One of the most decorated but low-key figures in NBA history has reemerged from the shadows to take yet another impactful position.
Joe Dumars is a Hall of Fame player, NBA Finals MVP and championship executive — the first Black executive to lead a team to an NBA title — and now he takes up a post in the league office as Executive Vice President, Head of Basketball Operations.
Dumars will oversee the evolution of rules and officiating along with discipline, after three seasons with the Sacramento Kings as Chief Strategy Officer. He’ll report to Byron Spruell, President of League Operations, and this is his first front-facing position since leaving his post as Detroit Pistons President of Basketball Operations in 2014.
“Timing is everything in your life,” Dumars told Yahoo Sports recently. “ As soon as I retired from playing at 36 (in 1999), this probably wasn't the move for me. I had to live and get more experience.
“Once I started talking to Adam (Silver, NBA commissioner) and Mark Tatum (deputy commissioner), just over a period of time, it became very clear that this was like a seamless transition for me. So I'm super happy with the decision to do so. Everything I've done up until this point, led me to this particular move right here.”
Joe Dumars' mission: 'Make sure that it's a beautiful, clean game'
In one of his first calls with the NBA, he was measured and principled. One senior staffer noted that Dumars cut through the noise to say, “We have to do what’s best for the game.”
It’s that type of approach he brings to the competition committee, which has implemented changes to clean up the clutter.
Before Dumars arrived, the focus was on the non-basketball moves — players often making unnatural veers into the paths of defenders in the effort to draw contact and trick the referees. It took awhile, but players adjusted. To start last season, more physical play was allowed on the perimeter but it seemed like that reverted back to the “look but don’t touch” approach until the later rounds of the playoffs.
The flow-stopping “take foul” was next on the menu, and the NBA approved rule changes with that highlighted into this coming season. It was a huge point of emphasis from the coaches and the league, and passed easily this summer.
“When the game gets diluted and, and it gets junked up a little bit, I think it's imperative for the league to step in and make sure the game stays clean,” Dumars said. “Look, the athletes are incredible. These young guys are gonna make incredible plays no matter what. So I just think it's incumbent upon the league to make sure that it's a beautiful, clean game.”
Transforming the Pistons
When Dumars was a player or executive, it wasn’t on him to worry about the beauty of the game — just to work within the parameters of the rules to help his teams win. And he did so, famously. There isn’t a team banner that hung in the Palace of Auburn Hills that didn’t have Dumars’ fingerprints on it. He played in three NBA Finals, winning two rings while engineering two more Finals trips from the executive suite.
His post-millennium Pistons teams didn’t have a superstar, nor did they go over the salary cap. But they were a constant contender for nearly a decade, winning an improbable title in 2004, coming to within a break of repeating, and maintaining a presence in the conference finals from 2003-08.
Then, like most great runs, the Pistons had to rebuild — and do it in the midst of an ownership change following Bill Davidson’s death in 2009. Tom Gores took over after two years in limbo, but the Pistons couldn’t recreate the magic that made them a standard bearer.
By 2014, it was clear both sides were headed in opposite directions — the experienced executive and the new owner still learning the ropes.
“I looked at it for what it is. I always have the ability to look at a situation and be in the moment,” Dumars said. “So in the moment was, OK, this is different. It’s an adjustment, a new era. And I knew that, OK, I'll make this transition. And then we'll transition to something else. Like Tom and I had a great conversation in, in LA, during my last season there with him, we had a great conversation at his house about and I said to him, 'It's time for me to transition out.'
“It wasn't like some abstract thing for me. I looked at it for what it was — a great run, this run is gonna come to an end and you're gonna hand this off to somebody else. And that's how I looked at it.”
He hasn’t been back near the franchise since, but has appeared in a couple PSA’s the last couple years. A Louisiana native, Dumars put roots in the Detroit area and the fieldhouse bearing his name, Joe Dumars Fieldhouse, was the premier place for pick-up games for decades.
“You look at it with tremendous fondness you know, for the whole group, all of us there — what we accomplished, all those players who were there, (executives) John Hammond (Orlando), Scott Perry (New York), George David (Detroit), all those guys, man.
“So I look at the experience, the last few years that and I look back on it, I thought that was great for me, because it it forced me to change my thinking and work with different people. And it was time to hand the baton off to the next era of Pistons.”
Transitioning to the league office
He chuckles when noting his former players going into the coaching ranks, with Chauncey Billups being the head coach in Portland and the colorful Rasheed Wallace being in the collegiate ranks as an assistant to Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway last year in Memphis.
Dumars joked he wouldn’t fine the Pistons harder than any other franchise, actually admiring their rebuild from afar.
“I got nothing but love for those guys,” Dumars said. “I think Troy (Weaver) is doing an incredible job. Dwane (Casey) is as steady as a rock. Tom wants to win in the worst way. And Arn (Tellem) is a super, super classy guy. I've run into all those guys over the last, I don't know, a month or two and had conversations with all of them. So I'm still a Pistons guy. I will be as objective with the Pistons as anybody else.”
It’s not lost on Dumars, the irony of a Bad Boy being in the league office — dealing with the officiating, no less, considering his team was not the favorite of late commissioner David Stern.
Dumars, of course, was known as the nice guy on that team but he also wasn’t to be trifled with. He and Isiah Thomas formed arguably the greatest backcourt in league history, and if you add reserve Vinnie Johnson, the greatest guard trio the league has seen.
He was more than just Michael Jordan’s greatest defender, the first line of defense in the famed “Jordan Rules.” From 1989-97, Dumars averaged 18.3 points and 4.7 assists while shooting 46 percent from the field and 38 percent from 3-point range. Dumars was All-NBA three times and All-Defensive five straight years. He certainly had a case to be on the NBA’s top 75 list, especially factoring in his role in real winning.
Dumars brings all of that practical experience with him to the league office, giving it a perspective it may not otherwise have.
“I think most about the flagrant fouls and when they came in. We were really physical,” said Dumars, referencing the rule change that came into play before the 1990-91 season — right after Dumars’ Pistons won back-to-back titles. “And I'm sure they had to step in and address it at some point. I specifically remember going out and plan a game right after the rules were changed and realized immediately, OK, you cannot be as physical as you once were.”
It came to a head in that year’s conference finals against Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Bulls guard B.J. Armstrong, a friend of Dumars then and now, appeared to be fouled cleanly by Dumars on a fast break, preventing a layup.
But Dumars was shockingly called for a flagrant foul.
“It was unbelievable. And my good friend (official) Darell Garretson called it,” Dumars said. “And I remember thinking, you have got to be kidding me. And I have given B.J. the blues about that call for years, you should have protested on my behalf for that call.”
He saw the league go through another seismic shift, gearing more toward offense after some rough-and-tumble games where teams were happy to reach 90 points. Only once in the most recent NBA Finals did a team fail to reach 90 (the Celtics scored 88 in Game 2 against Golden State).
“I would say the first seven years, the first half of sitting in the presidency for the Pistons, it was still pretty much a defensive first league that you're going to have to win by just stopping people,” Dumars said. “But as the second half of tenure with the Pistons in the front office, you could see it was becoming more and more an offensive league, more and more emphasis was being put on threes and open play a little bit more.”
With over 40 years in professional basketball, Dumars’ career takes another winding, almost unexpected turn.
“You definitely bring in the experiences with you,” Dumars said. “I walk in every day authentic with what’s happened. I actually think that's what the guys here wanted. My authentic and unique experiences is what they want.”