True Blue Pistons - September 2013
Andre Drummond gave up his No. 1 jersey to the man who made it famous. He didn’t extort any lavish cash payment in return, as players often do for surrendering their number to an established star, but it might not have been a completely selfless act, either. Drummond is going to ask plenty of Chauncey Billups in return.
“I’m going to try to take as much as I can from him,” Drummond said on Monday, wearing his new No. 0 while Mr. Big Shot again donned the number that figures to one day be retired in his honor. He took that jersey home to Denver with him after it was re-issued at his July introduction upon shaking hands with Joe Dumars on a free-agent deal to come back to the place he considers his NBA home.
“I had to practice putting it on again so it wouldn’t be weird today,” he said. “But I feel good. This” – the Pistons jersey – “means a little something different, as you can imagine.”
There was a different air at Monday’s media day than the past three or four. Optimism always abounds on the eve of training camp, when all 30 NBA teams talk about the payoff of the playoffs if everything works out to the best. But things rarely work out to the best.
Posted Sunday, September 29, 2013
(Editor’s note: We wrap up our countdown to training camp with a look at what role players will emerge from a remade Pistons roster to best complement a talented and athletic starting unit.)
The Pistons felt good on draft night and even better after Summer League about what they mined from the draft’s second round: the ultra-athletic Tony Mitchell and the player who fearlessly led Louisville to the 2013 NCAA title, Peyton Siva.
But they happen to enter training camp last on the depth chart at the team’s two deepest positions, power forward and point guard. It would be an upset if either rookie cracked the rotation to start the season.
After that, all bets are off. It’s almost certain that Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond and Josh Smith start up front and Brandon Jennings is the No. 1 point guard, but Maurice Cheeks will have endless possibilities to ponder beyond that.
Posted Saturday, September 28, 2013
(Editor’s note: We’ll count down the remaining days until the opening of training camp with a critical question the Pistons will be looking to address during the preseason. Today: Can the Pistons’ expected improvement on defense sustain them in the early going as they learn to fit the pieces together on offense?)
Joe Dumars was focused on infusing the Pistons’ roster with talent over the off-season and in grabbing free agents Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings and Gigi Datome and drafting Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, mission accomplished. The Pistons are undeniably bigger, deeper and more athletic than at any time since the waning days of the Goin’ to Work era that included six straight trips to the conference finals.
But Maurice Cheeks has a challenge on his hands in quickly fitting that many new moving parts into a cohesive offensive machine. Even adding one or two key players to a rotation can cause disruption and require time before a level of offensive efficiency required for winning is achieved. The Pistons will likely have two or three new starters and perhaps half of the playing rotation will be first-year Pistons.
While they’re in the getting-to-know-you phase, their defense might have to carry them. And while defense, too, requires a high degree of chemistry and trust, it can and often does come together on that end at a more accelerated pace.
Posted Friday, September 27, 2013
(Editor’s note: We’ll count down the remaining days until the opening of training camp with a critical question the Pistons will be looking to address during the preseason. Today: Can Andre Drummond absorb added responsibility and still maintain his rookie level of impact?)
As much as Pistons fans took to Andre Drummond during an eye-opening rookie year that exceeded even the fondest expectations of the No. 9 pick, the advanced stats devotees loved him even more. Drummond’s impact was reflected loudly in his per-36 minute numbers, his rebounding percentages, his PER and just about every other obscure numerical representation of his body of work.
Had Drummond not suffered a lower back injury that cost him two months just as he was on the verge of moving into the starting lineup early last February, the Pistons probably would have a better handle today on what effect an increased workload might have on Drummond’s ability to maintain his level of impact over time.
Not only are the Pistons expecting Drummond to start and play more than the 21 minutes a game he logged as a rookie – 26 to 30 minutes a game is a reasonable estimate for Drummond in year two – they’re expecting to see glimpses of new facets of his game.
