NBA executive Joe Dumars is trying to remove all the ‘junk’ from the game, one travel at a time

If you’d like to enlighten people who don’t pay attention to the NBA until Christmas Day, tell them that the league has achieved something resembling parity, the referees are calling traveling violations, the terrible “take” fouls are gone and the number of blowouts is way down. 

If you’d like to impress them with numbers, tell them that the top 10 teams in the Western Conference are separated by four games in the standings and the top five teams in the Eastern Conference are separated by three and a half games — half the league is within shouting distance of first place. There have already been 36 overtime games (almost 8 percent of all games), which means this season is on pace to have the most in NBA history. As of Dec. 18, games have been decided by the smallest average scoring margin (10.9 points) in eight years. 

On a Zoom call four days before the NBA’s annual Christmas extravaganza, Joe Dumars, the Detroit Pistons legend and Hall of Famer who is now the league’s executive vice president and head of basketball operations, was positively cheerful about all of this. 

“These are the things that you would hope for,” Dumars said. “These are the things that you want to see for your league. You want to see highly competitive games. You don’t want to see a whole lot of blowouts. If you could diagram it, you would diagram it like this. But you can’t. And so it has to happen naturally.”

Dumars, who joined the league office in May, said that “it’s becoming harder and harder for any team in the league to walk out on the court and think that they have an easy win.” He is pleased that the new transition take foul rule has led to fast break points rising by 14 percent compared to last season, that the referees have cracked down on carrying violations and unnatural basketball movements and that league-wide offensive efficiency (112.1 points per 100 possessions, as of Dec. 18) is the highest it has ever been. 

“If you just get those gimmicks and the junk out of the way, what you’re going to see is incredible,” Dumars said. “And I think that’s why you’re seeing what you’re seeing right now.” 

The following Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and flow.

CBS Sports: I get these emails saying, “Player X has been suspended/fined, it was announced today by Joe Dumars.” As a member of the Bad Boys, is it amusing to you that you’re punishing players for things your teammates might have done many times?

Joe Dumars: Amusing. Funny. Weird. It’s all of that. Because [back then] I read so many of them. Fortunately, I wasn’t on the other end of them, but I read a million of those over the course of my time with the Bad Boys. So I’m well aware of the notifications coming from the league office. 

CBS: I realize you are not Bill Laimbeer …

JD: No. Not quite. 

CBS: … but you were a physical defender, and this is a different league. Some people who don’t love the modern game revere the Bad Boys, and your job is to curb some of that physical stuff. How do you square that? 

JD: I have reverence for when we played. I have reverence for the teams that I played on. I absolutely loved being a part of the Bad Boys. I would not trade it for anything in the world. But here’s what I would say: Sports always changes. In baseball, there used to be a lot more stolen bases. You don’t see any Rickey Hendersons anymore. In football, the running back would carry the ball 30 times a game. That doesn’t happen anymore. In the NBA, it was just post-up, inside basketball. It doesn’t happen anymore. Sports evolve. 

The NBA has evolved, that’s all. And you can still love it today and love what you had back then. It’s not like an either/or. Two things can be true at the same time. And those things are: I loved it back then. Physical, tough basketball. Rivalries. All of that. But I also love the athleticism, the young guys, the 3-point shot. I love all of that now. And if you look around, tell me what sport hasn’t changed.

CBS: People have been complaining about uncalled travels forever. Why is traveling a point of emphasis now? What’s your perspective on this crackdown?

JD: So for me, coming to the NBA office, what you realize is there are always continuous conversations going on about rules and points of emphasis. And this was a point of emphasis: It’s time to start calling that third and fourth and sometimes fifth step that a guy may take — it’s unacceptable. And as a point of emphasis coming into this season, the message in meetings with the referees was, “If you see it, call it. Don’t make it up, don’t look for it if it’s not there. But if you see it, call it.”

Some people ask, “What’s up with the travel?” And I say, “You mean like the third and fourth step, why are we calling it? Because it’s a third and fourth step [laughs], that’s why we’re calling it!” So it’s just a point of emphasis, and the players will adjust. They always do.

CBS: How is that adjustment going? 

JD: So I was in a meeting last week and I was making a presentation about this. And what I said in this meeting last week, James, was this: Of all the points of emphasis — freedom of movement, unnatural basketball moves, all of these different things — the one that’s going to take the longest will be the traveling. You’ve had guys doing these moves since they were teenagers, since they were young kids. They’ve been watching guys do these moves and they grow up doing these moves. So it’s encoded in them to do these moves. And now you’re saying, “You can’t do that, you can’t take three and four steps.” 

