AUBURN HILLS -- Joe Dumars on New Year's Day sat in his office, where depth charts of all 30 NBA teams cover the wall to his left, opposite a long window overlooking the Detroit Pistons' practice facility to his right, and where he spends much of his time plotting how to transfer a piece or two from one to the other.
Much changed for the Pistons over the course of calendar year 2012.
They got through the lockout and the compressed first-year implementation of head coach Lawrence Frank's system, secured a potential superstar rookie in center Andre Drummond, cleared salary-cap space for next summer when they traded Ben Gordon to Charlotte for Corey Maggette, completed one semi-dramatic turnaround last season and created some hope for another this season after winning five of their last six games.
The NBA trade deadline is still weeks away but for all the fans plotting along with Dumars in how to improve the Pistons by Feb. 21, the president of basketball operations made clear that any deal must take one overarching theme into account: It must preserve the team's financial freedom going into next summer's free-agency period.
"We like the flexibility that we have going forward," Dumars said. "Our plan is not to give up that flexibility going forward. So anything that we may or may not do, we don't intend to give up that flexibility that we do have going into the summer."
The Pistons could retain some of their four players whose contracts expire after this season (Maggette, Will Bynum, Austin Daye, Jason Maxiell) but in most of those cases figure to use that $22 million, and breathing room created by paying the final $6 million payoff to Richard Hamilton, to create a careful blend of free-agency spending and fiscal prudence.
That's why they traded Gordon.
It's also why they didn't use the Amnesty Clause on Charlie Villanueva, who has made contributions more in line with his $8 million salary recently and has only a player option for 2013-14 remaining. Whether he stays, is traded, opts not to exercise his option, or is amnestied anyway, Villanueva's value is trending up and the Pistons didn't pay him to play for someone else.
"Everything we did, all our decisions starting last summer, were to put us in the position to have freedom and flexibility to change whatever we needed to change going forward," Dumars said. "That was the whole basis for all of the decisions last summer. When you create a plan, as to a path that you're going to take, you have to see it through. That's what we're doing here."
Potential free-agent targets include players such as Josh Smith, whom the Pistons (12-22) will see next when they host the Atlanta Hawks on Friday, and 3-point ace O.J. Mayo of the Dallas Mavericks.
The Pistons' starters have suffered from poor floor spacing and balky perimeter shooting, supported by one of the league's most potent emerging bench groups.
"When you create a plan, as to a path that you're going to take, you have to see it through. That's what we're doing here." -- Joe Dumars
Yet, asked if it's fair to assume the Pistons are looking for a top-shelf wing shooter, either through trade or free agency, Dumars said no.
"I can't sit here and really tell you I'm looking for any one particular thing," he said. "What's happening is that as we continue to play right now, we're actually learning more and more about our team and what works best for us. Even the emergence of the second group and how they're playing. We're figuring out more and more what works, what combinations work. So let's see how it plays out for a while."
Fans clamor for Drummond and Greg Monroe to play together. Frank has done so increasingly, though Drummond remains on the reserve group.
Dumars said every time he sees Drummond play, he envisions the player's ceiling as much as he sees the 19-year-old's clear game-changing productivity on the floor. He chooses his words carefully, not to put too much pressure on Drummond, but he sees what everyone else does, a potentially dominant center for years to come.
Dumars said he and Frank talk about players daily and he offers input on rotations when asked. But he draws a hard line between overstepping a general manager's boundaries on coaching decisions, which are Frank's alone.
"And then you support his decisions," Dumars said. "You support whatever it is he's trying to get done."
For the first time this season, those efforts are showing tangible results in the standings recently, including a win last week over the world champion Miami Heat.
"We're giving ourselves a chance to win just about every night we step on the floor," Dumars said. "That's a part of the process of getting better."