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12-18-2003, 03:22 PM
Dumars says Pistons' window just opening

Chad with Chad Ford at 12 p.m. EDT today: http://proxy.espn.go.com/chat/chatESPN?event_id=4498

Take Joe Dumars' 2003 Executive of the Year award back.

Keep pointing fingers at the man many feel is the brightest young executive in the NBA. Keep questioning every time Rick Carlisle leads the Pacers to another victory. Shake your head a little bit every time Carmelo Anthony drops a 20-and-10. Roll your eyes while Cliff Robinson dominates and Bobby Sura sits at the end of the bench.

Do all of that, but remember this: In two years, when this Pistons' team is completely rebuilt and competing for an NBA Championship, not an Eastern Conference one, remember the summer of 2003, when Dumars boldly began tearing apart the team with the best record in the East. Dumars is willing to be judged for what he did this summer. He's just asking for a little patience.

"I know patience can be a dirty word in this business," Dumars told Insider. "But at the very time people are writing that our window is closing, I'm telling you it's just now starting to open. They gave me that award last year because we surprised a lot of people and turned around a pretty bad team quickly. But I've done more this summer than I did last year. It's just going to take a little longer to see the results. But when they come, we won't be happy just to be in the Eastern Conference Finals."

Exec of the Year Joe Dumars' rebuilding methods have raised many eyebrows.
Is the Pistons' window closing? Before Wednesday night's ugly 77-73 victory of over the Bulls, they had lost four straight. It has been eight games since the team scored 90 points. Darko Milicic, the No. 2 pick in the draft, is averaging a DNP for the season. Larry Brown, who was supposed to fix the Pistons' stagnant offense, appears instead to have made it even worse. Up-and-coming players like Milicic, Tayshaun Prince and Mehmet Okur aren't progressing at the pace some thought they would. The team's confidence seems shot.

What is going on?

"Growing pains," Dumars said. "I thought we'd struggle at some point early. We've got a new coach, a new system, young players and some new players. We had a tough schedule. I was a little surprised by the way we played coming out of the gate and started to believe that maybe we wouldn't have to struggle the way we thought. Now we've hit a slide. I'm assuming we'll continue to struggle a bit until we really learn Larry's offense."

Dumars says the Pistons' early success was a product of them knocking down so many shots.

"We were shooting well at the start," he said. "When you do that, you look good. When the shots stop falling, players have to decide what to do next. Everyone on the team had learned option number one on offense. But option two and three? We're still struggling with that. Guys freeze up a little bit. Nothing's natural. I finally told them this week just to loosen up a bit and play. Eventually they'll get comfortable with the offense and will quit looking so confused out there."

"Balancing today and tomorrow"

Some have questioned whether that's all that's going on in Detroit. Dumars traded or let go wily veterans like Robinson and Jon Barry this summer, weakening a roster that, on paper at least, wasn't the strongest in the East to begin with. He passed on Carmelo to draft Darko, even though he knew Melo could've been the leading scorer on his team.

His firing of Carlisle, who appeared to be getting everything and more out of his players, also raised eyebrows. Why take so many risks when you've got a good thing going on?

"We had gone as far as we were going to go with that team," Dumars said. "We had to make a change before it was too late. I knew there was a good chance that by changing the makeup of this team we probably had to take a step back. That, to me, is a small price to pay for a championship."

Dumars also had some pressing cap-related issues he needed to address. He watched last summer as the Warriors stood by helplessly as Gilbert Arenas signed with the Wizards. Because Arenas was an "Early Bird" free agent, and the Warriors were over the cap, they couldn't offer him more than the mid-level exception. When the Wizards offered more, Arenas was gone. Dumars identified a Pistons player in the same situation, Okur, and vowed not to lose him. The trade that sent Robinson to Golden State was made expressly so the team could get far enough under the cap to match any offer for Okur.

Dumars isn't quite there yet. If the cap goes up to $45 million (as most expect it will) the Pistons will have around $6 million in cap room when you factor in cap holds for second-round pick Carlos Delfino and a 2004 first-round pick. That may be enough to re-sign Okur, but then again, with teams like the Nuggets and Jazz looking at major cap room, you never know who may break the bank to land the talented 7-footer.

