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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Dumars' Peculiar Fascination with Stuckey Stalled the Pistons

The fall of the Detroit Pistons--who at their peak won the 2004 NBA title and advanced to the 2005 NBA Finals--began with the departures of Coach Larry Brown and defensive stalwart Ben Wallace but accelerated dramatically when team President Joe Dumars inexplicably convinced himself that Rodney Stuckey was some kind of star in the making. Stuckey did not show much in his 2007-08 rookie season other than an inconsistent shooting stroke combined with suspect passing skills; Stuckey seemed equally ill-suited to start at shooting guard or point guard but Dumars--utilizing the same type of hallucinatory/delusional vision that imagined that Darko Milicic would be better than Carmelo Anthony--apparently saw a future in which Stuckey would transform into some combination of Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton. Early in the 2008-09 season, Dumars traded 2004 Finals MVP Billups for perennial All-Star Allen Iverson with the idea of installing Stuckey as a starter and forcing either Iverson or Hamilton to come off of the bench, a role neither player had previously filled. Iverson became the convenient fall guy when the 2009 Pistons failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs but, as ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy later bluntly and correctly put it, "Last year, the Detroit situation with him (Iverson) was mishandled. You don't bring in a guy like that and then tell either Richard Hamilton or Allen Iverson they're coming off the bench. You start Iverson, you start Hamilton, you bring Stuckey off the bench--or you just buy Iverson out when you make the trade. But to ask either one of those guys to come of the bench, to me, doesn't make any sense."

One supposed advantage of trading Billups for Iverson was the possibility of letting Iverson go after one season and then using the resulting cap space to reload Detroit's roster with young talent. Dumars indeed parted ways with Iverson but he transformed the Billups/Iverson cap space into Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon, two streak shooters who think that defense is what surrounds "de yard." Michael Curry struggled in his only season as Detroit's head coach--not helped at all by Dumars' Stuckey obsession--but things took a turn for the worse in 2009-10 when Dumars replaced Curry with John Kuester, who many media members had proclaimed to be the de facto "offensive coordinator" of Mike Brown's Cleveland Cavaliers.

Most mainstream media sports commentators understand as much about professional sports coaching as they do about the intricacies of particle physics: nothing at all (three quick examples: during the 1990s many media members loudly and repeatedly asserted that Bill Belichick could not coach his way out of a paper bag, much the same way that media members later belittled Mike Brown's coaching acumen; purported basketball expert Bill Simmons shamelessly critiqued Doc Rivers--who has forgotten more about NBA strategy than Simmons will ever know--before Rivers brilliantly led Simmons' beloved Boston Celtics to the 2008 NBA championship; many NBA pundits declared that Flip Saunders' "liberation offense" would prove to be a breath of fresh air for the Pistons in the wake of Larry Brown's departure). Kuester was a solid NBA assistant coach but the idea that he was the mastermind behind Cleveland's success during Mike Brown's tenure never made sense and looks completely ridiculous in the wake of Kuester's disastrous run in Detroit; Curry's 2009 Pistons went 39-43 and lost in the first round of the playoffs but with Kuester at the helm the Pistons went 27-55 in 2010 and 30-52 in 2011. NBA coaches put in long hours and have a much more demanding job than most casual observers realize but as much as I respect NBA coaches in general and Kuester specifically it must be said that Kuester hardly authored many strategic masterpieces during his Detroit career. Kuester also seemed to be completely disconnected from the players he was supposed to be leading and motivating: he benched and then feuded with respected veteran Hamilton for no apparent reason, in the process alienating Hamilton and many of Hamilton's teammates.

The bottom line is that Dumars and the Pistons lost sight of the primary reasons that they had been successful--Larry Brown's coaching/Ben Wallace's toughness and defensive mindset--and that is why they have been experiencing diminishing returns ever since Brown and Wallace departed; it is a long, precipitous drop from Brown to Saunders to Curry to Kuester and it is an equally long, precipitous drop from Wallace to the various players who have attempted to fill the pivot for the Pistons the past few years. Brown rarely stays in one place for long, so maybe he would have left Detroit no matter what, but it certainly seems like Dumars should have made a greater effort to retain Brown's services. Perhaps in Wallace's case Dumars felt that he was following in Bill Walsh's footsteps--getting rid of a player one year too early instead of one year too late--but that philosophy only works if (1) you are correct about how much (or how little) a star player has left in the tank and (2) you find a way to adequately replace that star player.

