Pistons president Joe Dumars was back in the Detroit area as he watched his club take on the Celtics as prohibitive underdogs Wednesday night at TD Garden. The Pistons have endured three lean years and again appear headed for the NBA draft lottery under first-year coach Lawrence Frank.
But what Dumars has spent the past few years putting together is finally coming to fruition. He tried to allow his 2004 title team to make one more run. That team aged, and Dumars moved Chauncey Billups and eventually parted ways with Richard Hamilton. In the interim, the team and the reputation of the franchise suffered.
The Pistons sank toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference, and a slow start this season offered little hope. But there has been a spike the past two weeks, with six wins in eight games.
Against the Celtics, Rodney Stuckey was scoring at will, Greg Monroe was unstoppable on the block, and Ben Gordon - as usual - couldn’t miss at TD Garden. The Pistons walked off with a 98-88 victory.
The building blocks for success are beginning to take hold, and while Dumars has exhibited great patience, he has received his share of criticism during this prolonged rebuilding process.
“We like the direction that we’re headed,’’ Dumars said. “We knew that going with some younger guys in key roles, we knew with a new coach coming in, we expected to get off to a bumpy start. But we also expected to get better as well and we’re doing that and we like the growth that we’re showing right now.’’
The Pistons were in a situation similar to one the Celtics are in now. That 2004 team, loaded with unselfish veterans, unseated the Lakers to win the NBA title. The Pistons went to a Game 7 the next season against San Antonio and were perhaps a Rasheed Wallace missed defensive assignment against Robert Horry from winning again.
Detroit then advanced to three straight Eastern Conference finals, losing to Miami, Cleveland, and Boston before suffering a combined 107 losses the past two seasons. The cornerstones of those title teams are gone, and only two contributing players - Ben Wallace and Tayshaun Prince - remain.
The rest of the Pistons were infants during the “Bad Boy’’ days and high school or middle school students during the previous title, so they know little about the team’s gritty, workmanlike reputation. Dumars is trying to re-establish that image.
“What we tried to do is clearly go with a younger base of guys,’’ Dumars said. “But what we’ve done is kept one or two veterans to help with the transition, Prince and Ben Wallace.
“It takes some patience. There’s a delicate balance because you want to create expectations for your young guys to be able to grow. But you also have to be patient to allow them to get there, so you’re constantly battling expectation and patience at the same time and it’s a daily issue you have to deal with.’’
In addition to Monroe, the Pistons have built through the draft, adding Kentucky point guard Brandon Knight, former Gonzaga standout Austin Daye, and Swedish product Jonas Jerebko.
The roster is still in transition. Gordon and Charlie Villanueva are free agent acquisitions that have yet to reap benefits. Gordon has been inconsistent while Villanueva averaged a career-low 11.1 points per game last year and has played in just two games this year because of injuries.
“We look at it as, OK, we got some good young players,’’ Dumars said. “And they need to learn how to win. We’ve had some games this year where we were not experienced enough to close them out, but played real well for 46 minutes.
“For me, that’s very encouraging because a year like this is going to provide experience that these guys need.’’
Dumars shares a similarity with former rival Danny Ainge, who is trying to determine when to officially end the Big Three Era. Dumars perhaps hung on too long to Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace but eventually had to move his aging veterans and spend a couple of years in the draft lottery.
“Probably around ’09 is when I started to see it,’’ Dumars said. “You started seeing us slow down, and we knew we’ve got to rebuild the foundation and start getting a younger base of guys because those teams had a tremendous run.
“Once you see the run starting to fray and lose its legs, then you have to face the reality. We went to six straight conference finals, and there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that, and I was fine with acknowledging that.
“The people in the trenches probably know before anybody else knows. Just little things that start happening. Toward the end of our run [in the 1990s] we weren’t as good in back-to-backs. I saw that in ’08 and ’09 as well.
“You start seeing little things like that but you know you are not as good. It’s the reality of facing that it’s coming to an end and, how do we want to deal with this?
“And my thing is, you’ve got to rebuild the foundation. That’s what we’re doing now. And we’ll keep adding pieces until we get it back.’’
BACK IN THE GAME?
Hansen plan buoys Seattle
There is brimming excitement in Seattle after San Francisco businessman Chris Hansen announced plans for a $500 million arena in the Sodo District that would potentially attract NBA and NHL teams. What chased the Sonics to Oklahoma City was the city’s reluctance to even vote on a sales tax that would apply to tourists and supply the needed $75 million to help refurbish Key Arena.
Hansen’s plan would include no new tax dollars, which is a relief to those city officials who are concerned about losing constituents for the sake of professional sports.
But there is one big thorn in Hansen’s plan. He wants the promise of an NBA and an NHL team before he begins construction, which is smart considering that Kansas City built the Sprint Center in hopes of attracting an NBA team and the biggest event there is currently the Big 12 basketball tournament.
So it’s essentially a Catch-22 for NBA commissioner David Stern, who took the Sonics away from Seattle but privately wants to bring the NBA back to the city because there is regret about how the situation was handled in 2008. Stern was angry at how he was treated by state legislators during a 2006 meeting in Olympia, Wash., especially Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, who was steadfastly against any public contributions to a sports arena.
Stern has softened his stance, and there is new leadership in Seattle. Chopp would have little to do with a new plan because the state will not be directly involved in the funding. And Mayor Greg Nickels, whose Mr. Magoo-like testimony in the Sonics v. the City of Seattle trial three years ago may have been paramount to the city giving up, has since been voted out. He was replaced by Mike McGinn, who was passive on the topic when he first took office in 2009 but now appears to be in full support.