Moving Robinson helped the situation, but Dumars still will need to find a home for one more player before July 1. All of the trade rumors the Pistons have been involved in have nothing to do with adding more talent. It's about getting one more guy (Chucky Atkins and Corliss Williamson have been the primary targets) off the cap before Okur hits the free-agent market.

"We want to sign Mehmet to a long-term deal," Dumars said. "We believe he has a great future here, and I think he believes that as well. We're just trying to make sure we're in a position to make that happen."

" I'm not going to sacrifice tomorrow so I can have last year's record.My job is balancing today and tomorrow with the same moves. "
- Joe Dumars
As a player, Dumars had a reputation of always seeing two moves ahead. His performance as an executive has been the same. That's why he's resisted making trades that would help the Pistons in the short run, but ultimately handcuff the team down the road. The Pistons are in an enviable cap position at the moment, and Dumars knows he can't afford to blow it, even if the losses keep coming this season.

"I'm not going to sacrifice tomorrow so I can have last year's record," Dumars said. "My job is balancing today and tomorrow with the same moves. Our team is just a couple of wins off last season's pace, and we're starting two kids who have just one year of experience in the league. Getting Mehmet and Tayshaun the experience this year is crucial to our future success. I believe they have the talent to help turn us into a legitimate contender down the road."

Dumars may be onto something. Of the 10 teams in the NBA with the best shot at winning a title this year -- the Lakers, Kings, Spurs, Timberwolves, Mavericks, Nets, Pacers, Hornets and Pistons -- the Pistons have the youngest starting five, with an average age of 25.6 years. And their youngest and brightest star, Darko, is still watching games from the bench.

So, what about Darko?

Dumars has come under the most fire for drafting Milicic ahead of Anthony. While Carmelo has led the lowly Nuggets to a surprising division lead in the Midwest, Darko just scored his first basket last weekend.

"You have to have the appetite to draft kids who aren't ready right away," Dumars said. "I'm trying to balance what I give to the coach. We've given Larry a team that he can win with, even without Darko. So you look long term and try put a roster in place that will help you win now and down the road."

"I knew when I drafted him that people were going to look at me like I was a total fool," Dumars added. "I knew what Carmelo and Bosh could do. I knew they could give us more right now. But when I looked at our roster and where we needed help down the road, I felt Darko would be the perfect fit. In another year or two, I believe that he's going to prove me right."

As we spoke, Dumars watched Milicic practice from the window in his office. Dumars described numerous practices where Milicic has played well enough against tough defenders like Ben Wallace to earn a spot in the rotation. He still believes that at some point this season, Darko will be not only playing, but potentially working himself into the starting lineup.

Darko Milicic
Detroit Pistons

9 0.2 0.3 0.0 .167 .000

"He's worked as hard as any guy on the team," Dumars said. "He's light years ahead of where he was. It's only a matter of time now."

Before the draft, many scouts felt Milicic's skills put him on par with LeBron James. He's tall, athletic, can play both inside and out and plays with a ruggedness that is rare in European players. He's got a nasty streak that Dumars loved, and at just 18 years of age (Darko would be a senior in high school this season), Dumars felt he was already ahead of most of the players in the draft. If he lives up to his potential, the Pistons may have the most dominant big man in the East sitting on their bench.

Darko isn't the only young player for whom they have high hopes. Pistons VP John Hammond just got back from Italy where he checked up on their other first-round pick -- Carlos Delfino. Delfino, 21, is playing on Skipper Bologna, one of the best teams in Europe, and he's excelling this season. He's a strong, athletic 6-7 swingman from Argentina who has the toughness Dumars demands from his players.

"He looked fabulous," Hammond told Insider. "He could help us right now. He's big, strong and can play multiple positions. He's going to be very good. We would've loved to have had him this season, but the experience that he's getting playing at this high of a level will be great for him."

Hammond said he received assurances from the team's president that Delfino will be allowed to come to the Pistons next season.

If Milicic, Prince, Okur and Delfino pan out the way the Pistons believe, then Dumars has found a way to win while completely rebuilding the team with talented young players. Not bad for a team that won just 32 games three season ago.