Even if the losses of Brown and Wallace could not have been avoided or handled any better, Dumars' Stuckey obsession is just baffling. Stuckey has been a 30-plus mpg starter for three seasons now despite only excelling in one category: free throw shooting (he consistently shoots better than .800 and he shot a career-high .866 in 2010-11). Stuckey ranks in the middle of the pack--or worse--among starting point guards in rebounding, assists, steals, field goal percentage and three point field goal percentage (his rankings are not any better if he is instead classified as a shooting guard); he is a productive scorer for a point guard (15.5 ppg in 2010-11) but he is not an efficient or versatile scorer. Stuckey has displayed neither the ability to consistently run a team well from the point guard position nor the ability to be a top notch shooting guard; perhaps he could be a solid third or fourth guard for a playoff team but it seems doubtful that he will ever be a starter for a team that makes much noise in the postseason: he just does not have that kind of skill set, nor has he shown much improvement during his four year career (his per minute productivity in most key categories has not changed substantially since his rookie season, which means that what we have already seen from him is likely what we will see from him in the future).

Joe Dumars did a very good job transforming the Pistons into perennial contenders several years ago and he has already enjoyed more success than most NBA executives ever will but until he abandons his Captain Ahab-like obsession with chasing Stuckey's presumed future greatness the Pistons are most likely doomed to be a mediocre team at best.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:20 AM

14 comments

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14 Comments:

At Tuesday, July 26, 2011 2:21:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

You raise some good pts., but I'm not sure on some of this.

I can't blame Dumars too much, since he assembled a team with no star players, making it to back-to-back finals, winning 1 title, and probably 2, if sheed didn't a major brain fart in the 4th in game 5, by leaving Horry open so often. And, it's not really dumars' fault that the team underachieved and more or less choked in the playoffs in 06 and 07. There's no excuse for losing to the cavs in 07, though the spurs would've still won the title, and the pistons still should've beaten the heat in 06. With that being said, that's still 4 great years in a row, with a team with no stars. Sure, 04 was a weak year in the nba, and the lakers were essentially down to 2 players, who were each having serious problems at the time, either aging, laziness, injured, or legal.

The dumbest thing Dumars did was not draft melo. Melo was as close to a sure thing as anyone. Not trying to retain Brown was probably not smart. But, not resigning wallace has turned out to be smart. While the team didn't find a suitable replacement, probably mainly because it's slim pickings finding competent big men these days, they dumped a lot of salary and freed up cap space for other players, it's just they haven't done a good job reassembling the team since. Wallace has quickly declined since his last game in detroit. He relied basically entirely on athleticism, and once he was past his prime, these types of players usually have a quicker decline than other more-skilled players.

As for iverson, sure, he was probably was a little unfairly ripped, but he's brought most of this stuff on himself throughout his career, and most of the ripping that comes to him is deserved. We can talk about lebron still not being able to truly understand the team concept of basketball all we want, but I think iverson is on a whole different level. Iverson's been great for his size, but he's so small, and never really had a true position. He got a lot out of his abilities, but it's still interesting that when he went to denver and detroit, both teams didn't get any better, but actually worse. He's not really been a guy that is reliable, in every sense of the word.

Simmons most of the time doesn't know what he's talking about, but I'm not so sure he's that far off with his comment on Rivers. What did Rivers exactly do that was noteworthy before being handed 3 future HOFers? He was definitely able to have a great 08, which basically the only other legit contender were the lakers, who were basically without 2 of their top 7 players in the finals, and nearly won that series. Not to mention, the c's barely squeaked by an awful hawks team in the first round, and then barely squeaked by a not that great cavs team in the 2nd round. He has done reasonably well since getting garnett/allen plus other very good role players, but I just don't think he's really done anything extremely special. Even with a bad coach in 08, the c's still probably win the title, and I like already mentioned, they barely won the title as it is, with very few other legit contenders to deal with.

