Myth: Bill Laimbeer should coach the Detroit Pistons

Welcome to Myth Week at PistonPowered. This is the second in a five-part series of posts addressing what we see as myths involving the Detroit Pistons.

Bill Laimbeer is a tough subject for me.

I firmly believe he is one of the most underrated players of his era who, because of his reputation as an instigator (and punching bag of Robert Parrish), never gets the credit he deserves for how much he contributed to those Pistons back-to-back title teams. He was a great rebounder, great defender, great passing big man, nearly flawless fundamentals and obviously had great range as well as a solid post-up game. He’s basically the prototype for how all big men with limited athleticism should aspire to play.

I also hate everything he represents to most Detroit fans. I hate that the extracurricular stuff — his surly attitude, his cheap shots, his dirty little tricks — have made him a cult hero in this state and overshadowed the nuances of his game. He’s one of those athletes we have here — think Brandon Inge or Darren McCarty — who a segment of fans defend so vociferously, whose contributions they constantly skew and overrate and whose glaring deficiencies they constantly gloss over or flat out ignore.

I don’t hate Laimbeer at all, far from it, but the unflinching love he gets for basically being an asshole is tiresome. And what’s really tiresome is those ardent defenders — most of whom I would guess are nothing more than casual NBA fans — would love nothing more than to see Laimbeer coaching the Detroit Pistons.

Bill Laimbeer as head coach of the Pistons would likely be a disaster.

Can he handle the X’s and O’s?

Bill Laimbeer won three championships as coach of the Detroit Shock. I can’t and won’t argue with the results. What I will argue is that Laimbeer didn’t have to do anything special to win with the Detroit Shock. Maybe another coach wouldn’t have won as many titles or produced the exact same results, but that team, with its talent, was going to win a lot of games regardless of who was coaching.

His Shock teams were not the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons — a bunch of hard-working, tough, overachievers. The Shock were definitely tough and hard-working, but they also had as much (or more) talent than any team in the league from their first title team onward until Laimbeer stepped down as coach to pursue NBA opportunities. The names are probably not familiar to people who don’t have at least a casual interest in the WNBA, but rest assured, they are talented. I’ll roll out some WNBA/NBA comparisons to help make the point:

Katie Smith, who was on the last two title teams, has made more three-pointers than anyone in WNBA history and is the league’s third all-time leading scorer. Think of her as, oh, I don’t know, Ray Allen.

Swin Cash, a team captain for six years, was a top 10 scorer multiple times, a multiple time All-Star and a winner — she won two national titles at UConn in college, played for a title team in Detroit and currently has her Seattle Storm in the WNBA Finals. We’ll call her Manu Ginobili.

Deanna Nolan was one of the best all-around players in the W her entire career. She was on all three title teams in Detroit, she can score, she defends, she’s tough and she’s a leader. Let’s say she’s a bit like Chauncey Billups — a big, strong hybrid guard who can score, distribute and defend.

Cheryl Ford, also a member of all three title teams, averaged a double-double three of her seven years in the league. Two other seasons, she was just tenths of a point or rebound from doing it. She’s a strong interior presence, a great rebounder and helped make Detroit’s front line one of the toughest in the league. Think of her as Al Horford.

Sprinkle in a cast of great role players along the way like Plenette Pierson, Alexis Hornbuckle, Ruth Riley and Elaine Powell, to name a few, and coaches didn’t have to do much but roll out the balls (ahem … basketballs) to get that team to have some success.

This isn’t to say that Laimbeer or the coaches were bad coaches or didn’t do anything to help the team improve — as I said above, he was one of the most fundamentally sound players in the NBA. He knows how to coach defense, knows how to preach intensity and competitiveness and knows how to play winning basketball. But as far as getting this team to perform on the court? He didn’t have to do much because there was a hierarchy in place where the team leaders and stars policed things, and if you don’t believe me, look what happened when the team moved to Tulsa.

Nolan, Smith and Ford elected not to play in Tulsa. Holdovers included Pierson, Kara Braxton, Hornbuckle and Shavontae Zellous, all key players in Detroit. New coach Nolan Richardson runs a defensive oriented system just like Laimbeer did. And minus Nolan and Smith, the unquestioned leaders in Detroit, the team was a colossal flop, the remaining players had their flaws exposed without stars around to take pressure off and draw the defense’s attention and all of them were eventually traded.