"Usually when you talk about rebuilding you've got to get really bad to get really good," one NBA executive told Insider. "To Joe's credit, he went a different route. He assembled a bunch of mid-priced veterans with good work ethics and got his team winning. That was step one. He reversed the culture of losing first. Then he added the young guys. Most teams do it the other way around and sometimes the young kid never recover. It's ridiculous that anyone is criticizing that team. Their future is very bright, and they've done in a way that has really broke the mold."

When the season is over, there's a good chance someone like the Lakers' Mitch Kupchak or the Nuggets' Kiki Vandeweghe will walk away with the Executive of the Year award. They're both very worthy.

Kupchak lured Gary Payton and Karl Malone to the Lakers, essentially guaranteeing the Lakers a championship this season. Vandeweghe's brilliant rebuilding job in Denver is way ahead of schedule, and the signing of veterans like Earl Boykins, Voshon Lenard and Jon Barry were strokes of genius.

But two years from now, when Payton and Malone have retired and the Nuggets are still locked in a scrum with those other powerhouses in the West, look to the East and my guess is that you'll see Dumars' Pistons competiting for an NBA Finals berth again. When that happens, maybe someone, somewhere will remember Dumars' bold moves in the summer of 2003 and how taking the road less traveled made all of the difference.

Around the League

The Nets are a mess:

For all of the heat Dumars has taken in Detroit, would you rather be in his shoes or those of Nets GM Rod Thorn at the moment? The Nets are way over the cap, the team is for sale, their star player is angry, their best big man is retiring, their second-best big man is playing for the Knicks, their head coach is a lame duck, and they're losing by 50 points to the Grizzlies.

Thorn can't be a happy man right now, and there's really very little he can do to right the ship. After Jason Kidd went postal on the Nets' coaching staff last weekend, everyone assumes it's only a matter of time before Byron Scott is fired. As Kidd has rightly pointed out, Scott doesn't have the vision to be a head coach. He relied heavily upon assistant Eddie Jordan last season. When Jordan left, so did the Nets' creative offense. Scott, like any kindergartner, can trace around a masterpiece, but the final product just doesn't look the same.

Thorn's dilemma is that with the sale of the Nets up in the air, who is he going to get to replace Scott? All of the high-profile coaches out there (Doug Collins, Doc Rivers, George Karl) are going to demand a multi-year deal, something Thorn isn't able to promise right now. Thorn could hire an assistant, but he too would be a lame duck, just waiting around for the new owners to come in and lay down the law. In other words, don't expect Scott to be fired until the team is sold.

If changing the coach won't help, what will? The Nets are out there, trying to make a deal, but Thorn's hands are tied, because he doesn't know what, exactly, he can take back in return. There's a general feeling that the new ownership in New Jersey doesn't want to pay out a huge extension to Kenyon Martin, but what isn't clear is what they'd be willing to get back in return for him via a trade. If Thorn gets back friendly salaries or draft picks, where does that leave Kidd? Stuck with a six-year contract on a team that's rebuilding -- that's not the scenario he signed up for this summer.

Given the amount of heat Kidd already is generating in the locker room, is it just a matter of time before Thorn decides Kidd should be the one to go? He's the player who can't seem to get along with Scott, and he's the guy who makes so much money the Nets have very little cap flexibility. Thorn loves Kidd and knows the Nets have zero shot at a championship without him, but if they must dump Martin to get under the luxury tax, how realistic are their title chances, anyway?

If the Nets have to start rebuilding, they may be better off in the long run moving Kidd and keeping Martin. Martin won't be able to get max dollars on the open market next summer, meaning the Nets should be able to work out something more reasonable for him.

As for Kidd? Maybe it's time to admit a mistake and give R.C. Buford a call in San Antonio. You have to believe the Spurs would be willing to give up Tony Parker, Ron Mercer and Robert Horry for Kidd. The move would give the Spurs their superstar point guard to pair with Tim Duncan, and it would give the Nets one of the brightest (and cheapest) young point guards in the league. Mercer and Horry would come off the books next summer, clearing enough room for the Spurs to re-sign Martin and stay under the luxury tax.