 
At Tuesday, July 26, 2011 4:33:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

Why can't you blame Dumars? It makes no sense to give him credit for when the Pistons did well but absolve him from any blame for when the Pistons did poorly; Dumars is in charge of assembling the roster and hiring the coach. I gave him credit for what he accomplished but I also criticized him for the bad decisions that he has made in the past few years.

How can you say that the Pistons had no stars? The Pistons sent four players to the 2006 NBA All-Star game, one of the few squads in NBA history to be honored in that fashion. Dumars did an excellent job building that team but he has done a poor job since that time. You admit that the Pistons "haven't done a good job reassembling the team since" the departures of Brown and Wallace. Whose fault is that? Dumars is the man in charge.

Criticisms of Iverson earlier in his career--some of them warranted, some of them not warranted--have nothing to do with the reality that he unfairly became a scapegoat for the Pistons' failures in 2009. Dumars decided that Stuckey had to be in the starting lineup at all costs and he literally cast aside three All-Stars (Billups, Iverson and Hamilton) to make that happen; Dumars traded Billups, acquired Iverson but then got rid of him and permitted Coach Kuester to completely alienate Hamilton.

Before coming to Boston, Rivers led the "heart and hustle" Magic to the playoffs. If you go back and read Simmons' critiques of Rivers' coaching you will see that Simmons' comments make no sense.

How many championships did Pierce, Allen and Garnett collect before being guided by Rivers' coaching and Rivers' emphasis on "ubuntu"? It takes talent to win an NBA championship but it also takes an excellent coach who knows how to lead that talent in the right direction.

 
At Tuesday, July 26, 2011 6:18:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

Well, ok, you can blame Dumars for the past few seasons, but before that, he did rather amazing assembling the team, minus not drafting Melo. I guess if I was a pistons fan, sure I'd be upset for the past few seasons, and would be very confused as to why the team went down so fast, but I'd be most displeased with the 06 and 07 teams messing up in the eastern conf. finals, which dumars really can't be blamed for. As for the crux of your article, stuckey, I'm as confused as you are about why dumars is sticking with him for so long.

Ok, the pistons had 4 AS in 2006, only one of the years, and that's mainly because they had the best record in the east and the east was much weaker than the west. I wouldn't consider any of those guys top 15 players. Maybe billups for a year or 2 tops, but I've always thought he's been highly overrated, and is actually an awful shooter down the stretch, even with his misguided nickname. Fine, if they made the AS team, then they're technically all-stars, but none of those guys were even close to being able to carry a team during their pistons years. As a collective unit, though, they were composed of several very good players coupled with playing in the weaker conf. of the 2, and they were able to come up with some good results. If they were truly that good of players, they should've come up with at least 3, if not 4, finals appearances.

Ok, Iverson may have been a scapegoat for his pistons time, though he didn't exactly play that well, but he sure didn't help his case by following up with his shenanigans with the grizzlies.

I try not to read simmons to much.

Obviously, garnett/allen/pierce never had any teammates as good as they've had in boston, so naturally, they probably wouldn't win a title. Plus, the role players on their boston teams have been pretty good. Until perkins left, they had a very good defensive center that who could score a few pts., plus rondo has developed into a top 5 PG. They've had a lot working for them. I'm not really sold on Rivers. He's not a bad coach, but I don't see how he could be characterized as that good of a coach. He hasn't been able to follow up 08's success with any more titles, and time is quickly running out. Plus, he had Thibodeau there running the defense, and we all know how awesome of a defensive coach that Thibodeau is.

 
At Tuesday, July 26, 2011 7:36:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

In my article I said exactly what you are saying--Dumars did a good job building the Pistons but he is doing a bad job rebuilding them--so it seems like we basically agree about Dumars' performance as team President.