So players will adjust, they’ll get it right, but I firmly believe this is the one that will take the longest for the players to adjust. As you can see with the transition take foul, that’s down, what, 85, 86 percent from last year. The unnatural basketball move, jumping into a guy after a pump fake — you don’t see guys doing that as much as they used to anymore. That’s what I’m saying. When you put a point of emphasis or change a rule, guys usually get it. This one will be the one that’s probably going to take a little bit longer. 

CBS: Carrying/palming wasn’t mentioned as an official point of emphasis, but those calls have gone up, too. Was that connected to the traveling discussion?

JD: It is. For us it’s a part of the travel. Look, James, you put your hand under that ball and you take two or three steps and then you put it down, that’s traveling. And so that’s a part of the travel as well. We don’t see ’em differently. We see them in the same category. 

CBS: The NBA had data from the G League on the transition take foul before making the rule change. Has there been anything about the results so far that has been interesting or surprising to you?

JD: I wouldn’t say surprising, but definitely I would say interesting. And that is the amount of times you’ve seen a guy on a break and the defender starts to do a transition take foul and then pulls his hand back. We’ve seen a lot of those plays. I thought that’s really interesting, that instinctively a guy is thinking, well, I’ll just take a transition take foul, and something quickly tells him, you know what, that’s a free throw and the ball out of bounds, and you just see guys pull their hands back on fast breaks. 

CBS: The offensive explosion has only intensified, even with some points of emphasis designed to help the defense. What’s your perspective on that?

JD: I think you have to establish that the athleticism and skill level of today’s NBA player is as good as it’s ever been. So that’s number one. Number two, one of the things that I talked about, James, coming in, was like, “Look, let’s not junk the game up.” And “junk the game up,” to me, is the lack of freedom of movement, the unnatural basketball moves, the transition take foul. We don’t need gimmicks, we don’t need any of that, we are the elite basketball league in the world. We have the best athletes in the world doing this. They don’t need gimmicks. Clean the floor up, and watch how good these guys are. We’ve cleaned all that up, and look where offense has gone. 

CBS: It sounds like you’re saying you want offense to be going up for the right reasons. 

JD: Yeah. I don’t think that you need to put the thumb on the scale for the offense in this league. I think the guys are so good, they don’t need your thumb on the scale. All right [laughs], I’m going to divert here a little bit. It’s what I used to tell the referees when they called a foul for Jordan, for Michael, and I didn’t think it was. I would always say to them, “He doesn’t need your help. He’s going to be OK without you.” You know what I mean? “He’s pretty good, he doesn’t need you to give him any calls.” So I say the same thing about the offense right now in the NBA. We don’t need to tilt any rules to the offense. Just keep it clean and see how good these guys are. 

CBS: Is that the same kind of thing you hear from coaches or players now? Like, “Giannis is hard enough to stop without letting him carry the ball.” 

JD: That’s exactly right. James, let me ask you this: Of the great players who are in the league right now, what great player can you point to and say, well, the rule changes have now made him not a great player? There’s no rule change that’s going to take you from being great to being a mediocre player. There’s just not. Look, Giannis antetokounmpo  is still great, James Harden is still great, Trae Young is still great. All these guys are still great players, man. That’s what I’m saying. You don’t need your thumb on the scale for those guys. 

CBS: Is the league office the kind of environment when you can throw out a radical idea — something ilke, “What would a 40-game schedule look like?” — and actually discuss it?

JD: We have an analytics and strategy department that’s led by a guy named Evan Wasch, and they talk about these different things, these different scenarios all the time. That’s exactly what they do. I think it’s incumbent upon the league, if you’re going to be progressive and continue to change and not get stuck in old ways — I think it’s incumbent upon any league to do that. And so yes, the short answer to your question is yes. 

Getty Images

CBS: The photo of you with two phones: What’s the story there?

JD: It wasn’t a prop for a photo or anything like that. I had two different phone calls. I was on the phone with a team, and another team called me on my cell phone and I did not want to miss that phone call. You know, you’re in the midst of trade talks or whatever, and I was like, “I can’t miss this phone call.” And so I grabbed that phone, put it up, and I don’t know why a photographer — I don’t know what they were doing — they may have been doing some kind of shoot that day. And they just kind of grabbed the camera and shot it. And then it becomes this meme and this thing forever. But, yeah, it was real. I was talking to Howard Beck about that. It was from a draft war room. And it was a flip phone, too. 

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