Pistons president Joe Dumars sat down with Pistons.com editor Keith Langlois for a Q&A session on Wednesday, the morning after the Pistons advanced to the Eastern Conference finals for the sixth straight season by beating Orlando in five games. Here’s the transcript of their conversation:
Langlois: The night of your All-Time Team ceremony last month, I was struck in listening to Dave Bing and Isiah Thomas speak about how they now trace their roots to a franchise with a proud history and how that makes them feel when they talk to their peers of NBA generations past. You’re so much in the moment and so immersed in the day-to-day process of keeping the Pistons on top, does hearing players of their stature talk about what you’ve helped achieve in that way give you a new perspective on getting to the conference finals six straight years?
Dumars: To be honest with you, when those guys say that, it really is the only time I ever stop to think about. To hear those guys talk about being proud and looking back at their teams and how they pull for us now, I don’t get to hear that every day from guys who are connected like that. So it is the only time I stop to think about that. It really is.
Langlois: I know in your head you’re on to the next round already, but what does getting to six straight conference finals mean to you?
Dumars: First of all, winning never gets old. And losing is never an option. Second, I would say that as time has gone on, I really appreciate the privilege and honor it is to be here year after year after year. You get to a point where you take it for granted. I don’t. I don’t take it lightly. I don’t say, “Oh, well, here we go again.” Every year that we get here to this conference finals, and we’re one of two teams left in the East, four teams left in the NBA, every single year I feel exactly the same way – Wow! We’re back with another chance to go to the NBA Finals. Six straight years of that, I don’t know, I have such a deep appreciation for it at this point because I know how hard it is. I know how in this era of pro sports, to continue to be able to field a team like this and do this, I have a lot of appreciation for it. I really do.
Langlois: At this point last season, you were going into the conference finals with an 8-2 playoff record. This year, pretty similar – you’re 8-3. Yet I get the sense that you feel better about where you’re sitting this year than you did a year ago. Is that so?
Dumars: No question. No question. I feel better about it. The difference in that record, the 8-2 and 8-3, the first game we lost in the playoffs, against Philly, was probably more beneficial to us than what happened last year. It got our attention. We had every guy’s attention the next day at practice. Guys knew. We cannot go back down this road, inconsistency and a lackadaisical approach. It made it easy to hammer home that point to guys from that point on. So I feel better – you’re absolutely right. I feel better about where we are right now heading into the conference finals than I felt last year.
Langlois: Is it also because, from one through 15, really, the regular season was played with more of a sense of purpose this year, where last year – coming off the 64-win season of a year before that ended in disappointment – the focus seemed to be on getting to the playoffs from the day training camp opened?
Dumars: You know, Keith, you and I have had a lot of conversations over the last year about this very subject. What changed was the expectations that we had for players, coaches, everybody here. The expectations changed. And part of those expectations was, I don’t care if we lose some games during the regular season. Let’s get Rodney Stuckey and these young guys ready and you see it manifest itself last night. Part of the change was, these starters aren’t going to play 40 minutes a night and I don’t really care who’s upset or not upset, that’s not going to happen, and you saw that manifest itself last night. There was more of a purpose to everything we did last season. That’s what was different than anything else.
Langlois: My next question was going to be was last night especially satisfying when you see Stuckey come in and not just hold down the fort, but to make plays in the fourth quarter and to have the ball in his hands for 30 minutes under pressure situations and not turn the ball over once, to take it at Dwight Howard the way he did.
Dumars: The answer to your question is yes. And that’s why you stand strong and do not waver in January and February when the kid might have some rough patches and you hear, “Well, maybe you should pull back.” No, no, no. No. Let him get through this, because there’s a bigger purpose. And the bigger purpose is a closeout game where he has to start. If you don’t stay with that kid through the season, through his ups and downs, if you panic, if you become impatient, if you go away from him, kill his confidence, he will never play like that in Game 5. That’s why, in the middle of January, you have to make those tough decisions and stay with him and assure everybody that this is going to work out. By the way, I’ve got to say this, too. You make that decision, I create a mandate that young guys are going to play, we still wound up with the second-best record in the league. We won 59 games – more than anybody in the West, more than everybody but one team in the entire NBA. It’s not like we suffered in the regular season for it. Sometimes that gets lost. How many more games do you think we’re supposed to win?
