On November 3, 2008 Detroit Pistons GM Joe Dumars made two critical personnel moves. Dumars traded away 2004 NBA Finals MVP Chauncey Billups along with Antonio McDyess (who was waived and returned to Detroit) and Cheikh Samb to the Denver Nuggets in return for Allen Iverson.
This trade was made in order to get the Pistons far enough under the cap to allow them to be players in free agency. Iverson's max contract expired at the end of last season while the Pistons got rid of Billups' contract which extended into the 2010-2011 season, with a team option to extend another season worth $14.2 million.
For a team with an aging group that had reached six consecutive conference finals, but was clearly on the decline, this was the prudent and necessary move to make.
However a move he had made earlier in the day, seemed to contradict the logic behind trading Billups. Earlier Dumars had signed then 30-year old shooting guard, Richard Hamilton, to a 3-year, $34 million extension that would keep him with the team until the end of the 2012-13 season.
Dumars wanted to get the franchise under the cap to start a youth movement and rebuild the team so he traded the team's best player in Billups and in return received the expiring contract of Iverson. That move is in line with the stated goal, but what I don't understand is if that's what you're trying to do why would you extend Hamilton, an aging shooting guard on the downturn of his career hours immediately before making a cap clearing move?
This season Hamilton, now 32, has appeared in only 46 games and has seen his field goal percentage drop from a respectable 44.7% to an abominable 40.9%. His three point shooting percentage, true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage have all also dropped from last year According to Basketball Prospectus, Hamilton's production has been virtually equivalent to a replacement level player, registering only a 0.1 WARP in 46 games.
The worst part is the extension that Hamilton signed last year comes into affect at the beginning of next season. Hamilton will be 35 when his contract expires in 2013 and appears to be at the beginning of a decline in his play that will certainly not justify the $12.65 million salary he will be earning every year until then. Hamilton's bloated contract also makes him virtually untradeable and currently makes him the highest paid Piston.
Even with that albatross contract Detroit was still in a decent position to improve. Entering last summer with significant cap space Detroit had two options. They could begin rebuilding a team that was swept in the first round of the playoffs by signing players in free agency to retool the squad immediately or they could conserve their cap space and enter the bonanza that will be this upcoming summer's free agent market.
With so many teams hesitant to splurge in the hope of landing LeBron, Wade or Bosh this summer, last year their were far fewer teams looking spend during free agency. With less competition Dumars was dealing from a position of strength. He could afford to be patient and refuse to overpay players as they had less leverage because of the lack of suitors.
Instead Dumars did the opposite by immediately overspending on underwhelming talent.
He agreed to terms with Charlie Villanueva a 5-year, $35 million deal on July 2, one day after teams are allowed to begin negotiating with players. Villanueva, a power forward, is known for being a poor defender and rebounder. With Detroit in need of a big man to provide a presence inside, Dumars instead rushed to sign a player who's been coming off the bench this season and has the 4th highest salary on the team.
That same day Dumars also agreed to terms with Ben Gordon on a 5-year, $55 million deal. Gordon is an undersized shooting guard similar to the departed Iverson who never fit in well playing next to Rodney Stuckey, the player who this team is supposed to be built around, and couldn't coexist with Hamilton. Gordon has only started 17 games this season in 62 total appearances and has the 3rd highest salary on the team.
Let's do a quick recap.
Dumars extends Hamilton until he turns 35. The very same day he trades Billups to start the rebuilding process. He follows this up by overpaying for two players that have started a total of 33 times in 139 appearances this season and are terrible defensively. One of them (Gordon) replicates the exact kind of player that proved to be an ill fit in the backcourt last season and also ensures that 2 of the 3 highest paid players are shooting guards.
The results have been catastrophic as the Pistons have dropped to 26-55 on the season good for 13th in the East and will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2001. Stuckey has regressed, shooting worse overall from the field and three point range. He's also been worse defensively this year with the team allowing 112 points per 100 possessions this year when he's on the court versus a mark of 110 points given up per 100 possessions last year.
Gordon's numbers are below his career averages in field goal and three point percentage, points, rebounds and assists.
With three of their best offensive players struggling through poor seasons it's no wonder the Pistons have faltered and the blame for this disaster lies squarely on Joe Dumars. Dumars has built a championship squad before and deserves the opportunity to fix his mistakes, but with little immediate cap flexibility, a number of undeserving players signed to long-term contracts and a likely expensive contract extension for Rodney Stuckey coming at the end of next season there are numerous challenges in rebuilding this team.
Dumars will have a valuable lottery pick this year in an extremely deep draft and will have the expiring contract of Tayshaun Prince next year to dangle for teams looking for cap relief. While the Pistons have the opportunity to improve through trades and the draft, Dumars struck out in his personnel decisions last summer and has the Pistons franchise now firmly behind the 8 ball as they continue to rebuild.