Joe Dumars and the Detroit Pistons are now paying for years of quick triggers with their head coaches. Will the new coach be the last one Dumars gets to hire?
After all, the team has had four head coaches since Carlisle was fired after the 2002-03 season. (The Saturday press conference announcing his dismissal was one of the most bizarre in Detroit sports history, with Carlisle and Joe Dumars sitting side-by-side, almost like parents telling their kids about a divorce.)
The firing seemed baffling at the time. Carlisle was considered one of the brilliant young NBA coaching minds when he was hired. He was one season removed from winning the NBA Coach of the Year award after guiding the Pistons to a 50-32 record (an 18-game improvement) and a Central Division title. The following season, Carlisle coached a overhauled roster (Rip Hamilton was acquired from the Washington Wizards, Chauncey Billups and Mehmet Okur were signed as free agents, and Tayshaun Prince was a first-round pick) to another division title and a playoff run that ended in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Yet Dumars felt a change was necessary. Rumors were that he had Larry Brown, who had just left the Philadelphia 76ers, in his pocket. He was too good a coach to turn down and more of a sure thing to coach a roster that looked ready to win a championship.
Shortly thereafter, stories leaked out that Carlisle's cool demeanor toward his players and prickly attitude toward staffers throughout the Pistons organization rubbed owner Bill Davidson the wrong way and that's why the change was made. Was that a smear campaign intended to justify the coaching change and make Carlisle look like a bad guy? Probably.
But the whole process seemed to work out just fine for the Pistons. Billups and Prince had developed into All-Star caliber players under Brown's tutelage, and Dumars pulled off a steal of a deal to get Rasheed Wallace. Coach and GM looked to be working well together. And most importantly, Brown did exactly what he was brought in to do. The Pistons won the NBA championship in 2003-04, upsetting the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers. Dumars and Davidson were validated.
Furthermore, the Pistons' success came at the expense of Carlisle. He went to the Indiana Pacers and revived the team in similar fashion, achieving immediate success. Yet the Pacers couldn't get past the Pistons in the playoffs, losing to them twice in the Eastern Conference Finals. (The Palace Brawl in 2004 was also a major setback, showing that the Pistons were completely in the Pacers' heads. That team was never the same afterwards.)
But look at where the two sides are now.
Carlisle is in the NBA Finals with the Dallas Mavericks. And while his team is down two games to one against the Miami Heat, winning a championship is still a very real possibility for him. (It must be the buzz cut. Or Dirk Nowitzki. Let's see how this series plays out before making a final judgment.)
Dumars, meanwhile, is looking for his fifth coach since letting Carlisle go. He and the Pistons have probably been paying for their impatience with head coaches for years now. Pushing out successful and established coaches like Brown and Flip Saunders sent the wrong message to prospective hires around the league. If those guys were pushed out, you could imagine other coaches thinking, what sort of chance will I get in Detroit?
As a result, Dumars had to settle on first-timers like Michael Curry and John Kuester. And while neither coach may have been fully capable of being a head coach after successful stints as assistants, Dumars undercut both of them by supporting and enabling his players when they revolted.
Yes, if the choice comes down between a talented player and a coach, the player is almost always going to win. The player is getting a lot more money and his performance is ultimately more integral to a team's success. But when those players are displaying outright subordinate and immature behavior, a coach needs his general manager to have his back. And Dumars never seemed to support Curry and Kuester in their disputes with players. In fact, he didn't say much of anything, which really said enough.
Curry only got one year to work with and Kuester got a two-year tenure. Never mind that Dumars and the Pistons already had a reputation for being impatient with head coaches. What coach would want to work while standing on a trap door? (Avery Johnson didn't.) How many quality assistants could a coach add to his staff when job security is so tenuous?
And that's not even taking the Pistons' roster — with a surplus of shooting guards, lack of frontcourt size, and at least three bad contracts — into consideration. Phasing out older players and trying to bring in more youth is a rebuilding project that will likely take some time to complete.
So here we go again. The Pistons' next coach will be the seventh hired since Dumars became the team's president of basketball operations. A list of prospective candidates was released almost immediately after Kuester was fired last week, and the question will become whether the Pistons want someone with head-coaching experience or go with a first-timer one more time. (Personally, I can't imagine Mike Woodson taking the job, since he was on Brown's staff and saw the sort of tensions that can exist between the coaching staff and front office. But I could be misreading that completely.)
But someone will take the job (even if a potential lockout delays the next NBA season), despite the Pistons' reputation for impatience with coaches. There are only 30 of these jobs around and few opportunities to coach at the sport's highest level.
New owner Tom Gores is giving Dumars a chance, which is probably the right decision. Though he hasn't done a great job over the past few seasons, his track record is a good one. And with a new boss working over (and challenging) him, perhaps Dumars will respond with the sort of smart, bold moves he was known for early in his executive tenure. But it's easy to imagine that he won't have much more than a year's grace period with Gores.
This looks like Dumars' last stand and final chance to find a coach he and his players can peacefully work with. For his sake (along with everyone involved with and following the team), he needs to nail this shot.