Posted Friday, September 27, 2013
Will Bynum goes into next week’s Pistons training camp both with his eyes wide open and his optimism running at record highs. The Pistons are loaded with talent, he believes, and that has the team’s biggest gym rat more eager to get started than ever. But he’s also mindful of the role chemistry will play – and acting to help shape it.
For the first time, Bynum spent a good chunk of his summer in Las Vegas at the same facility where Chauncey Billups and Tayshaun Prince have long trained. There he and Billups talked about the team, the season ahead and their roles as leaders.
“We talked about the team, about life,” he said. “Chauncey’s a great guy. We talked about chemistry. We’ve got to put the time in. We’ve got to spend time together, get to know one another, get to know one another’s games. I’ve already started with that stuff. I’m a little bit ahead, watching these guys and seeing where they like the ball at and what they like to do and how they like to do it. That’s the key – bonding together as a team and doing things the right way.”
Posted Thursday, September 26, 2013
(Editor’s note: We’ll count down the remaining days until the opening of training camp with a critical question the Pistons will be looking to address during the preseason. Today: How will Greg Monroe handle the transition from center to power forward?)
A generation ago – indeed, as little as five years ago – Greg Monroe’s conversion from center to power forward wouldn’t have been all that big a deal. In the conventional NBA, there wasn’t much difference in the skill set required to play one position over the other. In today’s NBA, a power forward is more likely to be in his comfort zone facing the basket and launching 3-pointers as opposed to bullying on the block and muscling for rebounds.
Monroe will never be labeled a “stretch four” and, in some measure, the success of his transition will come down to how much of an advantage the Pistons gain from Monroe’s size and scoring ability around the rim over the edge opponents figure to have in that matchup in perimeter skills.
The Pistons don’t want the conversion to rob Monroe of what he does best, but there’s no getting around the fact that it will require him to stretch his boundaries.
Posted Thursday, September 26, 2013
Power forward got awfully crowded this summer for the Pistons. It’s Greg Monroe’s new home and he goes into training camp entrenched as the starter. When he moves to center in relief of Andre Drummond, Maurice Cheeks likely will move Josh Smith into the position where he’s spent the bulk of his nine years in Atlanta.
The Pistons also drafted a high-upside rookie, Tony Mitchell, with the 37th pick last June, and return Charlie Villanueva, the dictionary definition of a “stretch four,” an increasingly coveted NBA commodity.
You might expect all of that to trouble Jonas Jerebko. Guess again.
“I’m just happy with the changes, good changes,” he said this week, feet thrust in ice water after finishing up his first workout with Arnie Kander since returning from Sweden and the recently completed EuroBasket competion in Slovenia. As he spoke, his teammates – many of them first-time Pistons – played an up-tempo five-on-five game a few feet away.
Posted Wednesday, September 25, 2013
The day the Pistons unveiled Maurice Cheeks as coach, he made clear his preference was to coach a team that forced turnovers, then got out and ran. That pronouncement came before the Pistons added Josh Smith in free agency, Brandon Jennings in trade and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the draft among eight new faces brought on board over an off-season that fundamentally changed the roster’s makeup.
Bottom line: Full speed ahead, as far as Cheeks is concerned.
“That hasn’t changed,” he said of his vision for molding the Pistons. “I want to create turnovers. I want to get out in the open court. We’ve got some runners. We’ve got some athletes. We want to utilize those guys in those areas. We clearly have some big guys down low that can run. (Greg) Monroe and (Andre) Drummond, they can get down the floor.
“The vision I had when I first got here hasn’t changed. It’s just been enhanced, really, with Josh and Brandon and people like that who can get out in the open court and get out and play. I’m looking forward to it.”
The four players Cheeks cited – Smith, Jennings, Monroe and Drummond – will very likely be in the opening night starting lineup when the Pistons host Washington on Oct. 30. Other rotation spots, though, will be up for grabs in what Cheeks foresees as a throwback training camp.
Posted Wednesday, September 25, 2013
(Editor’s note: We’ll count down the seven days until the opening of training camp with a critical question the Pistons will be looking to address during the preseason. Today: Will fresh starts draw out the best in Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings?)
