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Dumars the likely fall guy for Detroit’s recent failures

by Sam Smith

Can someone get that dumb that fast?

The truth is it happens in sports all the time.

The Dallas Cowboys of the NFL were “America’s team” winning Super Bowls. Until they haven’t for about 20 years.

The Boston Celtics were the NBA’s greatest ever dynasty. And then went more than 20 years between titles and missed the playoffs seven times in eight years. Red Auerbach was there much of that time as well.

The New York Yankees won 10 World Series in 16 years and then were one of baseball’s worst teams for a decade.

And now comes the Detroit Pistons and Joe Dumars, the boy genius general manager who stitched together one of the most unlikely NBA champions in 2004 with some of the most unlikely and best personnel moves in years.

He turned a disastrous loss of Grant Hill in free agency into a sign and trade to land the unknown and then-unheralded Ben Wallace.

He signed for a modest contract Chauncey Billups, who had been with five teams in five seasons. Billups would become an All-Star and Wallace Defensive Player of the Year.

He took a chance on really bad boy Rasheed Wallace when basically no one would and Wallace was the proverbial final piece to a title.

Dumars found Tayshaun Prince, an all-league defender, at the bottom of the first round in the draft and traded high scoring Jerry Stackhouse for the untested Richard Hamilton.

It was one of the more remarkable team constructions in league history.

But now that the Pistons are working on their fifth consecutive season outside the playoffs, Dumars has obviously turned dumb and is facing perhaps his final season as the team’s top executive.

There was even speculation Isiah Thomas would replace him. Dumars being ousted may happen no matter what with new ownership taking over in the 2011-12 season.

True, Dumars has made some controversial and questionable decisions —which basically every executive has —which is why it’s not a job with a pension.

Perhaps the biggest was choosing Darko Milicic with the No. 2 pick in the 2003 draft ahead of Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony. But the Pistons were in the midst of their run and with a team without a 20-point scorer that relied on balanced, equal-opportunity offense.

The Pistons would go to the NBA Finals or conference finals the next five years after that draft.

Sure, it was the wrong choice in retrospect. But Milicic was regarded then as a wise future choice, an athletic big man. It didn’t work.

Neither did Portland’s choice of Greg Oden.

Dumars also understood the way the NBA was going before most; he saw the rules changes leading to a league with smaller, high-scoring players in a more open-court game.

Top free agents generally don’t come to Detroit. Neither does much industry or population as the largest U.S. city in bankruptcy.

Nor do successful teams get many high draft picks. So Dumars followed the model of most everyone else in clearing salary cap room, but a year earlier.

Dumars knew he wasn’t getting LeBron James or Chris Bosh or Amare Stoudemire. He wanted scoring and shooting, so he paid free agent money for two of their team’s top scorers, Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva.

It sounded OK, but it didn’t work. Both with weak defense had difficulty cracking the starting lineup.

It also didn’t help that the team seemingly changed coaches every two years, including Larry Brown soon after winning a title. The Pistons have had eight coaches since 2003 and two already this season with first-year coach Maurice Cheeks fired at midseason.

But another job of the general manager is to be the shield for the owner.

Brown, while the Pistons were on the way to winning the title, was negotiating for a job with the Cavaliers. Owner Bill Davidson demanded his firing as well as that of Rick Carlisle when Carlisle got into a feud with one of Davidson’s top lieutenants.

If you are the general manager, you issue a press release and move on.

Yes, new owner Tom Gores wanted Cheeks out after a few months and Cheeks was Dumars’ choice. So that goes on Dumars as well.

But the great Lakers fired Mike Brown a season and a day into his long-term contract.

Dumars has made some excellent draft picks, Greg Monroe with a seventh overall pick and Andre Drummond with a ninth overall pick. But perhaps with an urgency of everyone to keep their job and impress the new owner, the Pistons appear to have rushed things.

They went below the salary cap, but spent a big contract on Atlanta’s Josh Smith, a power forward who really didn’t have a spot with Monroe and Drummond. So he has played with Monroe and Drummond and that hasn’t worked.

It sounded good to acquire Brandon Jennings for Brandon Knight, but Jennings and Smith have been erratic shooters and that has imbalanced the roster.

Jennings really isn’t a classic point guard, and Smith is the only player in NBA history whose home crowd booed as he set up to take jump shots.

The Pistons currently are 10th in the Eastern Conference, but they still have a chance to slip into the playoffs with Atlanta sliding and Charlotte uncertain.

It probably would just mean a quick elimination by the Heat or Pacers. It would be viewed as progress, though it seems unlikely the way the players appear beaten down by their own dysfunction, disinterest and disuse.

The truth is you generally cannot be a true contender without a transcendent star. Sometimes you are not, like the Knicks with Carmelo Anthony.

Joe Dumars once pulled it off and had the second-greatest run of the first decade of the 21st century without a great star. He hasn’t been able to pull it off again.

It happens. It’s not easy. It’s the cycle of sports for pretty much everyone outside San Antonio.

It’s happening now to the Detroit Pistons.

Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”