Q&A: Joe Dumars on the Suddenly Exciting Pistons and the Toughest Player He Guarded (Not Named MJ)

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Joe Dumars has been Detroit’s top decision-maker for 13 years, and, holy cow, what a 13 years it has been for the franchise. Over this stretch, Dumars has experienced the end of the Grant Hill era; the related and visionary Ben Wallace theft; the surprisingly effective Rip Hamilton–Jerry Stackhouse swap; the magical 2004 title run; the Malice at the Palace; a heartbreaking seven-game loss in the 2005 Finals (Robert Horry was involved); six straight conference finals appearances (think about that); the highly controversial Chauncey Billups–Allen Iverson trade; the 2009 free-agency splurge the entire city of Detroit has agreed never to mention again; and a slow, painful rebuild during which attendance dropped to league-worst levels and Detroit became the consensus “league’s most boring team” — even as they quietly drafted very well outside the top five.

Suddenly, bam: The Pistons are the NBA’s new League Pass darling. Everyone wants to see the Andre Drummond dunk fest, and how three guys who need the ball — Brandon Jennings, Josh Smith, and Greg Monroe — will coexist in lineups that will struggle for spacing. The Pistons have somehow become the most captivating non-contender while acquiring two big-money players most fans seem to find frustrating more than anything else.

After a weekend watching prospects at Adidas Nations in Los Angeles, Dumars took a break and chatted at length one-on-one with Grantland. What follows is an edited transcript of our chat.

You know, as a child of the 1980s who grew up a Boston fan, I’m kind of torn about this whole conversation.

Come on, now. It’s been a long time.

That’s true. And covering the league, and probably working in it, beats that fandom out of you. I don’t really think of the Celtics, Lakers, or Pistons in the same way anymore.

I hear you there.

Anyway: The Brandon Jennings–Brandon Knight rumors first popped up during summer league in Las Vegas, but everyone I could track down said there was nothing to them at that time. Was that true? When did you actually start talking trade?

John [Hammond, the Bucks GM and Dumars’s former right-hand man] is one of my best friends in the league. When the original rumors started, John and I had never had one conversation about our two Brandons.

About four days before the trade, we were on the phone talking as usual, and John said, “Let’s talk a little business.” And he asked if I’d be interested in Brandon Jennings. I said, “I don’t know, maybe I would be.” And we just started talking about scenarios, how we could make a deal happen. And the more we talked through it, the more we realized we could possibly make a deal here. It just got rolling.

What did you see in Jennings that made you think this was a player who could fit in Detroit?

Look around at the point guards in today’s NBA‚ and what has become very clear is that to have someone with the ability to score and distribute from the point guard position is key. I know Brandon Jennings is viewed as a “score-first” guy, and that’s OK with me. But he also averaged 6.5 assists per game. We needed that ability to both score and distribute from the point guard spot.

And to get more specific, we think he does a pretty good job running the pick-and-roll. We like the fact that when he comes off the pick-and-roll, that he puts pressure on you to defend his jumper and defend his ability to create. That’s a skill set we needed.

In contrasting Knight with Jennings, one little thing stood out: They are both good 3-point shooters, and Knight has actually been a little better. But Jennings takes a ton of 3-pointers off the dribble on the pick-and-roll, and shoots very well on those shots, while Knight takes most of his from spot-up situations — when he doesn’t have the ball until it is passed to him. Did you notice the same thing? It seems like that fits with what you’re talking about.

You’ve done your homework. We like his ability to score off the bounce, if you will — to be able to pull up and make shots, and come off a pick and penetrate, and dish, and score those little floaters in the lane. We feel it’s imperative to do all of that in today’s game.

And now we have people for him to get the ball to. I’d also say this: We like his ability to see the floor. He shoots a lot, but it’s not that he doesn’t see the floor well. During the four days we were talking about the trade, we broke down hours and hours and hours of film of him, watching him, offensively, just watching his assists. Just watching to see: “Does he see the floor?” And for us, that really hammered it home.

I did a big Jennings piece last year, and watched a lot of film again after you guys made the trade. And it does seem as if he’s improved as a passer, which is weird to say — that he has some Chris Paul start-and-stop to his game now, he’s better at reading the floor, etc.

We absolutely had to see that. If you see it, now it’s just a matter of it becoming repetitive, with the change of pace, the hesitations, waiting for the guys on a fast break to fill the trail spots — you have to see those things. And he sees it. Now, the question becomes: Hey, look, we need you to look for that at all times, and to not ever miss it. You have got to make those plays. We are going to sit him down, watch film with him, and say, “Hey, look: You see it.”

It’s no secret Jennings wore out his welcome in Milwaukee. He was seen there as pouty, selfish, entitled. You’re obviously confident that won’t repeat itself in Detroit. Why?

You have to dig deeper than just the kind of scuttlebutt you hear. We talked to a lot of people inside that locker room and in that organization. They definitely mentioned their concerns, but after talking to people, I felt comfortable with it. I feel real comfortable with it, as a matter of fact. We’ve never shied away here in Detroit from guys who supposedly have issues. We feel like if he’s a decent person, that we can deal with him. We’re not here to save the world. We’ve had some guys in here that were … a little different.

Anything specific you heard about Jennings in your background check that you found encouraging?

To a man, everyone, whatever issues they had, everyone to a man, said, “He’s a good person. He’s a good kid.” And that’s all I need to hear. I can work with you from that point. I can talk to you about issues.

How much does Greg Monroe need to improve his pick-and-roll defense for you to get comfortable? Are the criticisms of his defense fair?

