Lawrence Frank likes to tell a joke about his youth basketball experience.
“I was like a bad Hollywood actor,” Frank will say. “I kept hearing ‘cut, cut, cut.’”
It’s easy to feel for Frank. It’s not his fault he was born into a small, unathletic body. His playing career ended early, not because he didn’t work hard enough or didn’t understand the game well enough, but because he lacked the physical skills necessary to compete. That’s unfortunate.
It’s also easy to feel for Frank when it comes to the Pistons teams he coached. It’s not his fault he had an abbreviated training camp before his first season, coached five rookies this year and had his second season interrupted by a trade that sent away Detroit’s top wing player and unbalanced the roster. His Pistons tenure ended early, not because he didn’t work hard enough or didn’t understand the game well enough, but because he lacked the players necessary to win big. That’s unfortunate.
But regardless of his excuses, justified or not, Frank once again failed to inspire the decision maker in charge of his future. And now Frank is cut once again, fired from what very well could be his last NBA head-coaching job.
Remedying a bigger flaw, developing a smaller one
Frank’s failure to inspire didn’t start with his ultimatum to Tom Gores. Despite his confidence at his opening press conference – “I look forward to working with you guys over the next several years” – Frank didn’t deliver on any grand goals.
Under Frank, the Pistons never looked like a team that believed it could accomplish big things. His teams have consistently succumbed under pressure, and in a very telling stat, the Pistons were 0-15 this season at Western Conference teams.
Winning during road trips is difficult. Unless the team believes it can win, it’s easy to fall to the temptations and traps of what can be a vacation.
To be fair, Frank missed four of those road games while tending to his ill wife. But in the games at Western Conference teams he coached, the Pistons were 0-11 and lost by more than 13 points per game.
In hindsight, the Pistons’ third game of the season, at the Lakers, was a particular letdown. We now know the Lakers were much more beatable than it appeared at the time, and a confident Pistons team could have competed with them. Instead, Detroit lost by 29 while playing like the Lakers were the unstoppable juggernaut most expected them to be.
Before the Pistons hired Frank, Charlie Villanueva said he wanted a coach who “played the game.” That wasn’t really Frank, and although that shouldn’t disqualify Frank or other similar coaches from landing top jobs, the perception probably hurt him, and I suspect that’s a big reason he failed to inspire.
In context of recent coaching firings, Frank’s problems are relatively minor. Frank halted the more serious problems that plagued the team under John Kuester and Michael Curry. The Pistons’ internal strife was limited, at least to the degree it spilled into the public.
Kuester and Curry failed to inspire the team, too. But their players responded by rebelling. Frank’s players responded by not playing up to their potential. That’s a big difference, but not one large enough to justify the Pistons keeping Frank.
The Andre Drummond issue
Even though Frank wasn’t an expert motivator, that didn’t mean he was doomed to failure. Every coach has flaws, and Frank had at least a chance to overcome his. But Frank didn’t properly deploy his biggest inspirational weapon:
Drummond was a revelation this season, a 19-year-old center with once-in-a-generation athleticism who might already be the Pistons’ best player. But he played just more than 20 minutes per game, eighth on the team, and spent most of the season backing up lackluster Jason Maxiell.
Many disagree about the importance of NBA coaches, but even those who think coaches are limited believe allocating playing time is important to a team’s success. In this regard, Frank failed brilliantly due to his use – or non-use – of Drummond alone.
Greg Monroe posted a better net rating (team’s offensive rating minus defensive rating when on the court) when he played with Drummond. So did Brandon Knight, Kyle Singler, Rodney Stuckey, Jason Maxiell, Tayshaun Prince, Will Bynum and Charlie Villanueva.
This wasn’t a matter of Frank having to wildly compromise his values and adjust his rotations to play Drummond more. The Pistons performed better when Drummond played with each of the team’s eight most-used players. There wasn’t a bad combination in the mix.
Drummond being good obviously makes a difference, but it was more than that. Players surely wanted to play with someone who has Drummond’s youthful energy, someone whose ability to find dunk opportunities creates open look for them, someone whose athleticism can cover their defensive mistakes.
Simply, Drummond inspired – but Frank never took advantage, and that might be the biggest reason he won’t see a third season in Detroit.
The inspiration gap
To start, the roster is still a mess – too many shooting guards, not enough interior players, too many players who could use major minutes, not enough players who necessitate major minutes. That’s probably a multi-year fix, and I won’t lambaste Frank for flaws he inherits with this team. I hope, and think, the Pistons won’t, either.
But Frank must help the players progress. Nearly every Piston could reasonably be expected to play better than he has the last year or two. For the players to improve under Frank, he must first get them to buy in.
Frank is gone, because he didn’t inspire the players to progress. But, despite a mid-season trade that improved the Pistons’ outlook, the roster is still somewhat a mess. With significant cap space and a lottery pick at their the disposal, the Pistons will have an opportunity to fix it.
They’ll also haven an opportunity to upgrade their coach. But whether or not Joe Dumars is retained, do you trust this management team to pick the right one, especially considering Tom Gores preferred Frank when Dumars wanted Woodson?
Gores said he’s willing to spend, and now is the time to show it. Bill Laimbeer, Patrick Ewing or Kelvin Sampson – who each interviewed for the job when it was last open – might be the best replacement for Frank. But if the pool of candidates is that small again, the Pistons are too likely to repeat previous mistakes. If one of those three beats out coaches who will command more money like Stan Van Gundy, Jeff Van Gundy and Nat McMillan, that would help establish their worthiness. The field must be larger this time, and that will require Gores to not only be willing to pay Frank $4 million next season, but his next coach more than that.
Frankly, I’m not impressed with the Pistons for simply firing Frank. Gores gave a too-soon declaration the Pistons “better” make the playoffs, and Frank is paying the price. Frank was the wrong coach for the job, and considering what the Pistons knew, he deserved to be fired. But I’m not sure there was a right coach for the job given the top’s instance on winning now despite having a substandard roster.
Gores, and maybe Dumars, will have a chance to hire another coach, though I’m not certain they’ll tab the right one. If they don’t upgrade the roster or change the impatient culture of the organization, they definitely won’t.
Frank is gone. I’m still uninspired.