Hansen, a Seattle native, will contribute $290 million to the plan, while the remaining $200 million will come from the city and county but will not involve new taxes.
The problem for the city is attracting an NBA team. The league has no plans to expand, but there are two primary candidates for relocation: the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Hornets.
The Kings have until this spring to cement an arena plan or their owners, the Maloof brothers, have the right to move the team next season. Their application for relocation was postponed for one year when Mayor Kevin Johnson, the former NBA All-Star, devised a plan to construct a new arena with a series of contribution promises. Well, the money is coming due, and the city has until March 1 to devise a concrete plan for the Maloofs.
The Maloofs have not indicated that they plan to sell the team, and that would have to be a condition for relocation to Seattle. Stern has long been an admirer of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, a Seattle native who was willing to contribute $150 million toward the previous $300 million plan that the state refused to vote on.
Stern wants to get Ballmer into the league fraternity, but it is unclear whether Ballmer is involved in the Hansen project.
As for the Hornets, the league owns the team and Stern wants to give the city of New Orleans every opportunity to retain it with a local buyer.
“We’re looking solely for ownership that wants to keep the team in New Orleans,’’ Stern said in December. “The community has stepped up with respect to major sponsorships, and we’re projecting that - or, we were projecting that for this season, were it not strike-shortened - that the Hornets would be profitable. And we think a profitable team in New Orleans has a great future.’’
STAR OF MAGIC SHOW
Howard will be focal point
The All-Star Game is next weekend in Orlando, where the attention will surround Dwight Howard and his contract situation with the Magic. Howard can opt out of his contract this summer and become an unrestricted free agent. He has already demanded a trade. The Magic hope Howard reconsiders and that the team’s improved play of late will encourage him to stay.
Shaquille O’Neal, who continues to be a large figure in the NBA despite his retirement, faced a similar situation in 1996, when he became a free agent after four years with the Magic and signed with the Lakers.
O’Neal insists his situation was different because the Lakers offered him more money than the Magic, which won’t be the case now because of the new collective bargaining agreement. O’Neal appears sensitive about the comparisons and is a proponent of Howard staying in Orlando.
“I don’t think it is similar, because I had many different options,’’ O’Neal said. “I wanted to stay in Orlando. I had everyone put their options on the table and I took the best one.
“There may be an underlying problem of what is really going on. I don’t know if he doesn’t like the organization or wants to be in a bigger city. I don’t really know the problem. I’m sure they would like to move him so they don’t lose him.’’
Magic owner Rich DeVos told reporters there that he doesn’t want to see Howard leave, but the Magic would be advised to make a move before the March 15 deadline or end up in the same predicament as in 1996.
It was widely expected that the Magic would keep Howard through the All-Star break because Orlando is hosting and he will be the centerpiece. Howard was the leading vote-getter.
“Orlando has come a long way since the ’92 All-Star Game,’’ O’Neal said. “It would be great if he could put on a show and get the love and support of the fans here and get the MVP. Hopefully, he stays.’’
Not much of a ‘break’ there
Celtics guard Ray Allen turned down a chance to participate in the Three-Point Shootout at All-Star Weekend, choosing to take the time off. He suggested the NBA clear the entire week before the Sunday game to give players an extended break, and that would probably get 90 percent participation from those asked to enter events. Some All-Stars will play games Thursday evening and get one day off before practice Saturday and then the game Sunday.
An in for Lin
To no one’s surprise, the NBA found two ways to get Knicks sensation Jeremy Lin into All-Star Weekend, creating two more roster spots for the Rising Stars game and calling on him to help out teammate Iman Shumpert in the Slam Dunk Contest. While that will generate interest and money, the question is whether it’s fair to other deserving first- and second-year players such as Sacramento’s Isaiah Thomas or Minnesota’s Nikola Pekovic.
Now that J.R. Smith has returned from China and signed with the Knicks, the club had to make a move, and it waived Renaldo Balkman. Balkman can’t do much offensively, but he is an energy player and rebounder. Though the Celtics continue to assess their roster, an NBA source said they do not have any interest in signing Balkman. While Boston is at the 15-man limit, it has expendable players in Marquis Daniels, Sasha Pavlovic, and Greg Stiemsma. The Celtics were outrebounded, 19-3, in the second quarter Thursday in Chicago . . . The Raymond Felton experiment in Portland has been an abject failure, as the Blazers have lost four straight at home. They gave up floor leader Andre Miller to get the younger but inconsistent Felton. After spending last season with the Knicks and Nuggets, Felton was acquired by Portland to be a more explosive replacement for Miller. Instead, he is averaging career lows in nearly every category, and coach Nate McMillan seemingly has lost confidence in the impending free agent . . . Charlotte coach Paul Silas said owner Michael Jordan has been patient with the team’s struggles, although the Bobcats are 4-26 after ending a 16-game losing streak Friday night. Silas was hired to teach the younger players and guide the organization in the right direction, but injuries to Gerald Henderson, D.J. Augustin, and Corey Maggette have derailed that process. The Bobcats dumped the contracts of Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace to create salary-cap space and this summer will get Boris Diaw and Eduardo Najera off the books. The Bobcats are expected to make the first major dip into the free agent market in franchise history.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.