When we talk to Greg, we talk about defense — how you have to step your game up and become a better defender, guard in the pick-and-roll better, be a better post defender. It’s not a secret. It’s nothing we shy away from. Some of our guys may have a hole in their game, and we don’t duck that. Greg knows, and it’s something we emphasize with him, that he really needs to keep in his mind: move your feet, contain that pick-and-roll.

Have you seen progress over his three seasons?

Some. Defense is about effort and commitment. When you have great footwork on the offensive end, you should have great footwork on the defensive end. And if you don’t see that great footwork on the defensive end, it’s about concentration and effort.

Besides hard work and practice, do you guys have Andre Drummond doing anything else to improve his free throw shooting?

When you are working with someone who has an issue with free throws, I think there are three things: One, you have to make sure the form is correct. His form is good. He doesn’t have bad form. The other two things would apply to even the greatest free throw shooters that have ever played, and those are repetition and routine. For a kid like Dre, what we talk about is making sure you shoot with the same form every time — that repetition — and then having a routine. You can’t get there and dribble three times, one time, four times, two times. You have to get a solid routine every time you step to the line.

Wait … did he actually change routines from free throw to free throw? I didn’t notice that!

Yeah, he was searching for routines. I joked with him, “Hey, Dre, this is probably not the time to be searching for a routine. You probably want to do that in the offseason, man.” Just get a routine, whatever it is.

I’m sure you anticipated the spacing concerns everyone has raised since you signed Josh Smith, a non-shooter who has played mostly power forward the last few seasons. Why did you go with Josh, another big, instead of chasing someone like maybe Andre Iguodala on the wing? Or are you not all that worried about the spacing stuff?

We just thought we needed to get better from a pure talent standpoint. And that’s where Smith and Jennings and KCP [rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope] and Chauncey [Billups] come in. That was first and foremost — just to raise the talent level.

Of course, you don’t have the stretch [power forward] or the 3-point shooting [small forward] in that lineup, but what you do have in Monroe and Smith are two guys who really have high basketball IQs, and are very, very good passers. Even if you’re not spreading to the 3-point line, when you have high IQ guys playing together, they make plays for each other.

And I don’t know how many minutes we’ll have that front line [Drummond, Smith, Monroe] on the floor together, once you get past the first six minutes for the first quarter. It’s not like it’s going to be 40 minutes a night with that front line. Monroe will slide to [center], Josh will slide to [power forward]. It’s not a concern of ours.

Did you look to Memphis as something of an inspiration — another team that struggles for spacing, but that managed to squeeze out enough points after the Rudy Gay trade by just moving the ball and using a great passing big in Marc Gasol to run a lot of the offense?

We looked at that. We actually talked about them a lot. There are definitely similarities. We watched a lot of film of them, and what they were doing after Tayshaun [Prince] got there, and how it worked. And it clearly worked.

Even before the Smith deal, I found the Monroe-Drummond fit intriguing. Drummond is a pick-and-roll killer, like Tyson Chandler, who thrives when the floor is spread and a little guy is running pick-and-roll with him. Monroe loves to work with the ball at the elbow and inside. Those skills, among big-man partners, don’t necessarily mesh in an easy way. How can you make sure you get the most out of each guy when they are both out there?

I’m telling you, when you have high IQ players, they make it work. I remember years ago, Boston had three pretty good front-line guys who needed the ball, and they made it work. I’m not even pretending we have that level of lineup, but when you put high IQ guys on the floor, it’s amazing what they can make work. They see the floor and have a feel for the game.

I’d also say this: There’s more than one way to attack. It’s not like if you don’t have a stretch [power forward], it just can’t work. Look again at Memphis. It’s not like we are in uncharted waters here.

Smith and Al Horford ran a mean big-big pick-and-roll in Atlanta.

Exactly. That’s because Josh can really pass the ball. He can deliver. When you have frontcourt guys who can pass the ball … that’s why Marc Gasol is so, so good. That’s why with Vlade Divac and Arvydas Sabonis, centers who could really pass it, you don’t worry about what the system is, because whatever it is, they are going to figure it out.

Back to Iguodala: I’ve heard there was some mutual interest there. How serious did you get? He would have been a nice fit.

He chose Sacramento before we could get anything done. We had some very good talks, but it didn’t go much further than those talks with him and Rob Pelinka [Iguodala’s agent]. And then they ultimately chose the Golden State deal. It wasn’t like we turned our back on him. He chose to go with Golden State. We had some excellent talks. It was an option that didn’t pan out.

And you’ve got some interesting new wing guys, with Caldwell-Pope and Luigi Datome.

Exactly. And signing Josh was mostly about the upgrade of talent he brings. You know, we hear now about position-less basketball, and how you don’t worry so much about position as you do about putting your best talent on the floor. When we decided to pursue Josh, we had that in mind. The talent upgrade can allow you to play position-less basketball and not have to worry so much.

Is this a “playoffs or bust” season for you?

We certainly have a shot now. I don’t really get into the ”playoffs or bust” thing. But I do think we have a much better chance to become a playoff team this year. If we can stay healthy, we’re gonna have a great shot.

Last one. Who was the toughest guy to guard in your career, other than Michael Jordan? Again: You cannot say Michael Jordan.

You know, Jackie MacMullan did a great story on him a couple of weeks ago — it was Reggie Lewis for me. He was long, athletic, smooth, he could raise up over you and shoot. He was a really good defender, too. He was a tough, tough cover. Man, he was a tough guy to guard. He was definitely the one, other than MJ, who was the toughest for me to figure out. He was so long, and you couldn’t really get physical with him, because he was so slim, and it always seemed like I was getting called for fouls. He was a great, great player.

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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