There were certainly other factors at play, but I tend to think the impact of coaches is a bit overrated when they win and underrated when they lose (except for Michael Curry … he sucked in every way). The Shock won titles first and foremost because they had several great players and a couple legit franchise cornerstones.

But it wasn’t like Laimbeer was an unquestioned genius as a coach. Check this out, published on Detroit Bad Boys, during the 2007 WNBA Finals:

That was one of the worst coached basketball games I’ve ever seen in my life. From poor adjustments, poor play calling and poor shot clock management it was hard to believe this was a finals game. There were several long stretches where neither team scored and yet watching the game you really couldn’t attribute it to tough defense. The Shock played tough, kept the game close and forced Phoenix out of their rhythm and still lost which has got to be slightly demoralizing.

In fact, if you read the whole series of DBB posts on that summer’s finals, there seemed to be plenty of questions about Laimbeer’s schemes, his rotation (more on that in a minute) and his ability to control his team. He obviously won in Detroit. His teams were obviously among the best in the NBA. But to act as if the team didn’t have major issues or questions at times is revisionist history.

Can he deal with today’s stars?

Laimbeer, as a major local star, had a large say over personnel as coach of the Shock. He was able to bring in players that fit what he wanted to do and able to get rid of players he didn’t think fit, he didn’t like or he openly clashed with. He did a good job of this — as I said, the Shock were one of the most talented, complete teams in the W.

As an NBA coach, he would not likely have this luxury though. Coaches, even successful and well-known ones, are not true stars in the NBA, even if they are famous. If Kobe Bryant walked into Lakers owner Jerry Buss’s office tomorrow and said, "I won’t play for Phil Jackson," Jackson would most likely not be coaching the Lakers. Not that it would happen, but if Tim Duncan suddenly believed Gregg Popovich was holding the Spurs back and wanted him gone, he could force the Spurs hand. That’s a reality of NBA coaching — hell, even faux star players (Penny Hardaway?) have helped push coaches out the door in the NBA. To a large extent, NBA coaches who take jobs don’t have a large say over their personnel. Re-working or building a roster in the WNBA is much different and Laimbeer had much more freedom to create a team in his mold.

Getting along with the top players on a team is vital, and based on his time in Detroit, there are legit questions as to whether Laimbeer can make due with players whose personalities clash with his. His relationship with former Shock player Swin Cash rapidly deteriorated.

This was Cash in profile in the New York Times before the 2007 season:

“If you don’t know Bill, you think he’s the biggest jerk walking,” Cash said. “I can see past it all. He played. He knows the game. He’s competitive and he wants to win. He’ll go to war with you every day.”

Smiling, Cash added: “I like him. Do I think he’s dysfunctional? Yes. But is he a heck of a coach? Yes.”

By the 2007 Finals, that relationship was damaged beyond repair. Cash was traded after the season and had this to say:

"When a coach loses their respect for you, and treats you the way he did me … it’s tough to deal with. … I can deal with a coach attacking me to make me better, but I cannot deal with someone attacking my character, or my integrity. That was the hardest part for me."

What did she consider attacking her integrity and character? Well, this was part of the problem (from the Seattle Times):

A June 2007 article in The New York Times quoted Shock coach Bill Laimbeer and assistant coach Rick Mahorn referring to her as a "crackhead" and "crack."

Laimbeer blamed the media and said he was joking:

"With the ‘crack’ comment, it was playful. It was, I think, until it got in the media. Then it became an issue."

Joking or not, Cash was obviously offended:

"If a man said that or called your daughter that, how would you feel? It became a public thing," Cash said. "When that happens, you not only offend me, you offend my family and people who know me. That comment doesn’t go with me, and that’s why it became that big of an issue."

An argument over calling someone a ‘crackhead’ is kind of silly, but it does show a lack of understanding that this particular star player might be more sensitive than others Laimbeer deals with, so perhaps he should’ve tread more carefully. Other insults, however, cut more deeply. Namely, according to Cash, Laimbeer behind closed doors questioned Cash’s heart and whether or not she was washed up as a player while she was battling back from a serious injury. Her final season in Detroit, he cut her minutes to 22 per game and the most prominent incident in the deterioration of their relationship occurred when he gave her a DNP-CD in game four of the finals.

And to be clear, Laimbeer got it wrong on this one: Cash is still a very productive WNBA player who (as of writing this) has helped the Storm to a 1-0 series lead in the WNBA Finals against Atlanta.

