Like many Detroiters, I had no idea who Joe Dumars was when the Pistons selected the 6-foot-3 guard from McNeese State with the 18th pick in 1985. Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer were already anchoring the team, so we just hoped the small-school guy could contribute a solid 10 minutes a game. Twenty-five years later, Joe-D arguably has contributed more to the franchise than any other employee ever: a pair of rings as a player, another as GM and a leadership legacy built on a catchphrase ("play the game the right way") that helped turn a collection of castaways into All-Stars under his watch.
Until two years ago.
After a third consecutive loss in the Eastern Conference finals in 2008, it was obvious that changes needed to be made, and Dumars made them. Unfortunately, they haven't all worked out (cough, Allen Iverson, cough, cough).
That's why this is the most important summer of Dumars' long Pistons career. The team is at a crossroads. It's losing, it's for sale and its roster is woefully flawed. Since Dumars fired Flip Saunders and traded Chauncey Billups, the Pistons have been saddled with defensive lapses, poor offensive execution and uncharacteristic finger-pointing. The mantra of "Deeeeetroit Basketball" has been replaced with "Me-First Basketball," and the team's record has reflected it. After a 59-23 record in 2007-08, the Pistons went 39-43 in '08-09 and 27-55 this season, its worst since 1993-94.
"Yes, we had a tremendous amount of injuries, but we know we still have to get better as a team," Dumars says. "It's always important to try and get someone out of the draft that can help you."
For the most part, he's been able to do that except in the lottery. (Hello, Rodney White in 2001 and the Darko Debacle in 2003.) This month, Detroit holds the No. 7 pick; but unlike in years past -- in which a talented core was already in place -- the team really can't afford a draft mistake. Throw that situation in with the struggles of last summer's splashy free-agent signees Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, and, well, you're reminded that Janet Jackson was asking the musical question, "What Have You Done For Me Lately?" at about the same time Dumars joined the Pistons a quartter-century ago.
"We definitely have some holes that we will look to fill this summer," Dumars says. "Our focus is on acquiring players that fit our personality and that fit on how we want to play."
Which could be problematic. The franchise is for sale, meaning it's possible Dumars will be limited in efforts to sign any of the marquee free agents or take on any significant contracts because current ownership will want the franchise to be as attractive as possible to potential buyers. Taking on additional financial obligations now is an especially tricky business considering that in less than three years, the Pistons have gone from leading the league in attendance to playing in front of thousands of empty seats.
Part of that attendance/revenue drop can be attributed to the team's poor performance. But the other, perhaps more significant factor is Michigan's economy, which was ailing even before folks were talking about the recession. If potential new owners feel the metro Detroit area can no longer support an NBA team -- and with the city contemplating closing parks and not cutting the municipal grass and the state shutting down prisons, all in an effort to save money, it's hard to argue that it isn't a possibility -- well, you saw what happened to the Seattle SuperSonics/Oklahoma City Thunder. Or the Charlotte/New Orleans Hornets. And don't forget that the Detroit Shock were in the WNBA conference finals one year and in Tulsa the next. It's a lot easier to move a team when ownership can make the case that a city is too poor – or too disinterested -- to keep it.
Dumars has a couple of draft picks and a few million dollars to get the only team he's ever worked for back to winning.
Biggest summer of his career?
"I don't see it that way," he says.
As for the possibility that new ownership might make front-office changes?
"I'm proud of my record."
He should be. In the past 20 years, only seven franchises have brought NBA championships to their cities; Dumars is a big part of Detroit's share of them. It would be crazy to fire a guy who knows how to build a winning team on the cheap.
Then again, the Cavs just fired a coach, Mike Brown, who had the best record in the league the past two seasons. And the Portland Trail Blazers won 50 games with the lowest payroll in the league this season and yet their GM, Kevin Pritchard, is on the hotseat.
Maybe crazy isn't that unusual.
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.