Jerry west did it with the Lakers. Kevin McHale is doing it with the Timberwolves. Michael Jordan has yet to succeed, though he's likely to give it another try next season as president of the Wizards. It's a hard thing for a Hall of Fame-caliber player to move on to the front office and construct a winning team in his own image. Joe Dumars has done just that as president of basketball operations for the tough and unselfish Pistons, whose 44-25 record at week's end was the finest in the East.
Even though Detroit won a division title last year, Dumars has eight new players on his roster. He traded leading scorer Jerry Stackhouse to Washington for Richard Hamilton and signed point guard Chauncey Billups, which turned out to be the top free-agent acquisition of the offseason. As a result, the Pistons are zeroing in on their best record since 1996-97, and Dumars is the clear-cut favorite for Executive of the Year.
Dumars, 39, took over as G.M. in June 2000, just before Detroit's franchise player, Grant Hill, made it clear he was joining the Magic as a free agent. "You have to learn on the fly and go by your instincts," says Dumars, who turned the crisis into a bonanza by working a sign-and-trade that brought Chucky Atkins and Ben Wallace from Orlando. While Hill is recovering from his fourth surgery on his left ankle, Wallace, the league's leading rebounder, has helped recast the Pistons as a high-effort team, one that ranked fifth in field goal defense (43.1%) at week's end.
Dumars's success as a player has given him the confidence to trust his instincts, which have told him not to build around a couple of high-scoring stars. Despite spending first-round picks on guard Mateen Cleaves (in 2000) and forward Rodney White (in '01), Dumars didn't hesitate to unload those two players when he saw they weren't working out. "If you truly know it's not a good fit, then you have to move on," he says. "You don't compound mistakes by trying to hide them."
Dumars built his team in part by showing faith in underrated players like Cliff Robinson, Corliss Williamson and Jon Barry. Last season he predicted, "I will get a bona fide point guard," then did just that by signing the 6'3" Billups to a six-year, $34 million contract Through Sunday, Billups had averaged 15.7 points, 3.6 assists and 3.5 rebounds in 30.4 minutes. He has found his niche after playing for five teams in five years. "When a guy has bounced around as much as Chauncey and he's still a good player," says Dumars, "that tells you something about his mental strength."
As a result of the 1997 trade of Otis Thorpe, Dumars holds Memphis's top draft choice—the Grizzlies retain it only if it's the No. 1 selection—and he can take on salaries because Detroit's payroll of about $41 million for next season is at least $10 million below the anticipated luxury-tax threshold. "I would love to add a high-scoring guy," says Dumars, "but it has to be the right player. It has to be a guy who fits in with the chemistry we already have."