Cash is not a player with a reputation of being a malcontent. She’s not a player who has a history of not doing what it takes to win. She’s won everywhere she’s played and, if the Storm win this series, she’ll add a third WNBA title to her collection as a prominent player on all three and the best player on two of the three title teams.

The Shock still won without Cash, and Laimbeer and the remaining players deserve credit for that, but Laimbeer absolutely mismanaged his relationship with Cash and that would not end well for him had it been as a NBA coach with a star NBA player. And more importantly, while Laimbeer had the luxury of simply trading Cash when he didn’t want to be bothered with her for good value (fourth pick in the draft), he won’t have that same freedom in the NBA. The coach is the more disposable asset, and even if the star gets traded, it usually doesn’t bring close to equal value in return.

Maybe he knows that there is a difference between what a WNBA coach can get away with players and what a NBA coach can. But I don’t think we should just assume that he knows this.

Can he be a franchise face?

The alternative to having star players is having a team of pretty good under-the-radar players, kind of like the 2003-04 Pistons. So why not bring Laimbeer in as coach and assemble a team in that mode, with no stars?

The problem, then, is that Laimbeer becomes the face of the franchise. To his adoring fans, that’s wonderful news. People in Michigan love him and the style of basketball he represents. But it’s not so great from the team perspective, and once again I point to the Shock as evidence.

The WNBA is a mixed bag of colossal franchise flops financially and franchises that understand their fanbase, market their team extremely well and have stars who are giving of their time and committed to working hard off the court, promoting their league and team, as well as on it. These teams (Seattle and Los Angeles are good examples) develop a following that allows the individual franchise to flourish even if the overall financial success of the league is a constant source of debate.

The WNBA failed in Detroit, and it did so despite having arguably the most success of any WNBA franchise and two people involved who were major stars in their market in Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn. On-court success and two beloved people in prominent roles within the organization should’ve led to at least marginal financial success for the Shock. So where did the team fail?

As a NBA player, Laimbeer was not only known for not being all that accessible, but he was sometimes downright annoyed by having to deal with the media. Honestly, I don’t blame him — who wants the hassle? He’s a basketball guy, I’m sure he just wanted to play/coach basketball and leave the other exterior stuff to others. But in the WNBA, a league where it’s a necessity to plead and beg to get any press, that is a recipe for disaster. In Detroit, with his beloved reputation, I firmly believe that had Laimbeer went above and beyond to promote the team, to talk to the media and encourage his players to do the same, the Shock would still be around. If Laimbeer was easily accessible, the Detroit media would’ve written/covered that team extensively, not because people are especially interested in the WNBA, but because people are very, very interested in Laimbeer.

But we’re talking about a NBA job, right? Laimbeer would be the biggest star on the team if the Pistons hired him. The roster is not that good right now. Having a star like Laimbeer as the coach would ultimately help generate interest in the team, but it would require the cooperation of Laimbeer to actually make the appearances and do the interviews. The non-basketball demands on him and his time would be magnified and increased. Based on his history as a player and a coach, I don’t know if that’s a responsibility he would embrace, and I don’t say that as a criticism — again, I very much respect people who just want to focus on the game rather than the business/promotional aspects that go along with being in the league. But the NBA is a very image and PR-conscious league, and Laimbeer would be expected to meet those demands whether he wanted to or not.

Why am I so harsh on a Detroit icon?

As I said, I have great respect for Laimbeer as a player. And I don’t even think he’s bad as a coach, I just think he’s a coach who hasn’t shown the flexibility to deal with many different styles of play and players. It doesn’t mean he’s not capable of it, it just means there’s evidence to suggest he has a strong view of how the game should be played which requires personnel that buy into it.

If he’s going to coach in the NBA, where coaches can’t get away with regularly demeaning and calling out their players constantly, I think he’s much better suited as an assistant. In fact, until David Kahn gave away Al Jefferson, Laimbeer was a perfect choice to help tutor Jefferson and Kevin Love, two big men who aren’t elite athletically but have great skillsets that Laimbeer could help develop.

I care about legacy. Being a head coach in Detroit would be bad for Laimbeer’s legacy, because he would get fired. I don’t know how long he’d last. And given the right roster (i.e. not the current roster), he might even find a mix of players he could have success with. But there’s a good chance that things wouldn’t end well (see: Trammell, Alan). What I dislike is the assumption that just because Laimbeer was a tough player who is beloved by fans that he’d naturally make a good coach. Even with titles in the WNBA, he hasn’t proven enough as a coach, motivator or understander of the modern player to deserve that assumption.

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