Four seasons ago, to the dismay of many Detroit Pistons’ fans, Joe Dumars traded Chauncey Billups to the Denver Nuggets for Allen Iverson.
Dumars’ intentions were clear: Despite six straight trips to the conference finals and one championship, Dumars felt his team needed a shake-up. More than that, the Pistons’ GM wanted to clear Billups’ contract off the books so he would have cap space for the 2009 free-agent class, which was a loaded one.
In theory, Dumars’ plan had its merit — the Pistons had lost three straight Eastern Conference Finals series and, as a group, were aging. The Billups-for-Iverson swap gave Detroit a new look in 2008-09 and a chance to revamp the next summer.
The only problem is: Dumars completely botched the next step.
First off, Iverson’s arrival only hastened Detroit’s collapse. Without their clutch point guard and team leader, the Pistons stumbled to a 39-43 record in 2008-09 and were rudely swept out of the playoffs by the Cavs. That was, for the record, the last time Detroit made the postseason.
Both players turned out to be colossal busts, with neither being able to crack the starting lineup on a regular basis. Gordon’s points-per-game dropped from 20.7 in his final year with the Bulls to 13.8 in 2009-10 to 11.2 the next season. Villanueva, meanwhile, proved to be the massive defensive liability everyone said he was. His drop-off culminated last season when he played just 13 games and started none, while struggling with injuries.
Dumars finally admitted his mistake in signing Gordon on Tuesday, when he dealt the much-maligned shooting guard — plus a protected first-round draft pick — to Charlotte for veteran swingman Corey Maggette. Much like Iverson four years back, Maggette brings an athletic, scoring presence to the Pistons and, more importantly, his contract comes off the books after this season.
That means that, even if Dumars opts to hang onto Villanueva (though, hello, amnesty clause), he’ll have an extra $13.5 million to spend in free agency or the trade market next season.
In other words: This is Dumars’ second chance. And probably his last one.
Make no mistake about it. Even if Maggette can stay healthy (far from a guarantee) and shows some scoring touch on the wing, Tuesday’s trade was one meant to help the Pistons in the future. Next year’s free-agent class currently features names like Andrew Bynum, Paul Milsap, Josh Smith, Chris Paul, Kevin Martin and others. Dumars may not get a crack at the truly elite guys in that class, but he’ll have enough money — and should have enough pieces in place with guys like Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight and this year’s No. 9 draft pick — to mold a playoff contender.
There have already been some rumblings that this is a do-or-die season for Dumars. The three-year playoff drought and sparse crowds at The Palace cannot be sitting well with anyone in the organization.
Dumars may have bought himself a little more time with Tuesday’s trade. After three years stuck in a tailspin, the salary-cap dump of Gordon at least puts a plan back in place, even if it cost Detroit a future first-rounder.
Of course, it’s basically the same plan that Dumars had four years ago when he unloaded Billups’ contract for that of Iverson. The reeling Pistons franchise cannot afford another botch job like the one that followed that trade.
Dumars, at a pretty high cost with a first-round pick heading out, just bought himself another crack as a player in free agency. Will he come through this time?