Langlois: The series that just ended, you close it out in five games when everybody else is going six for sure and, the way it looks with no road team having won in the second round but the Pistons, a good chance a couple or more of these are going the full seven, I get the sense – and maybe around here it’s because the Pistons have owned Orlando in the past – that people are underplaying the accomplishment of beating the Magic. That was a pretty good team and a pretty tough series despite ending in five, wasn’t it? I know you’re valuing it, but do you get the sense that in general it’s being undervalued?
Dumars: Absolutely. People look at the final numbers – four to one – but that was a tough team to play. They have size – two 6-10 guys on the perimeter, 3-point shooting and the most physically imposing young guy in the league, just a dominant physical presence. So, yeah, people look at the final numbers and assume it was an easy series. But, man, if you saw the way our guys were diving on the floor and having to make plays and the defensive effort guys like Rasheed and McDyess and Prince and those guys were giving, to get it to four to one, we had to play as hard as we could. Four to one is not a surprise, but I’ll tell you what, people don’t understand if they think it was an easy series. It wasn’t.
Langlois: To win these last two games, and to win them essentially by outplaying Orlando in the final minutes when the pressure was at its greatest without your point guard, does that impress you as much as anything that happened?
Dumars: I’ve said since last night, the two hardest games to play in the playoffs are a road playoff game and a closeout game. And we had a rookie starting on the road and in a closeout game. He had zero turnovers in both games and we won both games. You can’t ask for anything – there is nothing higher you can ask from a rookie starting at the point guard than that. Win on the road in the playoffs and in a closeout game. We won’t sit here and talk about a situation with a rookie in playoff basketball that will top that right there.
Langlois: Rip last night passed Isiah on the franchise all-time playoff scoring list and after the game he said, “It’s crazy to think I’ve passed Isiah. I haven’t been here that long.” I think a lot of fans had the same reaction. It snuck up on me, too. For as long as Isiah was here and all the wars you guys went through, did it surprise you, too, that Rip has passed him already?
Dumars: Yeah. What happened with Isiah here was that was one stretch in the middle of his career when we were great. Before that, just OK, and after that things fell off. So he was here a long time, but only in that one stretch were we truly great. That’s why it can kind of get misconstrued as to what happened. But when I saw it last night, it caught me by surprise. “Wow! Rip became the all-time leading scorer in the playoffs?” I didn’t even know that. I didn’t know he was close. You know what? When I saw that, I said, “That’s great for Rip.” I’m glad it’s Rip that’s doing that. Because Rip shows up every night. Rip never takes a night off. He plays as hard as he can every single night. He’s a warrior. And if anyone from this era of new guys deserves to get it, it’s him. Because he just shows up. He doesn’t always play great. He’ll turn it over every now and then. He’ll take some bad shots and get crazy, but he’s trying to win. That guy is a warrior, man, he’s a stone-cold warrior. When I saw it was him, I said that’s only fitting. I’m happy for Rip.
Langlois: He’s played almost a season and a half’s worth of games just in the postseason these last six years. To get the chance to play that many postseason games over a six-year span is another benchmark of what you’ve accomplished, isn’t it?
Dumars: This group here, man. … I think also with that, maybe I’m wrong, but hasn’t Tayshaun played in the conference finals every year of his career?
Langlois: Yeah, six for six.
Dumars: This guy has never played in anything less than the final four of the NBA. That’s a pretty good one, too. There are some things going on with this group that are pretty special and I just hope … I hope … I hope people understand that what’s going on with this group is pretty special. Sometimes it gets taken for granted and you just shake your head when it is. This doesn’t happen all the time.
