The league’s EVP and head of basketball operations talks about a possible NBA mid-season tournament, officiating, and future milestones for the development of the game.
Joe Dumars is Mr. Basketball. A headline member of the Detroit Pistons‘ “Bad Boys” era, he became an executive for the Pistons from 2000-2014 and Kings in 2019, then joined the NBA as the executive vice president of basketball operations.
Boardroom sat down with the Hall of Famer-turned-executive to discuss the state of basketball — ranging from the midseason tournament, new rules, touch fouls, officiating, the future of the game, and how he’d like to see the game evolve.
ANTHONY PUCCIO: Why do you think the play-in tournament was such a success?
JOE DUMARS: People didn’t pay attention early on. I like it so much because you need to play hard the entire stretch of the season. Those teams 5-7, if they’re really tight in the standings, they’ll play harder so they don’t fall into that spot. Primarily the top four teams’ records are good enough, so they’re gonna be in. But those teams 5-10, you look at those teams down the last month or so of the season, they gotta hoop, man. They gotta play to get it done.
AP: So, it’s basically an incentive for middle-of-the-pack teams to play harder?
JD: Absolutely. All the way through to the tape. You can’t let up and be like “we’re just gonna chill and get ready.” No, you’re not. Fall out and now you’re gonna be stuck in a play-in.
AP: Why should fans be excited about a mid-season tournament, and what could it look like?
JD: We’re working on a format internally now. It’s not settled yet, not exactly how it’s going to be. But here’s the thing: Similar to how the play-in has evolved to what it is, I foresee the mid-season (tournament) being the same way. However it starts off, it’s going to evolve into something more because you can’t predict exactly how teams are gonna go about it, how players or coaches will approach it. That’s the part we don’t know yet.
I can tell you this: You said when the play-in first came out, you were a little confused because you didn’t know how it was gonna work. Every team was like that, too. I’m telling you, teams asked: “How is this gonna work?” Some guys said this isn’t gonna be good — now everybody loves it. It’s going to evolve.
And look, I believe in being progressive, forward-thinking. You can’t allow your game to get stale and old. The NBA is always gonna be progressive. They’re always gonna push the envelope and try to be ahead of the curve on things. So I think it follows right in line with how the NBA does business — pushing the envelope.
AP: Will there be an incentive for the tournament?
JD: Internally, we’ve talked about this part but it isn’t quite done yet so I don’t have full details. But I can tell you how some of the conversation evolved. Some of the early iterations of this was that it’s separate from the regular season, right? That isn’t the case. These games will count as regular-season games. It goes back to that 5-10 again.
Now, teams can’t give these games away. So, you’re playing to win during the in-season tournament championship because they’re regular-season games. You can’t look at those games and go, “Ah, we’re not gonna go.” No dude, that’s 5-10. You can’t throw those games away. And that’s what I like about it.
AP: Speaking of forward-thinking, why do you like the take foul?
JD: Anthony, what if I told you last year there were 1,700 take fouls? That’s 1,700 fast breaks that will just stop because guys just grabbed somebody. You’re an NBA fan, you love to see guys come down and make these incredible plays, right?
So, I sit down and I ask, how many incredible plays did we miss last year? Because 1,700 fast breaks just stopped. As a fan, you have to be for this new rule because you wanna see basketball, you wanna see how guys look, get back, play defense, and I mean the amount of dunks and incredible plays or pull-up 3s, all that was missed during those 1,700 plays last year.
AP: What about this encroachment rule? Players dancing and so forth have become popular among fans.
JD: We’re not trying to be the fun police. I love that the guys are having a great time. If a guy’s foot touches the line that’s not gonna be a tech, but we have videos of guys damn near the free-throw line out on the court. Like, come on dude. Really? You can’t do that, just walking onto the court when a play happens.
Another thing people don’t realize is that we don’t want these guys standing on the edge of the court where referees and players run up and down. Guys are running fast breaks on the wing, and the next thing you know, somebody gets tripped. You see LaMelo Ball the other day, right? He’s running down the ball and he stepped on a fan’s foot. I know that was a fan and it was off the court, but that’s exactly what can happen when players are standing there.