Everyone acknowledges Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings are capable of the spectacular. It’s in the day-to-day grind of the consistent where greatness has eluded them.
Their resumes explain why the Pistons coveted them when they hit the free-agent market last July, yet their own teams put on less than a full-court press to retain their services. Was that due in significant measure to the collective disappointment experienced in each city when their franchises were perceived to have stagnated, Smith’s Hawks falling out of the playoffs three straight years in the second round before getting bounced in the first each of the past two, Jennings’ Bucks making two first-round exits in his first years in Milwaukee?
Posted Wednesday, September 25, 2013
It’s been a busy summer – really busy, but good. It’s been a lot of fun since I got drafted by the Pistons about three months ago. The focus lately has been just on getting into the gym here every morning, working hard in the gym, and getting my apartment ready. I still have stuff coming to get my place really ready to be my home, but I’m getting all of that together and getting in shape for training camp and getting ready my rookie season.
My apartment is a nice little place. Me and Tony Mitchell are living in the same building – he’s one floor above me – and Andre is close by, too, so it’s pretty good to have teammates there I can hang out with. That’s really good. We’re helping each other out and I’m learning how to get around. Right now I can get to certain places without using GPS – it’s getting better.
Like I said earlier this summer, I wanted to spend lots and lots of time working on my shot and getting my handle a little bit tighter. I’ve made progress. My handle is a little bit better and my shot’s getting a little more consistent. The work doesn’t stop when we get into the season, though. I’m going to continue to work on those things before and after practices and whenever I can.
Posted Tuesday, September 24, 2013
(Editor’s note: We’ll count down the seven days until the opening of training camp with a critical question the Pistons will be looking to address during the preseason. Today: Will the Pistons be able to strike a balance between their first and second units?)
The common thread in media assessments of the Pistons’ off-season makeover was skepticism they would have enough perimeter firepower to open things up inside for their tall and talented frontcourt built around Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond and prized free agent Josh Smith.
But the Pistons have a fair number of proven or promising 3-point shooters, including Chauncey Billups, Charlie Villanueva, Brandon Jennings, Kyle Singler and NBA rookies Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Gigi Datome.
The challenge for Maurice Cheeks will be to spread the shooters out among playing combinations so that the Pistons don’t find themselves with imbalanced first and second units. Among the projected starters – assuming Rodney Stuckey wins out at shooting guard – only Jennings has proven himself to be an average or better NBA 3-point shooter.
Posted Tuesday, September 24, 2013
Greg Monroe didn’t set out to lose X amount of weight this summer and he won’t even know what the scale says until heights, weights and various other measurements are recorded on Monday as the Pistons prepare for their training camp opener.
But his body tells the story of his summer. In preparation for his move to power forward, Monroe knew his body would need some fine tuning. He’ll be playing farther from the basket at both ends, so he wanted to be lighter on his feet and in the best condition of his NBA career, now in its fourth season.
Since leaving Las Vegas in late July, where he logged an impressive week at USA Basketball’s minicamp while playing mostly at power forward and often against traditional small forwards, he’s been back home in Louisiana but hardly taking it easy. He worked with a new personal trainer and hired a chef, and the result is the leanest Monroe the Pistons have yet seen.
Posted Monday, September 23, 2013
(Editor’s note: We’ll count down the seven days until the opening of training camp with a critical question the Pistons will be looking to address during the preseason. Today: Will rookie No. 1 pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope earn the right to crack the rotation?)
Ideally, the Pistons want to play Chauncey Billups 20 minutes a night. They want the ball in his hands at big moments. They want to be able to pick their spots for him so all of his experience and veteran wile can be maximized to their benefit.
In part, that plan might hinge on how ready No. 1 pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is to play.