Langlois: Prince’s block on Turkoglu last night – and I just wrote something about this earlier this morning – I think the block on Reggie Miller is going to live longer on the highlight reels because it came out of nowhere and was so unexpected, but for my money this was more impressive. You see dunks blocked by big men sometimes who step away from their man to meet the driver at the rim, but to be on the hip of the guy you’re guarding and take him on at the rim without fouling, to me that topped the Reggie block.
Dumars: This was impressive. Miller never saw it coming. This was a mano-a-mano play. Hedo turned the corner and decided “I’m throwing it down. I’m not going to try to lay it up. I’m not going to try to float it.” And that’s a mano-a-mano thing you say to yourself on the court. And Tayshaun said, “I’ll meet you at the rim.” You have plays like that where both guys make up their mind that “I’m going to impose my will on you.” Hedo made up his mind and Tayshaun made up his mind. Those are the most impressive plays. Because there is no surprise element here. It’s one guy saying, “I’m coming.” And the other guy saying, “OK, I’ll be there.” And that’s impressive.
Langlois: I don’t know if you saw the replays or the great shot in the Free Press this morning – he didn’t come close to fouling him. It was hand on ball, no body, perfectly clean block.
Dumars: To be honest with you, I did not, when it happened live, I did not see what happened. I thought it slipped off his hand or he just missed it off the rim. But when the replay went up, I said, “Oh, my God – he got that.” It was impressive. Very impressive.
Langlois: At this point in last year’s playoffs, after playing very well through the first two rounds, he pretty clearly wore down in the conference finals against Cleveland. He’s going to have some time off now, and that will help, but do you believe there will still be residual benefits for not having played 38, 39, 40 tough minutes virtually every night of the regular season for him?
Dumars: I think there are several factors that are weighing in Tayshaun’s and the team’s favor. One is, no one got worn down during the regular season. Two is, for the first time I can remember in a long time, we’ve taken care of business. We have the benefit of rest heading into the next round. And three is, guys know how this thing unfolded last year. There is a strong reminder there. We took care of business in the first round last year, we went six in the second round, we were sitting as favorites in the conference finals and we didn’t get it done. I think the fact they’ve been rested all season and took care of business here with Orlando and they know what’s at stake here, I think all of that bodes well for Tayshaun and the rest of the guys.
Langlois: Back to Stuckey. You believed in him very strongly leading up to the draft and everything he did before training camp reinforced that belief. He’s been a big-game player this year. But did he show you something from a composure, poise and toughness standpoint last night with no turnovers, taking the hard shot from Howard on the pick and coming back on the next possession while he was still shaking that off to zip a perfect pass to Rasheed for the dunk, and then playing the whole fourth quarter and making several big plays?
Dumars: In my eight years here, I’ve never seen a young player, a rookie, have the composure he has from the first day he got here. He didn’t just develop this composure over the course of the season. The first day he walked in here, he had that composure and air of confidence about him that lets you know he wasn’t in awe and he was never going to shrink when the moment came. It’s not like you saw it unfold over the season. Day one. He’s possessed that. I was telling my wife last night, he has that certain thing that lets you know when the big games come, he’ll be there. He’s going to be there. I don’t know how to describe it, or what “it” is, but he has that certain “it.” You never see him nervous. He may make a rookie mistake. But it’s not that he’s afraid or nervous, it’s that he’s unfamiliar with how to handle certain things. From day one, he’s had that.
Langlois: I think he’s 27 of 28 from the line in the playoffs – that’s another pretty good barometer.
Dumars: Yeah. How about that?
Langlois: Forgive me if this is an awkward or clumsy question, but when we found out after the game that Antonio McDyess’ grandmother who helped raise him had died, and I thought about the way he played, especially to start the fourth quarter when he hit those two huge jump shots when you were down five and grabbed every big rebound – I think they basically tackled him three times in the fourth quarter to keep him from getting to loose balls – I couldn’t help but think of Game 3, the 1990 Finals, when you had a huge game and the Pistons won after not winning in Portland for almost 20 years. Did the same thought run through your mind?
