams in both trades. He acquired Rasheed Wallace for a pair of sneakers and a warm bucket of spit in 2004, a move that elevated the Pistons to title contenders.

So he has done it before.

He’ll have to do it again.

The Pistons, as they stand right now, will be lucky to make the playoffs next spring. How Dumars does in his mini-spending spree this month will determine the future of the franchise.

The King Midas image of Joe Dumars has long ago faded away. His honeymoon in Detroit, probably longer than any GM has enjoyed in this city’s history, is finally over with.

The natives are restless and a little scared too. We know all too well the 22-60 and 16-66 records that bad NBA teams can produce.

Dumars is shuffling that deck. At 12:01 tonight he starts to deal himself some cards.

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