If Caldwell-Pope can shoulder 15 to 18 minutes a game at shooting guard and Rodney Stuckey assumes his usual load, then Maurice Cheeks will have wide latitude to use Billups in whatever ways he can best help the Pistons win games. But if the 20-year-old from Georgia needs a little time to acclimate to the NBA – and that should be the expectation, given that he didn’t fully emerge as a first-round prospect until the latter half of his sophomore season – then it figures that Billups is going to have to play most of his minutes at shooting guard.
Posted Friday, September 20, 2013
(Editor’s note: Last of a five-part series examining the Pistons by position as they prepare to open training camp on Oct. 1.)
Having a basketball team without a gifted playmaker at point guard isn’t quite like having an NFL team without a star quarterback, persistent analogies aside. The right mix of players, guided by a coach not hidebound by convention, can yield offensive attacks that rank right up there with the best of them led by more traditional point guards.
But it’s a lot easier for things to fall into place when the guy who brings the ball across the time line is also the one best equipped to initiate half-court offense. Joe Dumars never thought differently, even as he was building a team around a backcourt of Brandon Knight and Rodney Stuckey – two players who began their NBA careers as point guards yet played mostly off the ball after the Pistons sent Tayshaun Prince to Memphis last January in a deal that returned Jose Calderon, long one of the NBA’s most accomplished playmakers.
When Calderon left the Pistons to sign with Dallas as a free agent, Dumars didn’t waste much time plugging the hole. First he lured Pistons fan favorite Chauncey Billups – Mr. Big Shot, MVP of the 2004 NBA Finals – back home in free agency for what figures to be more than just a victory lap. A few weeks later, he dealt with his former first lieutenant, Milwaukee general manager John Hammond, to bring restricted free agent Brandon Jennings to the Pistons in a deal that cost him Knight, Khris Middleton and Slava Kravtsov.
The Pistons also retained Will Bynum, whose connection with Andre Drummond on the pick and roll was one of the highlights of their 2012-13 season, and drafted Louisville’s Peyton Siva, who led the Cardinals to the 2013 NCAA title.
Add it all up – and keep in mind that they’ll all be mentored by new coach Maurice Cheeks, a textbook example of the point guard as consummate quarterback – and the Pistons fully expect point guard to be a position of strength in the season ahead.
Posted Thursday, September 19, 2013
(Editor’s note: Fourth of a five-part series examining the Pistons by position as they prepare to open training camp on Oct. 1. Coming Friday: point guards.)
Rodney Stuckey seemed on the verge of stardom as a rookie, when he was at times the Pistons’ best player during the 2008 playoff run that ended in the conference finals against eventual champion Boston. For a stretch that lasted more than a month in his first year under Lawrence Frank, he appeared on the cusp of All-Star status, carrying the offense as both an efficient scorer and facilitator.
Now playing for his fifth head coach as he enters his seventh season, Stuckey could be coming to a career crossroads. Still young enough, at 27, to have his best years ahead of him, and entering the last year of a three-year deal he signed with the Pistons coming out of the 2011 lockout, Stuckey could be the key piece in a lineup that figures to include four dynamic players around him in young holdovers Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe and high-wattage newcomers Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings.
Inconsistency has dogged him over his first six seasons, but Pistons brass is openly optimistic that Stuckey is due for a productive season.
“We certainly expect Stuckey to have a good year,” Joe Dumars said as training camp approaches. “I think Stuckey looks around now and he really likes this team. It’s going to serve him well. It’s going to fit him well, too. We have guards that can really create and we have bigs that can command attention. For those perimeter guys, it opens the floor. It allows you to play. That’s what has to be appealing for a kid like Stuckey.”
Posted Wednesday, September 18, 2013
It’s been amazing to get to come to the gym this summer and get to play against a guy like Andre Drummond and get to be coached by a guy like Rasheed Wallace. It’s just been amazing working with Drum and Sheed, teaching us the basics – how to set a screen, how to pick and pop, just different aspects of the game. It’s all been good.
Sheed was known for just knocking ’em down – a pick-and-pop guy who had a back-to-the-basket move, too. He had an arsenal. Yeah, I watched him a lot growing up.