Hamilton is a three-time All-Star, Billups is a five-time All-Star (plus three All-NBA selections and one Finals MVP), Ben Wallace is a four-time All-Star (plus four selections as Defensive Player of the Year) and Rasheed Wallace is a four-time All-Star. Also, Tayshaun Prince played for Team USA and might have been an All-Star in his own right if he had not been overshadowed by so many of his teammates. I disagree with your assertion that the Pistons just had a bunch of very good players but no stars; they had several stars. Perhaps what you mean is that they never had a superstar, a legit All-NBA First Team caliber player--I would agree with that statement. Part of the reason that the Pistons did not accomplish more with all of that talent is that they had the wrong guys running the show after Dumars did not retain Larry Brown (this also confirms my point about Doc Rivers: just having talent does not guarantee that a team will make it to the Finals, let alone win a championship).

What Iverson did before or after joining the Pistons is not relevant to this article, but it must be noted that you are wrong about his impact in Denver; the Nuggets had their best season in two decades right after Iverson joined the team, winning 50 games for the first time since 1987-88. Iverson played well with the Pistons when they gave him a chance--and he starred in an early season victory against the Lakers, running the screen/roll very well with Rasheed Wallace--but the Pistons kept jerking him around by changing his role and ultimately benching him. The Van Gundy quote in my article perfectly summarizes the whole situation.

I don't blame you for not reading Simmons; I generally avoid his work now as well, but if you go back and read what he wrote about Rivers several years ago you will see that it made no sense. Rivers has proven that he can do well with teams that are bereft of talent (the Magic) and that he can lead a talent-laden team to a championship; some coaches do well at rebuilding and some coaches do well at leading talented teams but few coaches have excelled in both situations.

 
At Tuesday, July 26, 2011 8:38:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sharp

In regards to the Iverson discussion, the Pistons and Grizzlies organizations deserve just as much blame.

Just listening to a handful of sound bytes from over the years shows that Iverson has a high opinion of himself. In 2009 he was only one year removed from being a 25+ per game scorer.

I wouldn't have expected Allen Iverson to react positively when asked to back up Rodney Stuckey, Mike Conley and OJ Mayo. I don't know why anyone in Memphis or Detroit would have either.

 
At Tuesday, July 26, 2011 10:05:00 PM, Anonymous PDM said...

So Dumars won a championship with a roster full of #2 and #3 guys...and let's not forget that he pulled Wallace, Hamilton, and Billups, and for different reasons 'Sheed, off the trash heap of guys nobody else wanted and Prince was a late first-round pick. Okay, Darko turned into Sam Bowie, but at least half the GMs in the league make the same pick given the same choices - go back and look at the post-draft grades. And he's been completely handcuffed since Bill D died. So ok, I agree he needs to put up or shut up now, but it's a little early to be the Monday morning quarterback.

 
At Wednesday, July 27, 2011 5:07:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Sharp:

Exactly; as Jeff Van Gundy said, you don't trade for Iverson and then bench him to play Rodney Stuckey: that just makes no sense. Iverson ranked third in the league in scoring in 2007-08 while leading the league in MPG and shooting .458 from the field--the second best field goal percentage of his career. The idea that he was suddenly washed up in 2008-09 is ludicrous, as is the idea that Stuckey was better than Iverson.

 
At Wednesday, July 27, 2011 5:12:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

PDM:

Did you read the article? I gave Dumars full credit for building the championship team--and then I criticized what he has done since then in terms of rebuilding the roster, particularly Dumars' belief that Stuckey is some kind of star in the making. Four years into Stuckey's career is not too early to say that Dumars has overestimated Stuckey's talents--nor is it too early to say that letting Larry Brown go to bring in Flip Saunders, Michael Curry and John Kuester has not turned out very well.

 
At Wednesday, July 27, 2011 11:49:00 AM, Anonymous boyer said...

