Bill Laimbeer is head coach material, but is he the right man for the Pistons job?


Mike Payne of Detroit Bad Boys laid out his impassioned plea (even if he does owe me a royalty check for using ‘In Defense of…,’ an old It’s Just Sports staple) for the Pistons to hire Bill Laimbeer as coach. Like everything Mike writes, it’s funny, well-argued and backed up with sound reasoning.

Mike makes some points I’d like to respond to, but before I do that, I want to get the disclosure out of the way: I think Bill Laimbeer is one of the smartest, toughest, most underrated players of all time. What he contributed to the Bad Boys teams intangibly is immeasurable. And his fantastic statistical contributions to those teams are vastly overlooked by history. He’s also proven to be a fantastic WNBA head coach whose greatest strength based on his tenure with the Detroit Shock is coaxing effort and toughness out of his players. Effort and toughness just so happen to be two of the Pistons’ greatest needs right now.

But I’m also undoubtedly one of the writers Mike mentioned in his post who have raised questions about Laimbeer. To be clear, I’ve never doubted his ability to be a head coach. I do, however, have reservations about whether or not his first head coaching gig should be in Detroit. Without re-hashing things I’ve laid out before, below are some points Mike raised that I wanted to respond to.

About Swin Cash, a star player with the Shock who left on not so great terms with Laimbeer, Mike wrote:

"While the reports put Laimbeer’s taste squarely into question, the performance of Cash was on the decline while the Shock’s record held steady without her.  After her departure, the Shock secured their third title under Laimbeer.  Cash’s stardom put a lot of light on Laimbeer during that rough patch, but the reports clearly suggest that no personality was more in charge of that team than Laimbeer himself.  The reports of this clash are unfortunate, but the ultimate metric of wins vs. losses remained steady under Laimbeer no matter what the press reported."

I don’t disagree that, ultimately, Laimbeer was proven right on this one. Cash was still a good player, but the Shock had better players developing who were ready for more prominent roles and Cash was no longer capable of being the best player on a title-contending team. Even if Cash may have earned or wanted this to be handled in a way she felt was less demeaning, Laimbeer clearly made the right decision for the team, which continued to play at a high level post-Cash.

The issue, though, that I think is appropriate to raise: would Laimbeer have the same ability to do this with a star player in the NBA? Clearly, Laimbeer would not be afraid to stand up to any player. That’s an admirable trait. But let’s say Laimbeer was coaching last year’s Pistons team. Let’s say oh, I don’t know (completely hypothetically of course), … Rip Hamilton, a declining former All-Star, became dissatisfied because his role decreased. If Hamilton rebelled, caused tension in the locker room, etc., how would Laimbeer handle a situation where he had a well known player who was highly paid and the front office couldn’t or wouldn’t get rid of?

The fact is, it would be hard to pull off the NBA equivalent of how Laimbeer handled the Cash situation. Hell, Hamilton isn’t even close to the equivalent of Cash, who is among the WNBA’s biggest stars of all time. That relationship deteriorated and Laimbeer simply got rid of Cash. As I said, he made the right decision and it worked fine for both parties. But NBA coaches don’t have that same luxury or freedom. Laimbeer, clearly, was the biggest star of the Shock. He won’t have that same ability to simply jettison players who don’t do things the way he wants them done. In some cases, the front office will surely back him up, but big NBA contracts are more difficult to move. He also had more control over personnel with the Shock. Maybe Laimbeer hates a player that his GM loves. Chances are, the GM is going to win out, and if the coach can’t patch things up (see: Hamilton and Michael Curry), the coach is usually the one to go in the NBA. I think it’s fair to say that NBA coaches have to be much better at massaging egos and adjusting to players they can’t necessarily get rid of quickly than WNBA coaches have to be.

Perhaps Laimbeer is totally prepared and ready for this. After all, the guy was part of one of the craziest, ego-filled teams in NBA history and played for a coach in Chuck Daly known for being a master of getting guys with wildly different agendas on the same page. If I were a GM hiring Laimbeer, that experience playing for a coach like Daly, one of the first truly modern-style NBA coaches, would be his biggest selling point. But I do think it would be fair to ask him, based on the Cash situation, if he could handle a similar NBA situation where getting rid of the player might be out of the question.

As I said, this is not me saying he can’t do it. But the question is a fair one.

Another fair question is to ask about his tenure in Minnesota. As we’ve seen, the T-Wolves have not been good for … well, have they ever been good? Dan Feldman mentioned in another post that the Pistons should consider all candidates, whether they were on staffs of winning teams or losing teams. I totally agree with that. The T-Wolves losing shouldn’t disqualify Laimbeer as a candidate just like Lawrence Frank’s experience on a winning staff in Boston shouldn’t alone make him a better candidate. But I would like to know more about Laimbeer’s role there, particularly with Kevin Love.

