"Make no mistake, everybody is in play right now. There are no sacred cows here. You lose that sacred cow status when you lose three straight years." - Joe Dumars, June 4 2008 [per ESPN]
When Joe Dumars said those now-infamous words on June 3rd, 2008 when he fired head coach Flip Saunders mere days after his team was eliminated in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pistons were a perennial playoff contender and one of the most consistently competitive teams in the NBA.
Dumars, himself a Pistons legend enshrined in the Hall of Fame, was widely considered one of the most astute general managers in the league. The conventional wisdom was that Dumars meant everyone on his roster was available except rookie Rodney Stuckey.
In a sense, Dumars' bold proclamation was essentially a roundabout way of anointing Stuckey his future franchise player.
There is one problem with Dumars' so-called visionary master plan: Stuckey is NOT a franchise-caliber player.
It should be obvious then in 2008. It is beyond obvious now.
This guy is not a point guard. He lacks the ability to facilitate an offense. He isn't a shooting guard either given, that he clearly cannot shoot and has a very limited range. He also doesn't play aggressively enough to get to the free-throw line at a high-enough clip to offset his other deficiencies.
And if you have ever watched a Pistons game the last four years, you probably noticed no one misses as many layups as Stuckey does. His rookie season does not scream "future All-Star" to me either. He barely shot over 40 percent from the field.
In fact, he was (and still is) no better than a replacement-level, fringe NBA player who just happens to play a lot of minutes for his team.
Through the first three games of the current season, Stuckey has been a complete train wreck. He is shooting 4.3 percent (no, this is not a joke) on the season while averaging a whooping 3.3 points per game in 28 minutes.
Rodney Stuckey exemplifies NBA politics at its worst. He was rewarded with a highly questionable lucrative contract extension (three years, $25 million) last December, despite his pathetic play.
But I couldn't talk about Stuckey's career without talking about the other end of the spectrum: former NBA MVP 11-time All-Star Allen Iverson. I am not going to make any conspiracy claims or insinuations about him being out of the league (and Larry Brown as well, shortly after publicly defending him in Bobcats press conferences and lobbying Michael Jordan to bring him to Charlotte) because I have no way of knowing what happened behind-the-scene. However, ESPN magazine did publish these rumors, as did other sources both before and after the A.I. episode unraveled.
1. Offseason/Training Camp 2008
When training camp opened in 2008, the Detroit media was frustrated by Dumars' inaction during the offseason. In Denver, Allen Iverson was coming off arguably his most efficient season in the NBA, playing in all 82 games while shooting nearly 46 percent, with 26.4 points, 7.1 assists, and 10 free-throw attempts per game.
He also led the Nuggets to their best record since 1988. (Although he was curiously omitted from All-NBA First, Second and Third teams. In fact he wasn't selected in 2006 and 2007 either, despite producing at an MVP-level.) However, he wasn't able to come to a contract extension with Denver, and there were trade rumors swirling about both him and Carmelo Anthony in the offseason.
2. The Trade and Richard Hamilton's Extension
Iverson was an impending free agent in the 2008-2009 season. While he was clearly still one of the best players in the NBA before the trade to Detroit, it was obvious that he was a rental on an expiring contract.
They were going to force A.I. to play slow-down, defensively-oriented half-court sets while sharing the ball with established veterans Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince. For an impending superstar free agent, getting traded to Detroit was the worst-case doomsday scenario, because the short-sighted media could then claim he was washed up.
A fact that was lost on many fans was that Joe Dumars gave Rip Hamilton a three-year, $34-million contract extension mere hours before trading his good friend Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson. My question is why the timing?
Rip wanted to play with Billups and make one last run. If he knew Billups was getting traded, he wouldn't have signed. He also knew that A.I. and 'Sheed would only be there for the rest of the season, and following that, he would have to be part of the rebuilding effort.
There were even rumors claiming he was blindsided by the trade and was upset with Dumars.
A.I. matured quite a bit in the late '00s in Denver, and he said all the right things during the introductory press conference in Detroit, even poking fun at himself about his practice rant back in 2002. But let's face it, NBA is a business.
Getting traded to Detroit in your contract year is bad, especially when your name is Allen Iverson. This is a guy who enjoyed almost cult-like admiration from his most ardent fans for the gravity-defying way he plays the game and his authenticity, while corporate America could not wait to tear him down to pieces.
Perhaps it was because of this that A.I. really made an effort to fit in and sacrificed his stats to make a run at a championship. For awhile, it seemed to work. After some growing pains, the Pistons won seven in a row in December while beating the Lakers, Cavaliers (best record in the NBA that season), and Magic (Eastern Conference champion that season) head-to-head. The Pistons were positioning themselves as a dark-horse contender as the No. 4 seeds in the East (after Cavs, Celtics, and Magic) and a team no one wanted to face in the playoffs.
3. Stuckey entered starting lineup
Was Curry, a rookie head coach, really the one calling the shots? Or was it Dumars? What I do know is that ever since Pistons owner Bill Davidson got sick and stopped being an active presence on the team (he passed away in March 2009), Dumars has been running this team into the ground.
Stuckey originally entered the starting five when Rip got hurt. He stayed there after Rip got back, when Curry announced a new undersized lineup with Rasheed Wallace at center, Tayshaun Prince at power forward and Rip at small forward. This vastly undersized lineup could not defend anybody and the losses piled up.
Not one single so-called "expert" in the media proposed going back to the original starting five that worked. Instead, it became an A.I.-vs.-Rip debate, with Stuckey getting a free pass. The Iverson haters over the year came out of the woodwork and did their rounds by accusing him of being a "cancer," "loser," "coach-killer," "chemistry-killer," "ball-hog," "thug," or any insult you could think of.