In the summer of 2005, Kerry Kittles and Dikembe Mutombo come off the books, which will free up enough room for the Spurs to pay Parker, Jefferson and Collins without getting back into luxury-tax land.

Given the financial realities that face the Nets right now, it may be the only way to get the spending under control and keep a good, young team on the floor.

Atlanta is burning:

The other team that can't seem to get anything right is the Hawks. The team is still not sold, and the interim management is handcuffed, as well. The team is losing, and GM Billy Knight doesn't have the green light to make a major move. In the meantime, the locker room is turning nasty.
Coach Terry Stotts benched Jason Terry and Theo Ratliff on Wednesday after they were late to a pregame shoot-around. Terry responded with a lethargic effort coming off the bench (no points in 16 minutes).

When Stotts criticized Terry's effort, this was Terry's response, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution: "I wasn't impressed with the way he coached tonight, either."

That's bad news for the Hawks, considering they just signed Terry to a lucrative three-year deal. The team is loaded with players whom other teams covet (Terry, Ratliff, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Boris Diaw), but they can't do anything until the sale of the team is finalized. Meanwhile, the natives are restless.

"They tell you not to point fingers, but when you lose, it involves players, coaches and everybody," said Stephen Jackson, who was suspended last week after a nasty confrontation with Stotts. "In this situation, you have to put two and two together. It's up to the organization to figure it out. I wish I had the answer."

Zydrunas on the block?

There continues to be a lot of debate whether the Cavs actually are shopping Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Two GMs told Insider that, in recent conversations they've had with Cavs GM Jim Paxson, Ilgauskas, LeBron James and Carlos Boozer were deemed untouchable by Paxson. But with coach Paul Silas continuing to grow frustrated with his team's lack of a defensive effort, and in the ongoing spirit of the Cavs' effort to remake the team in LeBron's image, it seems only a matter of time before the team concludes that Z must go, too.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas
Cleveland Cavaliers

25 15.5 7.4 1.6 .507 .726

There's already a lot of chatter out of Miami that the Heat were offered Ilgauskas in a package for Eddie Jones. Trading Ilgauskas for another guard with too many years left on his contract doesn't make a lot of sense for Cleveland. What they need is either an unselfish, all-star-caliber player or young players with great work ethics who won't break the bank.

Another rumor that surfaced in the media on Tuesday had the Mavs offering Antawn Jamison to the Cavs for Ilgauskas. That makes more sense for the Cavs, as Jamison is the type of hard-working, "good guy" who would complement what James does on the floor. Don Nelson has coveted Ilgauskas for years, but he told reporters Wednesday night the Mavs aren't currently involved in any serious trade talks.

I've mentioned this once before, but the trade that makes the most sense for Cleveland might be with the Grizzlies. Unlike the other two deals, this isn't a rumor. There's no evidence the two teams are talking. But Jerry West is still cruising for a center, and Ilgauskas is probably the best center on the block. Ilgauskas and Darius Miles for Stromile Swift, Shane Battier, Bo Outlaw, Jake Tsakalidis and Troy Bell makes a lot of sense for both teams. It would give the Grizzlies the big-time center they covet, a talented, but disappointing athlete in Miles whom Hubie Brown can work with, and it would thin out a very crowded roster in Memphis.

The Cavs would get three of the hardest workers in the business in Battier, Outlaw and Bell, and a young, athletic player in Swift who appears at the moment to have more of an upside than Miles.

Mercer on the block

It looks like the Spurs are thinking about making a small move in an effort to shore up a pretty weak backcourt. The word is that Ron Mercer's on the block. He's in the last year of his contract making him pretty attractive. Who's interested? The Pistons would probably love to move a combination of Chucky Atkins and Hubert Davis to the Spurs for Mercer. That move would allow the Pistons to clear up the rest of the cap room they need to sign Okur.
The holdup on San Antonio's end? While Atkins would be a nice back-up to Tony Parker, he's got two more years left on his deal. Davis does come off the books next season, but leaving Atkins $4.2 million due next year may be a problem for the Spurs. They too are trying to clear enough cap room to make sure they can afford to pay Emanuel Ginobili next summer. Trading for Atkins would only give them around $6 million left to work with. Given Ginobili's stellar play this year, that may be cutting it awfully close.

