Joe Dumars to blame for Pistons' woes

This is a difficult column to write because over the next several paragraphs I'll be criticizing one of my favorite people, someone whom I respect and admire.

Detroit Pistons president Joe Dumars has done more for my hometown than many of the city's elected officials. The NBA's Sportsmanship Award is named after Dumars. He's a Hall of Famer who is linked to all three of the Pistons' NBA championships -- two of which he helped Detroit win as a player and the other he orchestrated as an executive.

But as uncomfortable as it might be to criticize someone I like, it's reached the point where Dumars' role in turning the Pistons into an irrelevant franchise can no longer be ignored.

Over the last few days, the level of the Pistons' dysfunction has been completely exposed.

On Friday, seven Pistons players reportedly staged a boycott of the team's shootaround because of their displeasure with second-year coach John Kuester.

The boycott was supposedly spearheaded by resident malcontent Rip Hamilton, whose tumultuous relationship with Kuester has been an ongoing saga since Kuester benched Hamilton in late January.

According to a Yahoo report, the rift between Hamilton and Kuester widened when Hamilton blew up at Kuester during a practice, calling his coach a failure, among other unprintable, unflattering things.
Hamilton should be blasted for his appalling lack of professionalism. He's not only the Pistons' highest-paid player, but he's also a team captain.

Hamilton's behavior understandably makes him an easy target and a poster boy for petulant athletes, but the controversy he's created is more of an end result, rather than a root cause.

No one is eager to criticize Dumars for the Pistons' recent failures because he's a media darling and was the architect of arguably the Pistons' most successful stretch in franchise history, which culminated with six straight appearances in the Eastern Conference finals from 2003 to 2008 and an NBA championship in 2004.

But since Dumars received an avalanche of credit for making the Pistons regular contenders, it's more than fair that he be called out for their collapse, especially when several of his decisions have sped Detroit toward decline.

In fairness, the Pistons' lack of progress lately isn't entirely Dumars' fault. The uncertain ownership situation undoubtedly handcuffed Dumars' ability to construct this Pistons team with the same brilliance and savvy that he exhibited during the franchise's more successful times.

But that's still no excuse for Dumars' questionable decisions, dating back to when he selected Darko Milicic with the second overall pick in the 2003 NBA draft instead of Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh.

But let's overlook that decision for now -- even though it's a gaffe that still haunts the Pistons -- because had the Pistons not taken Milicic, every team drafting after them surely would have.

If you zero in on some of the decisions Dumars has made in the last two years, it's hard not to wonder if his judgment can be trusted.

Kuester is Detroit's third coach in six years and the second straight unproven coach that Dumars has hired. And although Monday, Dumars issued a statement saying he was "in full support" of Kuester, that vote of confidence should be viewed skeptically since it's no secret that in the NBA, siding with coaches is a rarity. Now that Kuester has been the target of such blatant disrespect by his players, there is no way Dumars can let Kuester return next season. Besides, if Dumars wanted to convey calm and leadership, issuing a statement was a poor substitute.

Michael Curry, the Pistons' last coach, also was over his head, but Dumars sabotaged Curry by trading Chauncey Billups, the rock of the Pistons' dynasty, for Allen Iverson, who basically quit on the Pistons after Curry told him he had to come off the bench.

Dumars could have atoned for the Billups trade by pulling the trigger on a deal that would have sent Rodney Stuckey, Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince to the Celtics for Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo before the 2009 season.
But Dumars rejected the deal, which seems almost inconceivable, and now he's put another hand-picked head coach in an impossible situation.

Stuckey is a terrific scorer, but he doesn't have the instincts to play point guard and even entertaining the idea that he could one day be as good as Rondo is laughable.

Maybe Dumars thought Hamilton and Prince could lead the Pistons' rebuilding efforts, but their injuries and difficult attitudes have made Dumars' faith in them look foolish. Hamilton's trade value is nonexistent and with Prince's contract expiring after this season, the best the Pistons can hope for is a sign-and-trade that returns a productive piece.

Dumars has had plenty of his risky moves work out beautifully. When he traded for Rasheed Wallace in 2004, few outside of Dumars believed Wallace was the final piece the Pistons needed for a championship.

But Dumars appears to have lost that foresight. He signed Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva to lucrative contracts in 2009, but it looks as if Dumars spent a combined $100 million on two perennial bench players who will never be real cornerstones.

I'm not suggesting that Dumars should be fired. Because he was once responsible for bringing the Pistons unprecedented success (and they're only a season and a half removed from the playoffs), he should get a fair chance to rectify his miscalculations.

However, time is running out for Dumars. California billionaire Tom Gores is currently negotiating to buy the Pistons. Two years ago, Forbes magazine estimated that Detroit's franchise was worth close to $500 million, but by last month that figure had reportedly plummeted to $360 million.

That means once Gores assumes control, he can't afford to be patient with Dumars, regardless of the executive's pristine personal reputation.

If Dumars doesn't regain his golden touch soon, I'll be writing his farewell column, which will be much more difficult than writing this.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.