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Joe Dumars Opens Up About Late-Tenure Mistakes, Kobe Trade That Wasn't

By: Will Burchfield

If Joe Dumars had a do-over in his final years as general manager of the Pistons, he'd strip things down and start from scratch.

"Yeah, absolutely," he told The Vertical Podcast on Wednesday, in his first extended interview since stepping down as Detroit's GM in 2014.

Instead, Dumars tried to rebuild the Pistons on the fly after their mid-2000s success, signing the likes of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, trading for Allen Iverson and going through a carousel of head coaches. The experiment went up in flames, with the Pistons finishing dead last in their division just two years after making it to the Eastern Conference Finals.

It was a sour end to a terrific run for Dumars, who guided the Pistons to six Central Division titles, six Eastern Conference Finals appearances and the 2004 NBA Championship in his 14 years as President/GM.

"I think if you do a job like this for that amount of time, invariably you're going to have to recycle and try to rebuild," he told The Vertical. "If the question is, 'What would you have done differently?' I would just say this: We tried to rebuild on the move and not totally strip this down and start all over, which is really tough to do.

"When you're trying to rebuild on the fly, you're probably putting yourself in a position to make decisions that have more risk in them. If you completely break it down, it's easier to make decisions that you know don't have to manifest themselves in six months or a year. You're looking at three, four years (in terms of) what it needs to look like. When you're doing it on the fly, you're looking for immediate returns, right now, because you don't have time to wait."

In trying to transition the Pistons out of the Hamilton-Wallace²-Billups era while keeping them competitive, Dumars set the franchise back a number of years. The most damaging move was arguably the trade of Billups (plus Antonio McDyess and Cheikh Samb) for Iverson early in the 2008-09 campaign. The Pistons crashed out of the playoffs in the first round later that spring, Iverson departed for Memphis in the summer and Detroit went on to miss the postseason for the next six years. 

But Dumars explained the Billups-Iverson trade wasn't about a short-term fix or propping open the Pistons' championship window.

"I thought our window had closed on that," he said. "I thought that the Iverson deal was really a money deal. His contract was up after the season, Chauncey had a much longer contract," one that paid him $48 million over the next four years.

"So it was that as much as anything else," Dumars added, "and that's all a part of trying to do it on the fly. 'Okay, we make this move, in the summer we'll have a lot of money, and then maybe we can make a couple hits that will get us right back on track.' So that was the basis for the whole deal."

For all of Dumars' early success as a GM, including being named NBA Executive of the Year in 2003, his resume is undeniably tarnished by the Darko Milicic disaster. After selecting the highly-touted center from Serbia with the second overall pick in the 2003 draft, Dumars watched him, uhm, underwhelm for three seasons before the GM cut his losses and shipped Milicic to Orlando.

It was a failure that drastically altered the Pistons' player evaluation process.

"Before, we had put a lot of emphasis on guys' abilities, what they can do on the court, their skill set. Post-Darko, internally, our processes turned to background checks. 'Who is this person? The personality, does it fit the team?...Can they deal with everything that's going to be thrown at them?' And that's what I learned, that's what we learned as an organization after that," Dumars said.

In hindsight, Dumars wishes he and his staff had been more thorough in their assessment of Milicic.

"We probably didn't do - well, I know we didn't do - as good a job as we should have on background, just (as far as) personality," Dumars admitted. "This is not to disparage him, but from that point on, man, our background checks were tremendously extensive in terms of who the person was. Are they going to fit? Will they be able to make this transition to play in Detroit? Who we are, who they are -- those things came into play in a major way after that."

One move that nearly came to fruition under Dumars was the acquisition of Kobe Bryant in 2007. With Bryant requesting a trade out of L.A., Dumars dialed up Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak to talk terms -- Bryant's no-trade clause be damned.

"I wasn't sure what (Kobe) would do, what his mindset was. But I do know this: Given the opportunity to make such a deal, you have to go down that road no matter what," Dumars said. "And so I wasn't going to say, 'No, I'm not going to pursue this because I don't know what he wants to do.' I think as a steward of an organization you have to do everything in your power if an opportunity like that presents itself. That's how I looked at it."

Dumars and Kupchak reportedly agreed on a deal that would have sent Bryant to Detroit in exchange for Rip Hamilton, Rodney Stuckey, Jason Maxiell and two first-round picks. But Bryant apparently had a change of heart after a last-second chat with Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who convinced him to remain a Laker for life.

"We pursued it, we went down that road, we agreed in principle on some things and at that point it was time to take it to (Kobe)," Dumars recalled. "Whatever their conversations were internally, Kobe and the Lakers, they worked out whatever differences they had and he chose to stay."

Bryant has denied ever approving a trade to Detroit, telling Grantland in 2015 that the Pistons were not one of the teams for which he was willing to waive his no-trade clause. Other reports indicate otherwise. Either way, Dumars doesn't regret trying to make the blockbuster happen.

"I certainly was not going to not pursue it (just) because I didn't know what he was going to do," he said. "That was just not going to happen. You can't do that, you have to pursue it when you have a chance like that."

To listen the entire interview on The Vertical, click here.

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