Detroit fans young and old can relate to the next subject in my series on Pistons greats.
He’s the man famously known as “Joe D,” who orchestrated the second Detroit basketball dynasty as the team president and general manager and was a lockdown perimeter defender of two Detroit championship teams in the other.
An unheralded scorer at first, the McNeese State University product eventually became a reliable scoring option for the Pistons for 14 seasons from 1985 to 1999.
Dumars, a first-round pick in the 1985 NBA Draft, did not average more than 14.2 points per game until his fourth season in the league, which coincided with the Pistons’ first championship campaign in 1988-89.
It began a streak of six straight seasons in which he averaged more than 17 points a game and knocked down at least 44.8 percent of his shots. Many of them the rainbow variety.
But Dumars really made his money on defense. He often got the assignment of guarding the opposition’s biggest offensive threat on the perimeter, such as Atlanta’s Domique Wilkins and Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan.
Dumars, along with fellow Pistons legend and Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman, was at the forefront of the “Jordan Rules.”
The Jordan Rules, implemented by Chuck Daly and “The Bad Boys,” were Detroit’s attempt to limit MJ’s offensive production by roughing him up and knocking him down as he entered the Pistons’ frontcourt led by Bill Laimbeer and Rodman.
In large part due to the aggressive, physical manner in which the Pistons defended Jordan, the Bulls failed to get past the Pistons in three straight postseasons (from 1987-88 until 1989-90).
“His Airness” finally defeated Detroit in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals on the way to his first NBA championship.
The Pistons were swept in the series.
In the waning seconds of Game Four with the game already decided, something happened that will never be forgotten.
The majority of the Pistons, most notably Laimbeer and Dumars’ backcourt mate Isiah Thomas, walked off the floor with 7.9 seconds remaining in the contest, and didn’t shake the hands of Jordan and the Bulls.
One of the few Detroit players who did, though, was Dumars.
Dumars, the recipient of the NBA’s inaugural sportsmanship award which was later named after him, was class personified. And that “walk-off,” which he didn’t participate in, exemplified the high degree of class he handled himself with during his playing career.
Remember, that Game Four loss marked the end of the road for The Bad Boys, whose title window had just closed in front of their very eyes. And at the hands of the hated Bulls, which through their leader MJ, had described the Pistons’ style of play before the end of the series as being bad for the NBA.
I can’t imagine that even Joe D was pleased with those comments.
However, in typical Dumars fashion, he reacted to the season-ending loss with thought and grace, and did the right thing in recognizing Jordan and the Bulls as he left the floor.
Yet, there was more to Dumars the player than his high level of sportsmanship.
Using textbook footwork and remarkable focus, the Detroit guard was considered a premier defensive stopper, and has the hardware to back it up.
Dumars was named to the NBA All-Defensive first team four times and to the All-Defensive second team once.
He also earned the reputation as a clutch scorer, with some very notable performances in his postseason career.
The performance that most comes to mind for Pistons fans is his 33-point outing in Game Three of the 1990 NBA Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers.
You may be wondering why that is the case. Well, it’s partially because the series was tied at one game apiece after the Blazers stole Game Two at The Palace, and the Pistons hadn’t won in Portland in 17 seasons leading into Game Three.
However, that part of the story is almost an afterthought at this point due to the circumstances under which Dumars played the game. Unbeknownst to him at the time, his father had passed away before the tip-off.
As Thomas details in the ESPN 30 for 30 documantary on the Bad Boy Pistons, the Dumars family chose not to tell Joe about his dad’s passing prior to tip-off because they wanted him to suit up for Game Three without his mind focused on the death.
Joe D’s mind might have been completely focused on the game, but some of the shots that went in for him seemed to be guided in by an angel from above: his father.
“He made one shot, running down the lane, threw it way up and it went in,” Thomas said after the game, according to Dave Hyde of the Sun Sentinel in South Florida. “After that, we both looked at each other and smiled, and I said to myself, ‘Your father put that one in. You didn’t have anything to do with that.’”
The Pistons went on to win the series in five games. And the Game Two loss became the only loss suffered by the Bad Boy Pistons in two straight victorious Finals appearances (in 1989 against the Los Angeles Lakers and in ’90 against the Blazers).
Dumars captured Finals MVP honors in ’89 for averaging 27.3 points, a series high, and six assists per game.
He also scored 30-plus points in Games Two and Three on over 57 percent shooting in both contests.
It was Dumars’ coming out party on the national stage, and he followed it up with his first All-Star Game appearance during the 1989-90 campaign.
It was his first of four straight and six total selections to the Eastern Conference All-Star team.
His best season, you could argue, came during the 1990-91 campaign, although it was not the season in which he recorded his highest point per game total. That came in 1992-93 when he averaged 23.5 points a game.
However, the ’90-91 campaign saw him record his highest win shares total (9.9) and player efficiency rating (18.0), according to Basketball-Reference.com.
To no surprise, his second-best season in terms of PER and win shares came in ’92-93, when he finished with 9.1 win shares and a 17.6 PER. The ’92-93 campaign, though, marked the beginning of three-straight sub-.500 and postseason-less campaigns in Motown for the team.
The Pistons failed to win a first-round series from 1991-92 until 2001-02, which is when they advanced to the Eastern Conference semis with Dumars in a new role off the court.
He had turned his sneakers in for suit jackets and ties, after becoming the vice president of player personnel during the 1999-2000 season. He, then, was promoted to president of basketball operations at the end of the season, which is a position he served in until he stepped down at the conclusion of the 2013-14 campaign.
At the time, the Pistons had just gone through their fifth straight season without making the playoffs.
As the head man in the front office, Dumars was responsible for building the Pistons into a model of consistency. As a result of his trades for fellow Pistons icons Ben Wallace, Richard Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace plus his signing of Chauncey Billups, the Pistons made six straight Eastern Conference Finals appearances from 2002-03 until 2007-08.
The acquisition of Rasheed at the 2003-04 NBA trade deadline is widely regarded as one of the best deadline deals in NBA history. Without it, the Pistons would’ve likely never won the 2004 championship or made a second straight trip to the Finals in 2005.
Dumars was a vital member of the two greatest eras for basketball in Detroit history. Without his presence, you can argue that the Pistons would have failed to win any of its three titles.
It’s why Pistons fans have to look past the few losing seasons that occurred at the end of his Detroit tenure, which was caused by moves of his that backfired, such as trading Billups for a past-his-prime Allen Iverson and signing Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva.
Dumars is remembered for all the reasons why his No. 4 jersey was raised to the rafters at The Palace: his class, leadership and dedication to the Pistons.