Rip was the one getting benched at first. He was clearly upset, first at being conned into signing an extension, and then at getting benched. As a result, he stopped playing team ball, and the locker room was poisoned due to Curry's poor treatment of a veteran leader on the team.
As the losses piled up, the media's favorite scapegoat was still Allen Iverson. No one talked about how poorly Stuckey played in February 2009 when the team lost eight in a row or the fact that A.I. was often the Pistons' best player on the court. No one talked about reducing Stuckey's minutes or going back to the original starting five that worked well.
What eventually happened was A.I. got hurt, and when he came back he got benched. But he was not getting Rip's customary sixth-man minutes. He was getting eighth-man minutes. He averaged less than 20 minutes per game in those three games he played.
This is not a Devin Harris or a Baron Davis or a washed up Jason Kidd or a Mike Bibby. This is the same guy who was probably one of the top-five players in the game just a few months ago. Say what you want about Allen Iverson, but this is wrong.
Jason Kidd is still a starter with the Knicks right now. Elton Brand is still a starter right now. Shawn Marion is still a starter. Shaquille O'Neal never came off the bench in his career, despite being a shell of his old self during his last five seasons. Hell even Grant Hill and Baron Davis were still starters. All of these guys stopped being relevant long before A.I. got traded to Detroit.
The treatment of Allen Iverson is without precedent. Imagine someone like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant or Derrick Rose being forced to come off the bench not as the sixth but as the eighth man months after putting up 27 points and seven assists a game.
Put yourself in A.I.'s position. You know you can play, and that you are better than the guys ahead of you. Your contract is about to be up. You tried your best to fit into a difficult situation and play under a slow half-court set system that would shrink your stats already, and now toward the end of the season, you are being forced to play less than 20 minutes a game. This is months after being a top MVP candidate. Now you're watching Rodney Stuckey stink it up.
Wouldn't you just quit on the team and go home?
When A.I. left the team after three games with minimal playing time and 'Sheed was declared out for season, the Pistons stumbled into the playoff as the eighth seed and were swept. Joe Dumars scapegoated Iverson and Michael Curry, who got fired after Dumars publicly stood by him even after he clearly lost the respect in the locker room for lying.
Then Dumars used all the salary-cap money Iverson and Sheed's contract created to sign two overrated tweeners in Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva to lucrative contracts. When that did not work out, he claimed to still be rebuilding.
How could you be rebuilding when you have no salary cap room in the foreseeable future?
In the 2009-2010 season, the Pistons actually played their best ball when Stuckey was hurt and Will Bynum and Chucky Atkins replaced him. But the toxic locker room vibe never recovered after the way the veterans were mistreated.
In February 2011, half of the team boycotted practice. This is a dysfunctional organization from top to bottom and it starts with Joe Dumars' and his inexcusable coddling of Stuckey.
Throughout the last four years, All-stars, future Hall-of-Famers and MVPs have been humiliated and benched, their careers destroyed and sabotaged, yet Stuckey was the only one who was never held accountable and never made to come off the bench.
With Stuckey as the centerpiece, the Pistons went 27-55, 30-52, and 25-41 the last three seasons. Yet it did not stop Dumars from breaking the bank for him last December. There are times when I wonder why he is even in the league, or if he has something on Dumars.
As for Allen Iverson, when he entered free agency in 2009, the mainstream media had already successfully portrayed him as a bitter washed-up thug/cancer/loser/coach-killer who should be a role player who came off the bench.
Never mind that he was misused under the Pistons' half-court set system. Never mind that he was one of the best players in the game the season before. Never mind that vastly inferior players were unquestioned starters. Never mind that guys who put up similar numbers that season made the All-Star team (see Mo Williams).
Iverson wanted an opportunity to compete for a starting job, which was understandable and was not much to ask for a guy with his track record. Larry Brown wanted to give him an opportunity in Charlotte yet Michael Jordan vetoed it. The moribund Grizzlies were the only team willing to give him a chance on a cheap one-year deal. They lied to him.
Despite outplaying both OJ Mayo and Mike Conley in the three games that he played both in terms of stats/efficiency and plus/minus (and despite A.I. playing with D-league talents like DeMarre Carroll when he was on the court), they only gave him 22 minutes per game and actually reduced his minutes in the 3rd game. He was not used as an instant sixth man a la Jason Terry or Manu Ginobili. He was not even used in crunch time.
Iverson eventually went home to Philly for a cameo. Despite having to pick up Eddie Jordan's Princeton Offense on the fly and constantly having his knees drained, he played respectably. The team went 10-15 in the 25 games he played (and were competitive in most losses) while being 17-40 without him.
Larry Brown continued to advocate for A.I. and was curiously fired less than 30 games after leading the Bobcats to their franchise's first playoff berth. The well-connected Brown went around begging for any job even as an assistant with the Celtics, yet no one dared touch him. He eventually had to settle for Southern Methodist University, which from a basketball standpoint (and for a Hall-of-Fame coach), is the middle of nowhere.
When I look at the kind of contracts and second chances that are being dished out for washed-up veterans and mediocre players since the lockout ended last year, I couldn't but feel a tinge of anger and injustice knowing, that A.I. is better than them and that we would most likely never see A.I. play another game in the NBA again.
Next time when you go to a Sixers game, in the house where Allen Iverson poured his heart into every game like it was his last, in a place where he is still the fan favorite, take a look at head coach Doug Collins' staff. The Sixers' associate head coach is Michael Curry.
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