Those pistons played in the mid-2000s just don't scrare me one bit by themselves, but collectively they did a little, especially with Brown as coach. Obviously, Brown is a much better coach than any of the other guys they brought in. I don't understand why he only coached 2 years there, either. Other than possibly sheed for a few years in portland, maybe, the other 'star' pistons have never been top 10 players at any pt. in their careers, probably not even top 15.

I disagree with your notion of iverson's impact in denver. Denver had a lot of talent those 2 years, and they went 1-8 in the playoffs. The iverson experiment did not work. Billups shows up for the next year's playoffs, and leads denver to within 2 games of the finals.

I'll put Rivers as an above average coach, but not much higher. He has shown good signs of being a good coach. But, still won only one title with all that talent in boston, so far, maybe more, who knows, but I doubt it. He may have done a decent job in orlando, but before he got garnett/allen, the c's were terrible, and they still had pierce. I don't know what simmons said, but I'm sure it's ridiculous. I'm not agreeing or disagreeing with him, just stating what I've seen. Rivers is usually running around the sidelines with his head cut off, acting like he's always nervous and doesn't know what to do, and is the biggest whiner of a coach that I've ever seen. I credit a lot of his success to Thibodeau. Without that defense, they don't win a thing.

 
At Thursday, July 28, 2011 12:18:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

Whether or not any of the Pistons at one time ranked among the top 10 individual players in the NBA has nothing to do with this article; my thesis is that Dumars did a good job building the Pistons but he has done a bad job rebuilding the Pistons and it is not necessary to do a player by player evaluation of the Pistons circa 2004 to accept or reject that thesis.

You are not looking at the whole picture regarding the Nuggets. Contrary to popular belief, whatever jump they made took place in 2008 when they broke the 50 win barrier; unfortunately for them, the West was much stronger in 2008 than in 2009 and they faced the Lakers in the first round. Due to a general collapse of the West in 2009, the Nuggets managed to avoid the Lakers until the Conference Finals. In 2010, the West returned to form and the Nuggets once again fell in the first round.

I think that you are wrong about Rivers, for the reasons that I stated above and also because he did a very good job of getting non-defenders Pierce and Allen to buy into playing defense but this article is not really about Rivers so I do not want to get into a full discussion about Rivers here.

 
At Saturday, July 30, 2011 12:09:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

I'm looking at the past nuggets' seasons, and they lost in the first round each year from 04-08. I'm not sure what this 'jump' is, what you're talking about. The 'jump' I see is the nuggets getting Karl to finish out the 05 season. The nuggets went 49-33 that year, but under Karl, they were 32-8. That's amazing. Then, they win 44 in 06, 45 in 07, 50 in 08, 54 in 09, 53 in 10, 50 in 11. It sure doesn't seem like Iverson was the answer at all.

And the #8 seed in 09 had 48 wins. The west. conf. might've been stronger in 08 than 09, but not by much, and the top 8 teams were still all loaded. You're right that they avoided the lakers and spurs til conf. finals in 09. But, that still doesn't account for the iverson nuggets only winning 1 playoff game in the 2 years that he was there. That's terrible. The iverson experiment didn't work. Once they got rid of him, the team played better and naturally had better results. Karl was fed up with him, and was happy to get billups instead, who probably wasn't a better individual player than iverson, but understood how to run a team from the PG position a lot better.

Also, the nuggets got blown out in the 08 series with the lakers, while the 09 series was tight, and minus a few late-game trevor ariza steals, the nuggest might just have held on for the series win, who knows.

 
At Saturday, July 30, 2011 2:10:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

Iverson played a major role in leading the Nuggets to 50 wins in 2008, the team's best performance in 20 years; I consider that a major jump.