So you gotta be careful. You know, you lose a star player because someone was standing on the line. Also, what if you’re a fan and your seat is the first row behind the team’s bench? You’re going to miss the whole game. You’re not seeing the game. You gotta look up at the scoreboard to see the game. You’ve paid big dollars for those seats and you don’t see the game.
So, it’s several reasons, not just one. We’re not trying to stop dudes from getting up and cheering, but man, to stand there the entire game, it’s just too much.
AP: You played in one of the most physical eras of basketball. How do you feel about all these touch fouls?
JD: I’m not a fan of the touch foul [laughs]. I’ll say this, though, sitting in this seat now, refs aren’t always going to get it right. I’m partial a little bit for more physical play, so I’m OK with a little physicality, but look, it’s a different game. Every generation gets to choose how they want to play.
In the ’80s and ’90s, it was a very physical game. That’s the way we chose to play, where today’s game is more open-court and 3-point shooting. It’s the way they choose to play. I’m not here to hate on how they play now. It’s not how I played or how I would play, but I get it. I’m not hating on anyone. It’s just a different style.
I really enjoy watching a lot of these guys play, man. I really enjoy skill, athleticism, getting up and down the court, making incredible plays. But I definitely hear what you’re saying and I don’t disagree.
AP: I’m just sick of silly touch fouls, Joe!
JD: You’re preaching to the preacher! [Laughs]
AP: What’s up with some of these phony techs tho? Jayson Tatum for example.
JD: It’s a two-way street. You don’t want players out there on the court being openly disrespectful to the officials. And look, it’s heated out there sometimes, too. I get it. There’s a balance to this, but I think that you should be able to handle that as a player. I’m pretty sure in my 14 years, I had four techs and I played during an era where it was all fights and physicality. … I just wouldn’t let it take me out of the game. One of those techs got rescinded, too [laughs].
So when I hear people say, “Well, it’s emotional. It’s physical. It’s this, it’s that.” I expect you to control yourself. Techs are gonna happen. Guys are gonna get heated. They’re gonna say stuff, I understand that. But if we’re having the conversation here, you can do it.
And you say you’re a professional. If you’re an amateur out in the park and you get into it with someone, you throw hands out there, OK, well, that’s you and him. But that’s not what a professional in the NBA does. You can’t do that. You can’t come to the NBA and bring the park game to the NBA.
AP: Players embellish or complain but refs are far from perfect. It’s two-fold for me.
JD: I’m glad you said it like that. Both sides make mistakes. Players make mistakes and refs are not perfect, but guess what, my man, we’re trying to get it right in the NBA. We’re not trying to hide from it or cover for anything. Every time they toss that ball up, players are gonna make mistakes out there on that court the same way referees are gonna make a mistake out there. I don’t care what game it is. How you handle it says everything. Professionalism and respect … that’s what comes into play.
AP: Has the league considered the Elam Ending in more ways than the All-Star Game?
JD: We’re still looking at it, but nothing is imminent with that right now. We’ve used it in the All-Star Game and the G League, and really, that’s what the G League is for. It’s gonna be fun to watch the G League this year because it’s being used in overtime and it’s being used at the showcase in the fourth quarter.
AP: Any conversations you’re sparking over there?
JD: I always wanna keep the game clean. Take the junk out of the game. What I mean by that is those unnatural moves that were going on — guys jumping into other guys, pump brakes, and lunging. I said, “If you’re good enough, you don’t have to do that.” And so we addressed that. The take foul, all that kind of stuff. When you take care of that, I consider it cleaning up the game.
I wanna see players go hard for 82, and that doesn’t mean that everyone has to play 82 games, but every team has to play hard for 82 games. And when people show up to see a game, they’re gonna see guys going at it. That’s what I really want. I don’t care if it’s Game No. 80, they should be going at it because they have to. They have to go hard every night to avoid the play-in like we discussed. For me, that’s [where] I would like to see the game grow.
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