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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