In Allen Iverson's Legacy I discussed his time in Denver and the aftermath of the trade to Detroit:

"Iverson and Billups will always be linked, of course, because Detroit's trade of Billups and Antonio McDyess to Denver for Iverson in November 2008 seems--in retrospect--to be the beginning of the end of Iverson's career. Much has been written about that trade and its aftermath--and most of what has been written is garbage. Let's dispel a few myths:

1) Contrary to revisionist history, Iverson did not "fail" in Denver: he ranked seventh in scoring and eighth in assists in 2006-07 and third in scoring and ninth in assists in 2007-08. The Nuggets made the playoffs both years, including a 50 win season in 2007-08 that was the best regular season performance by that franchise since 1987-88. In 2007, the Nuggets lost in the first round of the playoffs to the eventual champion Spurs, winning one more playoff game against San Antonio than LeBron James' Eastern Conference champions did in the NBA Finals. In 2008, the Nuggets were swept in the first round by the eventual Western Conference champion Lakers; Iverson led the Nuggets in scoring and assists during that series, while Carmelo Anthony shot just .364 from the field and led the Nuggets in turnovers.

2) Although Billups certainly played very well for Denver last season, the "change in culture" in Denver largely consisted of big men Nene and Kenyon Martin getting healthy, Chris Andersen playing better than anyone expected and several Western Conference teams battling injuries to key players (Spurs, Mavs, Suns, Jazz), thus enabling the Nuggets to move up in the standings. The Nuggets exceeded their 2008 win total by four, blew by undermanned Dallas and New Orleans teams in the playoffs and then lost to the Lakers.

3) When the Pistons acquired Iverson, Joe Dumars said that the team would use Iverson's ability to create shots for himself and others to become a more explosive offensive team, particularly in the fourth quarter, a time when the Pistons too often became stagnant during the past few years in the playoffs. Early in the season, Iverson played brilliantly in a Detroit win over the Lakers but the Pistons inexplicably decided that Rodney Stuckey must be in the starting lineup no matter what. That meant that either Iverson or Richard Hamilton would have to come off of the bench, a role that neither All-Star player is accustomed to filling. It made no sense for the Pistons to bring in Iverson and not let him play the way that he is used to playing, especially when Dumars specifically said that he acquired Iverson to make the Pistons more explosive offensively."

 
At Wednesday, August 10, 2011 3:41:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

You keep talking about best reg. season performance, but we both know it's mostly about the playoffs. Denver's had lots of 40+ win seasons. They won 49 in 05, winning 50 in 08, 3 season later, isn't that big of a jump. 04 was their big jump, from 17 to 43 wins, and then when Karl took over in 05, he went 32-8 to finish the season. Iverson had good seasons in denver, but nothing spectacular, and definitely didn't elevate the team to anything more than it used to be and or would be in 09 and beyond.

In 94, the nuggets beat the #1 seed sonics, then lost in 7 games in the conf. semis, way more impressive than anything iverson led the nuggets to. I think we need to stop making excuses for iverson. I understand he's had some unfair criticism, but most of it has been brought upon him by himself. He's a headcase. Why did no team want him if he still was so good and he had to go play in Europe? If he and melo were both top 15 players in 07/08, 1 playoff win combined together sure doesn't justify that. People and iverson himself were always complaining he didn't have enough help around him, and when he finally gets a quality AS around him in Anthony, it still doesn't matter.

 
At Thursday, August 11, 2011 4:44:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

I am disagreeing with the idea that the Nuggets made a major jump after swapping Iverson for Billups; what happened in the 2009 playoffs was an aberration based on several teams having subpar seasons, thus enabling the Nuggets to get a good enough seed to avoid playing the Lakers until the Conference Finals. The reality is that the Nuggets with Billups have not been any better than the Nuggets were with Iverson. If Billups had really "changed the culture" in Denver then the Nuggets would have become perennial contenders, not one year wonders who then reverted to their normal pattern of losing in the first round.

The Pistons damaged Iverson's value by bringing off of the bench and not using him properly. Subsequently, Iverson suffered some leg injuries that further diminished his value.

I ranked Iverson as a top 15 player in 2008 (All-NBA Third Team) but I did not rank Melo in the top 15 that season. The reason that Melo and Iverson did not combine for more playoff wins in their short time together is that first they ran into the eventual champions Spurs (2007 first round) and then they ran into the eventual Western champion Lakers (2008 first round).

The 1994 Nuggets have nothing to do with any of this.

 

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