Peep Show

Seattle SuperSonics: Ray Allen will tell you he's no savior despite playing one for Spike Lee. "Just because I'm out there, that doesn't mean we'll win more games," he told the Seattle Times. "I hope it does. But this is a different team than last year. ... There's no guarantees." He's made three all-star teams, had a vanity license plate depicting his "Jesus Shuttlesworth" character in the movie and is coming off almost seven weeks of rehab on his surgically repaired right ankle. But it still may not be enough. "It's going to take all of us to get this team to playing the kind of basketball that we're capable of," said Allen. "I'm not a savior."

Chicago Bulls: Just because head coach Scott Skiles is talking playoffs doesn't mean he's been hitting the egg nog a little hard and a little early this year in Chicago. "We're not out of anything in the Eastern Conference," Skiles said in the Chicago Tribune. "We still have the same goal that [former coach Bill Cartwright and general manager John Paxson] had at the beginning of the season, and that's to make the playoffs." It just means he's saying the same things the former coach said and the same things his boss expects him to say. "We have young players who aren't ready yet to compete at that [championship] level," Skiles said. "The first goal is to get them competitive on a nightly basis. So far we have been. Then, get our guys back and see where we can go."

New Jersey Nets: The current ownership isn't saying that Byron Scott isn't going to be fired. They're just saying that they're not the ones who will do the firing. "He's not going to be fired," said the owner, who asked not to be identified, in the Newark Star Ledger. "We're in the middle of selling the team. We can't change management when we're in the middle of selling the team." In fact, the current ownership is a little peeved at Jason Kidd for calling for Scott's head. "Does he take any responsibility for what happened?" said the member of the ownership group. "He's 4-for-14 (shooting). He's 1-for-10 the night before. If you lose a game and you're 4-for-14, you don't blame the coach. You take responsibility for your own actions. That's called accountability. And he's shown zero accountability."

Dallas Mavericks: Rookie Josh Howard is good. Sometimes, he's great. But he isn't Michael Finley even if head coach Don Nelson says he might have cracked the starting lineup. "How about both of them starting?" Nelson said the Dallas Morning News. "That's what I meant. When we don't use a center, Josh will be the [small forward] and Finley will be the [shooting guard]. When we do start a center, Josh will sit." Finley is ready to come off a toe injury and rumor had it he'd be riding some pine in favor of the rookie. But according to officials, it's just rumor. "Michael Finley isn't going anywhere," owner Mark Cuban said. "We need what he gives us."

Detroit Pistons: The shake-up has begun in Detroit with Mehmet Okur, Chucky Atkins and Corliss Williamson taking more prominent roles in the win Wednesday night. "Corliss was great, got in foul trouble," Brown said in the Detroit Free Press. "I thought Chucky tried to move the ball, and we haven't had a guard do that. But he really tried to make the extra pass. Memo, you know . . . Joe (Dumars) went up to him the other day and says, 'You know, Memo, I don't think you can play 10 good games in a row.' And then Joe said, 'Hey, wait, I don't know if superstars play 10 in a row.' So then he got down to five. But I think, you know, he's young, and you're going to expect that. That's just the way it is." And the big loser was Elden Campbell. "I don't mind not starting," he said. "I thought it might be a good chance to get a little bit of flow going with the guys coming off the bench. It's sort of shocking to me I didn't play at all."

Atlanta Hawks: Atlanta is on fire . . . again. This time, head coach Terry Stotts benched starters Theo Ratliff and Jason Terry because he said they were late to pregame warm-ups twice in a row. "I think they're all good people," Stotts said in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "It's just a question of being on time. It was the second time for both of them." But others believe something else is going on, which may or may not have to do with Ratliff speaking out against the team only days before. "It was pretty amicable," Ratliff said. "He expressed what he felt. I expressed what I felt. The team isn't playing well and it's a frustrating situation . . . That was my whole point. If I didn't think I was right, I wouldn't have said it." Terry disagreed with the math. "I was late once, to correct the record, and that was today."