There’s irony in the NBA’s decision to hire a former Detroit Pistons Bad Boy to oversee league operations, including conduct and discipline.
The irony disappears when you learn it’s the nicest of the Bad Boys: Joe Dumars. It’s not like the league hired Dennis Rodman or Bill Laimbeer.
As the 2022-23 season tips off this week, Dumars begins his first season as NBA executive vice president, head of basketball operations in charge of “the development of playing rules and interpretations, conduct and discipline, and policies and procedures relating to the operation of games.” It’s the job previously held by former NBA player Kiki VanDeWeghe.
“The job encompasses everything that I’ve experienced over all of my time in the league,” said Dumars, who starred as a two-time champion for the Pistons, then led them to six consecutive Eastern Conference finals including the 2004 title as general manager.
“When (Commissioner) Adam (Silver) reached out to me about this about 10 months ago, and we started talking about it, it just became a natural fit. It’s been a very easy transition because the subject matter is what I’ve been dealing with for a few decades here now.”
Last season as chief strategy officer for the Sacramento Kings, Dumars had lunch with deputy commissioner Mark Tatum as the Kings passed through New York for a game. The topic of Dumars joining the league was not on the agenda.
“We didn’t talk about this job,” he said. “It wasn’t even a possibility. I firmly believed it was just lunch.”
But Tatum talked with Silver and a short time later, Silver called Dumars. The job was offered, and after several conversations, he accepted.
It’s important to have someone in this role who understands the evolution of the game – what’s accepted, what’s not, what needs attention and what needs to change. Dumars acknowledges he now looks at the game differently. In his role with Detroit and Sacramento, he was concerned about how a league decision impacted his team. In his new role, it’s a much broader lens.
“You’re not concerned about one team or one player,” he said. “You’re always looking at what’s good for the league. How does this benefit the league? Or how does this hurt the league? Now you come to this side, and you look at the global view of it.”
The first major league change Dumars was involved with resulted in the league instituting a stiffer penalty for take fouls, which the league calls “a foul in which the defender does not make a play on the ball to stop a transition scoring opportunity.”
It’s those fouls right around half court that prevent an easy scoring opportunity. It was great for the disadvantaged defense to stop play in exchange for a common foul; the offense had to work harder for points in a five-on-five half-court set. But it was bad for the team that created the potential scoring opportunity, bad for the game and bad for fans.
Last season, there were more than 1,700 take fouls called in 1,230 games. “That’s 1,700 opportunities for incredible plays to happen,” Dumars said.
Now, the penalty is one shot plus possession – an opportunity for a three- or four-point play with the idea of drastically reducing take fouls.
Dumars was also involved in the league’s decision to limit the amount of time bench players can stand at one time during a game and to assess a technical foul to players not in the game who make distracting moves or enter the playing court during live action.
Since joining the staff at NBA headquarters, Dumars has spent significant time learning the processes of the job. He understands why something happened, such as ejections, altercations. “What I did need a lesson in was the internal process here of how we come to decisions. That’s the learning curve for me.”
While Dumars will watch games each day, it’s impossible to watch every minute of every game, so a detailed report with video for plays worth reviewing is delivered to Dumars’ email every morning. Then, he and his staff will determine if any other steps are necessary.
Almost all of Dumars’ adult life, he has worked in the NBA. “It wasn’t my intention or my idea to stay in the game,” he said.
Then, former Pistons owner Bill Davidson asked Dumars to head the team’s basketball operations department. That 15-year run turned into a job with a sports agency followed by the Kings gig. And now working for the NBA and reporting to president of league operations Byron Spruell.
“If you’re a curious person and you’re always looking to learn and always looking to better yourself, you can change roles in a specific field,” Dumars said. That’s what keeps you in it for a long time.
“People felt comfortable enough, and I guess they appreciated what I could bring where they’ve always reached out, and each one of those jobs were different. They were never the same. And that’s what was appealing to me about each stop.”
Follow NBA reporter Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt