The Detroit Pistons have been down this road before. Too many times, in fact.
But this trip is different, the backseat driver now behind the wheel and all pretenses of status quo dropped.
Look back at the official press releases for the hiring and firing of the Pistons’ last half dozen coaches:
Detroit Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars announced today that the team has named Larry Brown as head coach, signing him to a multi-year contract.
Detroit Pistons’ President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars relieved Larry Brown of his coaching duties, it was announced today.
Detroit Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars announced today that the team has named Flip Saunders as head coach, signing him to a multi-year contract.
Detroit Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars announced today that Flip Saunders will not return next season as the team’s head coach.
Detroit Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars announced today that the team has named Michael Curry as head coach, signing him to a multi-year contract.
Detroit Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars announced today that Michael Curry will not return next season as the team’s head coach.
Detroit Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars announced today that the team has named John Kuester as head coach, signing him to a multi-year contract.
Detroit Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars announced today that John Kuester will not return next season as the team’s head coach.
Detroit Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars announced today that Lawrence Frank will not return as the team’s head coach.
Detroit Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars announced today that the club has named Maurice Cheeks as head coach, signing him to a multi-year contract.
The Detroit Pistons announced today that Maurice Cheeks has been relieved of his head coaching duties.
Notice the pattern? In every posted press release – it seems the one announcing Frank’s hiring, which occurred during the lockout, has been lost to history – “Detroit Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars” is the subject.
Conspicuously, “The Detroit Pistons,” not “Detroit Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars,” fired Maurice Cheeks. Whether the change to the boilerplate language was deliberate or not, the alteration speaks to what is becoming increasingly true in Auburn Hills:
The Pistons aren’t Dumars, and Dumars isn’t the Pistons. Not anymore.
If you want to understand the crux of the situation, these two sentences from the initial report on the firing will cover you. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:
Owner Tom Gores had become increasingly impatient with Cheeks, and sources with knowledge of his plans say that he had been pushing for a change in the coaching staff.
Eight different coaches have been replaced under Dumars’ run as GM, but league sources told Yahoo Sports he had been an advocate of giving Cheeks more time as coach – especially in light of back-to-back victories over the weekend.
Gores wanted to fire Cheeks, and Dumars wanted to give the coach more time.
The scenario’s end was both uncomplicated and predictable.
Gores owns the Pistons, and that gives him absolute power to control the franchise’s personnel. Some of that responsibility falls on Dumars, but only to the extent Gores defers it.
Now, it seems the only thing Gores is deferring is removing Dumars as the Pistons’ general manager – and that delay might not last long.
Maurice Cheeks’ firing justified
The Pistons put a bad coach in position to fail, and he failed.
The sad reality is the Pistons would have been better off firing Cheeks at literally any point after hiring him. Two minutes, two months and even after his two-game win streak. Getting too caught up in the timing or the roster issues only misses the matter at hand.
Cheeks is a bad NBA head coach. Any hope that he’d improved enough since the Trail Blazers and 76ers had long gone out the window. It had became so painfully obvious Cheeks couldn’t handle the job, the Pistons fired him after just 50 games – giving him the shortest tenure in franchise history aside from a couple interim coaches.
In fact, it’s been eight years since any non-interim NBA coach has had such a short run with his team.
In the last 20 years, just five coaches had been fired during their first season with a team: Terry Porter (28-23 with the 2008-09 Phoenix Suns), Bob Weiss (13-17 with the 2005-06 Seattle SuperSonics), Randy Ayers (21-31 with the 2003-04 Philadelphia 76ers), Gar Heard (14-30 with the 1999-00 Washington Wizards), Don Nelson (34-25 with the 1995-96 New York Knicks).
Honestly, I was surprised the list was so long. But four of the five coaches had something in common: Their team had a winning season the year prior to their arrival.
Cheeks – who took over a team that went 29-53 last season – certainly didn’t share the pressure of preserving a winner. Maybe the Pistons were too impatient, but more likely, Cheeks performed just that terribly.
Interestingly, the other exception might soon soon share a common thread with Cheeks.
Heard was fired just 10 days after Michael Jordan became the Wizards’ president of basketball operations. New executives typically want to hire their own coach.
In Washington, the front-office domino fell first. In Detroit, the head coach changed first. I suspect the result will be the same either way: A total overhaul.
Joe Dumars, Tom Gores never clicked together
Right now, how much does Gores regret retaining Dumars in the first place?
In Gores’ first season, the Pistons rushed to re-sign players already acquired by Dumars with presumption a new coach, Lawrence Frank, would fix everything. The Pistons flopped to a 25-41 record.
Well, 2013-14 is here, and the Pistons are only marginally better.
The assumption all along was that Dumars must make the playoffs to keep his job. Now, I’m not sure even that will be enough. Gores so publicly undercutting Dumars clearly bodes poorly for No. 4.
But if Gores wanted to fire Dumars now too, he could have. The owner, for whatever reason, granted a stay of execution. Though it’s possible Gores wants to give Dumars the dignity of completing his contract or just can’t hire his desired replacement until the offseason, I choose to believe that means Dumars has a chance – not matter how slim – to keep his job beyond this year.
When the Pistons hired Cheeks, I wrote the move would likely end Dumars’ stint as general manager. Cheeks had already proven himself beneath the caliber of a good NBA head coach, and apparently needing a playoff berth to get a new contract, Dumars seemed to have tied his fate to the wrong coach.
Now, Dumars’ best chance is that hindsight makes Cheeks look like the worst coach of all time.
If interim coach John Loyer can somehow blend the Pistons’ mismatching talents and boost the Pistons soundly into the playoffs, that would give credit to the roster Dumars assembled. Dumars might still fall considerably short in hiring coaches, but if Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings and Chauncey Billups are actually the caliber of players Dumars hoped them to be when acquiring them, that would at least complicate Gores’ pending decision. Is a general manager who can form a strong team of players but can’t hire a good coach to lead them worth keeping? With a plan to fix the coaching-search process, maybe. General managers who can form a strong team of players – regardless of any other shortcomings – are a valuable commodity.
That is an extreme longshot, though. Smith, Jennings and Billups could be used better, but raising their contributions into job-saving territory won’t be easy.
I can’t imagine Gores, after the disappointments of the last three years, is searching for reasons to keep Dumars – though I doubt he’d find any, anyway.
Joe Dumars’ day of reckoning will come
The Pistons have bigger problems than Cheeks, but Cheeks was the problem they fixed now.
Cheeks’ firing should put to rest any suggestions of tanking. Gores did not want to tank and does not want to tank. Period. If he did, he would have kept the overmatched Cheeks.
This is about re-configuring on the fly and making another run at a playoff berth that is, somehow, still very attainable. In the 2013-14 Eastern Conference, it was neither too early nor too late to fire Cheeks.
And if tanking was never organizational goal, as much as the Pistons’ in-season decisions comically suggested otherwise, Dumars will not be let off the hook. Dumars built this failed roster that hastened, but didn’t cause, Cheeks’ demise. Dumars, unlike previously, led last summer’s coaching search and signed off on Cheeks. Even if Dumars preferred a different coach – and circumstantial evidence suggests he would have hired Nate McMillan – every general manager must work under his boss’s direction, and Dumars made Cheeks the Gores-approved hire when there certainly would have been better coaches who appeased the owner.
Not that appeasing the owner is easy for Dumars, who thrived under the ever-present but rarely interfering Bill Davidson. Gores is certainly not Bill Davidson.
Gores bought the Pistons for $420 million. Last month, his company, Platinum Equity, purchased a majority share of a company valued at $583 million. The month prior, Platinum Equity bought a company for $1.1 billion.
That’s why he’s not around The Palace more often. Still in the prime of his career, Gores has other professional priorities with even more money on the line.
But from time to time, he swoops in, making changes as he sees fit. His last visit meant the coach changed. His next visit might mean the general manager changes.
Gores has earned the right to be impulsive, and maybe Cheeks’ firing came on whim. However, a thorough analysis would have led to the same result.
Dumars too could be cast out for either reason. It’s up to Gores.
It’s all up to Gores.