I think the assumption is that Love, a big but limited athletically big man who just so happens to be a fantastic rebounder, has learned a thing or two from Laimbeer, who was a big but limited athletically big man who just so happened to be a fantastic rebounder.

I’m not saying Laimbeer didn’t have an impact. But I don’t want to just assume he did. Why? Because Love hasn’t exactly been a fan of how he’s been used in Minnesota. We all know that Love had a fantastic season last year. In fact, he made the All-Star team, which is incredibly hard to do playing for a team as lousy as Minnesota. But did you remember that, early in the season, Love was not getting the minutes commensurate with his All-Star-level production? The stats community, which has long been Love’s greatest ally, called attention to it. But it wasn’t just them. Fans started a website called Free Kevin Love. Check out this quote a NBA scout gave Chris Broussard about Love:

"Love’s not the only one who’s confused. Some members of the Timberwolves organization are baffled that Rambis has limited Love to just 26.4 minutes a game, according to sources, and many executives and scouts throughout the NBA are stunned by Love’s lack of playing time.“You have to be on crystal meth not to give Love more minutes on that team,” one scout told me. “It makes no sense.”"

Now, that quote indicates people in the organization weren’t on board with the decisions Rambis was making. Maybe Laimbeer was one of those people. But again, if I were a GM asking questions, I would certainly ask Laimbeer what he thought of the Rambis-Love situation and how he would’ve handled Love’s minutes if he were the head coach in Minnesota.

Once again, I don’t look at this as something that means Laimbeer shouldn’t be a head coach. But I think, based on Love’s rocky relationship with the head coach who many believed was actually hindering Love’s development by not playing him as much as he should’ve, it’s fair to ask Laimbeer if he supported that use of Love or not. My hope is that he didn’t, that behind the scenes it was Laimbeer gently nudging Rambis to do the right thing and give Love big minutes. If it was, that certainly is a point in favor of Laimbeer being ready to be a head coach. But the point is, we don’t know for sure what was going on in Minnesota with that staff.

Anyway, those two things are my biggest remaining questions regarding Laimbeer’s readiness for a head coaching job. There very well could be sufficient answers to both, and even if there aren’t, the positives to hiring him still might outweigh the negatives. After all, if Mark Jackson is a NBA coach, Laimbeer certainly should be one. Here’s part of Mike’s conclusion:

"The risks with Laimbeer are virtually the same as the risks with Sampson, Frank and Woodson. The roster will still be a mess for whichever coach inherits it. The thing is, we know the ceiling with Woodson, we know the basement with Frank, and we know red flags on Sampson. The next year or two are going to suck, and it’s about time Joe gives a chance to somebody he won’t be so quick to fire."

There’s not much wrong with that reasoning, though I do think Laimbeer coaching in Detroit with a poor roster full of players who, frankly, don’t play that physically and don’t play defense, isn’t a great fit. The fact that he’s a Detroit legend does complicate things. From Laimbeer’s perspective, fans are hoping and maybe even expecting him to put his imprint on the team immediately. The roster could take some time to be made over in a mold more befitting Laimbeer’s preferred style of play. That’s not setting him up to succeed, and the fact is, if you look at the turnover in NBA coaching, a lot of coaches, particularly those on their first head job, don’t make it through multiple losing seasons to start their careers. The Pistons have a roster full of question marks, and that’s not going to do any of the coaches who get the job any favors. They could improve, but that’s not a given, especially considering they could lose two of their better players, Tayshaun Prince and Tracy McGrady, to free agency.

Secondly, from Dumars’ perspective, there are probably concerns. He and Laimbeer are former teammates. I would assume they like and respect each other. Dumars has a history of firing coaches, even successful ones. Does he really want to put himself in the position of having to fire a respected friend and former teammate someday down the road? And honestly, it’s no secret that the last few years have caused Dumars’ popularity to wane. Does he really want to hire a coach who will walk in the door and be more popular than him?

Again, I’m not making a case Laimbeer shouldn’t be hired. I don’t like that, because I’ve raised questions in the past, I’ve kind of been cast as the disloyal Pistons writer/fan out there who tries to dismantle one of the best, most popular players in franchise history. I have questions about every single candidate for this job. Each guy brings different strengths and weaknesses, and to be honest, Laimbeer might have more strengths than the others who, as Mike pointed out, all have track records that show at best mixed results. But I do scrutinize Laimbeer more because I feel like there are definite hometown factors at work in his favor. I do feel like many of his loyal supporters, based on readers I’ve heard from over the years, gloss over some things about him that could be weaknesses.

Laimbeer is reportedly interviewing for the job tomorrow, and as I’ve said in other posts, if he comes away as the superior candidate, that’s great for the Pistons. As I wrote above, the toughness and the effort he coaxed out of the Shock are traits the Pistons need in spades right now. I think Laimbeer is a good candidate for the job, but I also think it’s foolish to suggest he’s “unequivocally” the right man for the job.