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Joe Dumars Lives In Multiple Tenses

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When CelticsBlog's cozy corner of the Interwebs was abuzz with the James Posey debate just a few months ago, the principal question appeared to be: Win now or prepare for the future?  It seemed the green faithful were divided across the lines of matching any price Big Game James asked in the interest of having him back as an integral piece to a repeat, or balking at the request of a fourth year in the interest of preserving salary cap flexibility down the road.  When it was all said and done and Posey was headed off to Mardi Gras with Chris Paul, the defenders of Danny Ainge's approach praised him for considering both the present and the future - for knowing that this team will still be a big-time contender right now with its starting lineup and young bench players intact and for choosing to use low-cost solutions to fill out the rest of his roster in the interest of thinking about the financial situation down the road.

Whether Ainge's method truly provided the Celtics the right formula for both the present and future will remain to be seen through next spring at the very least, but it bears noting that Celts' head honcho had to deal with a question among the toughest routinely faced by NBA executives.  So often in this league, teams have to make decisions between bringing in talent right away at the risk of future salary cap issues or letting it go in order to have the money to get better in that far-off future.  Too often, those two options appear to be mutually exclusive (hello, late '90s Knicks; hello, Chris Wallace and your Pau Gasol deal; hello, 2006 Miami Heat).

On Monday, Pistons GM Joe Dumars may well have managed to do just what many around here believe Ainge did this summer.  With his trade of Chauncey Billups, Antonio McDyess and Cheikh Samb to Denver in exchange for Allen Iverson, Dumars preserved his team's chance to win now and established it as a major player in the summers to come.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the Pistons will get better or jump ahead on the list of contenders for the 2009 title.  In exporting Billups, Dumars began to hack away at the core of a team that has appeared in six consecutive Eastern Conference Finals, removing a former Finals MVP and a player with a knack for coming up big in the clutch.  Meanwhile, he brought in a player who hasn't played a whole lot of defense in recent years and isn't known for being the world's most unselfish either.

But just as it isn't a cinch that this team makes a quantum leap forward, there isn't a whole lot of risk that it will fall too far, and there is no shortage of upside with this move.  Dumars did, after all, bring in a first-ballot Hall of Famer-to-be who holds the third highest career scoring average in the history of the game (27.7 points per) and who comes off a season in which he averaged 26.4 points per outing while taking less than 20 shots per game for the first time since 1998. 

It became clear this summer after three seasons of conference finals failure during Flip Saunders' tenure that Dumars was ready to shake things up in Motown.  But he made the wise choice of not making a move simply for the sake of making one, waiting instead until he could get big value back for one of his core players.  Adding Iverson next to Richard Hamilton makes the Detroit backcourt nothing short of explosive.  He adds the type of elite-level scoring threat that this team has not had at any point during its run of Eastern dominance.  Though he isn't as good an outside shooter or as efficient a scorer as Billups, Iverson is going to take defensive attention away from Hamilton and his other teammates in Detroit in a way Billups never could.  And if he doesn't get that attention, he's going to score.  In bunches.

No matter what Iverson does at the other end of the floor, this isn't a team that is going to go to pieces defensively without its former floor general.  Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace are all upper-echelon defenders.  Fellow starter Amir Johnson and top reserves Rodney Stuckey and Jason Maxiell are promising energy guys who can defend as well.  There is a significant chance this team won't be as good defensively without Billups, but the Pistons should still possess one of the league's top units, particularly in a conference relatively devoid of the top-of-the-line point guards seen out west (see: Paul, Chris; Williams, Deron; Parker, Tony; Nash, Steve - though we wouldn't want to count out a certain Central Division rookie).

In the meantime, there is always a chance for Iverson to surprise us.  If there is ever a right time to have a player with a history of volatility and bad habits, it is with a change of scenery in a contract year for that player.  Say what you will about this guy's practice habits, but this is a guy who has killed himself out on at least one end of the floor every night for 12 seasons.  At 33 years old, with both a part of his legacy on the line, a new set of teammates to play with and perhaps the terms of his final long-term contract in the league at stake, it isn't out of the question that we will see Iverson playing with renewed motivation.  The guy clearly still has it in him as a scorer, and if he decides to buy into playing all facets of the game right, there is no telling how dangerous the Pistons could be.  It might not be probable, but it isn't impossible, lest we forget that a year ago at this time, there were plenty of folks (self absolutely included) less than thrilled with Paul Pierce's prospects defensively.  It's funny what the right teammates and a legitimate chance to win can do to a guy.

As far as McDyess is concerned, all indications at present are that his only interest is in eventually coming back to Detroit after a buyout from Denver, which would only sweeten the deal for the Pistons.  Even if he doesn't return, it's hard to imagine the team would have pulled the trigger on this without feeling ready to elevate the role of the ever-progressing Maxiell as well as putting more faith in first-year starter Johnson.

But in the event that the next seven months aren't so peachy as laid out above and this plan for 2008-09 in Detroit should go awry, the Pistons' faithful needn't be too worried.  That's because Dumars has the Pistons set to be a major player in the free agency markets to come as well.  In dealing Billups, Dumars got the team out from under a back-loaded contract that would have paid the point guard more than $36 million between now and the end of 2011.  Instead, the Pistons will pay Iverson his $21.9 million this season and then watch as his and Rasheed Wallace's ($13.7 million) salaries come off the payroll at the end of the season (and we would be remiss to omit Walter Herrmann's $2 million). 

Suddenly, the Pistons have put themselves in position to be significantly involved not only in the 2009 market but in the long-ballyhooed summer 2010 free agent bonanza likely to feature several key members of the league's highly productive 2003 draft class (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all come to mind).  TrueHoop's Henry Abbott makes the nearly trauma-inducing (for fans of Eastern Conference foes, anyway) suggestion that it may be realistic for Dumars to set his sights on acquiring multiple players from that free agent class.  In the meantime, even if Iverson walks next summer, the Pistons have re-signed Hamilton, and they have made no secret of their confidence in Rodney Stuckey (whose role is expected to grow immensely this season) as the point guard of the future. 

There will be times through the rest of this season when Chauncey Billups' presence is missed in Detroit.  But here's guessing the Pistons' new scoring threat and their dreams of future cogs to come down the road will help keep them well otherwise occupied more often than not.