Dumars: In the fourth quarter, when he hit those two elbow jumpers, at that moment I thought back to my situation. When he hit those two jumpers, I just watched him and I was thinking, “Been there, done that.” The whole thing was pretty amazing. I guess the only thing I said – I probably said it out loud but didn’t mean to – but when he hit those two jumpers to cut it to one, I just looked at McDyess, I kept my eyes on him, and I said, “That’s a special guy, right there.” And you know what I mean, Keith, when I say that – it’s not just because he hit two jump shots. That’s a special guy right there. That guy – he’s a special, special, special type of guy. And when it happens for him, there’s some emotion in it you feel for him.
Langlois: I’ll never forget one play from that game in Portland. I was sitting behind the basket on the far end in the second half. You drove and pulled up somewhere around the foul line, but there was a big guy in front of you – maybe it was Kevin Duckworth – and had to put an extraordinary arc on the ball, and it came down cleanly, barely ruffled the net. It was an amazing shot. And when we heard after the game about your dad, I couldn’t help but think, somebody guided that one in for him.
Dumars: You know, I remember the shot. I don’t remember a whole lot from that game. Some people remember every play. If you showed me the tape, I’m sure I’d remember the plays as they unfolded, but that one I remember vividly.
Langlois: All year, from training camp on, Rasheed has not seemed to waver in his focus, but he’s a pretty guarded guy. You interact with him at a whole different level than fans and even the media, with whom he keeps a very safe distance for the most part. Do you see a different Rasheed this year?
Dumars: Let me say this: Last season, and I said this before, he was our best and most consistent player in the playoffs last year. He was the one guy that showed up in the playoffs last year every single time when other guys didn’t. And too many times, he’s the guy that’s made the scapegoat when things go wrong. He’s the guy I trust as much as any guy here that will show up and try to win. And so, yeah, he’s really focused this year. He’s really locked in this year. And the guy wants to win in the worst way. He shows up. To me, he always shows up. I think it’s really unfair a lot of times when he gets thrown under the bus and he shouldn’t. Because that guy shows up. He’s going to have some games where he doesn’t play his best during the regular season, when he’s not feeling it, but you talk about come playoff time, that’s my guy. He shows up. He might not always play great, but you know he’s out there trying to win.
Langlois: You’re going to have at least four days off now, maybe as much as a week. I know you’d rather have it this way than the alternative of going back to Orlando and getting stretched out to six or seven games, but does the layoff make you a little nervous?
Dumars: In years past, I would have been. But I know the type of focus we have and how we’re locked in now and the sense of urgency that’s been created. The situation with Chauncey, the fact Dice kind of rolled his ankle a little bit last night, I don’t worry about it this year. I may have in the past, but this year I don’t worry about it. It’s a good thing for us right now. You don’t want a week off, but if we have to play Sunday, to have today off … we battled these last few games. We battled. And we went right into that series from the first round, so this is not bad for us.
Langlois: Everyone’s bench gets shortened to some degree in the playoffs and it’s happened here, too. But you’ve had Stuckey step in for Billups, you had Jason Maxiell come in and give you really solid games after McDyess broke his nose and you’ve had 14 guys play in playoff games already in situations where the game was on the line. Does that make you feel even better about the task you undertook when last season ended to build quality depth?
Dumars: Yes, what it does for me is confirm and solidify what I’ve been trying to sell for eight years now. You can win in this league with great depth. I was telling somebody after the game last night, they asked what I look for in guys when I put a team together. I said I always ask three questions about players. Talent, and let’s just say that’s a given. Beyond that, a guy’s got to have great character. You can’t do what we’ve done without character guys. Talent alone can’t do this. So you’ve got to have talent and character. And the last thing is, I always say those guys have to have a total commitment to winning. Talent, character and a total commitment to winning. That’s what I’m looking for. I don’t want a guy who has two out of three. He has to have all three for me. Two out of three, I’ll pass on. All three. Nothing less. If you’ve got two out of three, the one you don’t have, that’s going to cost me at some point. If you don’t have talent, that’s not going to get it done. If you don’t have character – if you want to win and you have talent, but you don’t have the character to go with it, that’s going to cost me. If you want to win and you’ve got character but not the commitment to winning – and I know some guys, don’t think it’s not the case. Talent, got some pretty good character, but the total will to win, it’s not there. Good guy, wants to get his numbers, not a lot of fire, it’s going to cost. You’ve got to have all three. The 14 guys who’ve played, I feel that way about all 14. They want to win, they’ve got good character and they’ve got talent.
Langlois: You recently lost John Hammond when Milwaukee made him the GM. You two worked very well together and very closely. Talk about the void he leaves and how you feel going forward with Scott Perry coming back from Seattle, one year after he left to become the assistant GM, to replace him.
Dumars: My feelings are pretty clear with John – extremely close relationship for a lot of years here together. Just an excellent man, excellent person, excellent friend and he knows the game. He’s going to do well in Milwaukee because I think he’s going to take the same principles that we have here. He’s going to lay the same foundation and pick the same type of guys. He’s going to do great. I’m really happy for him, for this opportunity. This is really good for him, and so I’m really happy for him to get this opportunity. He could have stayed here, but as we got to talking about it, he asked me what did I think. I said, “Selfishly, I’d love to have you with me here forever. If I’m going to be a true friend, you have to take this job.” I couldn’t be selfish. As a friend, I had to tell him to take that job. It’s a great opportunity for him. It’s home for him, basically. They have some young talent on that team, they have a foundation – this is the one you have to take.
Langlois: When you go to replace him, I know you don’t go out looking for the perfect facsimile of John, but one of the things you had told me you valued about John was his perspective as a former coach meshing with your perspective as a former player. Scott has a pretty extensive coaching background, as well. Was that part of the appeal?
Dumars: Part of the appeal with Scott was, of course, he’s been a coach – head coach in college, assistant coach at a major university and understands the process of acquiring players through recruiting and all that sort of stuff. He has these contacts with all the college coaches, AAU coaches, high school coaches, everybody. So that was a tremendous appeal, but moreso than that, it was the person I was bringing back. There are other guys who’ve coached college and have contacts and all of that, but they’re not the person Scott is. So the difference for me was the person Scott was. It’s imperative for me to have good people around me. He has the qualifications and he’s the type of person I want. To be quite honest with you, Keith, it was the easiest hire I’ve had in a long time, to pick up the phone and say, “Are you ready to come back home?” And his answer was, “When do you need me there?” “Immediately.” It was easy.
Langlois: John took Jeff Weltman with him. What other moves do you have to make now to fill out your staff?
Dumars: Scott has come back in John’s place. The only other thing we’ve done is brought Doug Ash, who was part-time, in full-time. He’ll be in the office, in and out, doing a lot of scouting.
Langlois: Does the role of George David, your personnel director, change now?
Dumars: Not really. He takes on a little more responsibility. Before, when Scott was here and then last year with Jeff, they would organize the scouting schedule in terms of who we’re going to see. A lot of that falls on George now, who’s been here a long time. He’ll get more of that role. He sets the schedule for who we’re going to see and sits in a little bit more on trade talks and personnel moves now.
Langlois: If the two main college scouts last year were Jeff and George, next year it will be George and who?
Dumars: Durand Walker, who we’ve used in the past and now has a bigger role, and George will scout primarily college. Doug Ash will scout other NBA teams, NBDL and college. So Doug will touch the minor leagues and the NBA. A lot of teams have a specific pro personnel scout and scout other teams all the time. With Doug we’ve split it up. I didn’t want to hire one guy just to go out and watch NBA teams. So Doug will handle that. That’s it for our staff. I keep a small staff. I don’t have 15 people walking around. Scott and I will basically be in the office, George and Durand will be out seeing basically every college game and Doug will touch a little bit of everything.