In practice the other day, Dre got me about four or five times in a row. Sheed told me I was basically on his body too hard, so he spins off of me and he dunks the ball. You know how Dre is. He’s an athletic guy, so he’ll finish that every time. Sheed was like, I need to stop leaning on him so much. You can’t commit like that.
That’s how Sheed is. He spots things, little things like that, and points them right out. I pretty much knew that from Summer League, just from Sheed talking on the bench, that he’d be right there with little advice on all those kinds of things. Sheed’s a great coach, man. It’s been amazing to work with him. I love it.
Posted Wednesday, September 18, 2013
(Editor’s note: Third of a five-part series examining the Pistons by position as they prepare to open training camp on Oct. 1. Coming Thursday: shooting guards.)
Bouncing back and forth between power forward and small forward might not sound like much, but the reality is there’s probably no greater challenge in going up or down the positional tree by one branch than that one. Tayshaun Prince, when he was asked to play power forward later in his Pistons career, talked about the stark difference of responsibilities a power forward faces in pick-and-roll defense as opposed to the small forward.
In the typical 5-1 pick and roll – the center setting a pick on the opposition point guard – for example, Andre Drummond will be often expected to cut off the point guard’s penetration and then recover to the paint. But while he’s recovering, it’s the responsibility of the defensive power forward to guard the center that set the pick and is now rolling to the basket. If he receives the pass off the pick, then the power forward is suddenly playing post defense against the center.
And given how prevalent the pick and roll has become in the majority of NBA offensive playbooks, that scenario can repeat itself a dozen or more times each game.
No big deal, says Josh Smith, who played both positions – usually on the same night – for most of his nine-year career, all spent with the Atlanta Hawks before signing with the Pistons on the first day of free agency in July.
Posted Tuesday, September 17, 2013
(Editor’s note: Second of a five-part series examining the Pistons by position as they prepare to open training camp on Oct. 1. Coming Wednesday: small forwards.)
The Pistons couldn’t have planned Greg Monroe’s summer transition to power forward this way, but they couldn’t have planned it any better if they had.
The key was the invitation from USA Basketball to its late-July minicamp, where Monroe wound up spending a good deal of his time at power forward. And not just playing power forward, but playing the position against elite young players of all shapes and sizes – which is exactly the challenge that faces power forwards across the modern NBA.
In the growing trend of teams “playing small,” the key position is power forward. What playing small essentially means is getting your five best players on the floor and for most teams that means one big man and four perimeter players.
Posted Monday, September 16, 2013
(Editor’s note: First of a five-part series examining the Pistons by position as they prepare to open training camp on Oct. 1. Coming Tuesday: power forwards.)
Nothing speeds a young NBA player’s progress quite like playing five-on-five basketball against elite competition. Good luck finding any in the dead of summer, though.
Players beat themselves up from October through the end of the season, whether that’s mid-April or two months later when the NBA Finals wrap up. Off-seasons are devoted to rest and recovery, then to conditioning and individual skill work. Nobody wants to risk injury or leave their best basketball on summer courts.
But Andre Drummond squeezed in some quality five-on-five basketball between his eye-opening rookie season and what shapes up as a dynamic sophomore year, first in Orlando at Summer League and later in Las Vegas at USA Basketball’s minicamp.
In each stop, it wasn’t just the competition, it was the spectrum of his experiences that the Pistons believe will speed the already accelerated pace of Drummond’s learning curve.
Posted Friday, September 13, 2013
The roster churned by more than 50 percent over the off-season and the Pistons will have at least two new starters in 2013-14. Summer blueprints never play out exactly as planned, but Joe Dumars goes into training camp fully satisfied that the objectives he carried into a summer when he was armed with more than $20 million in cap space were met.
“What we wanted to do was fundamentally change our team in a way that we felt gave us a chance to win,” he said Thursday with training camp less than three weeks away. “We wanted to be able to put a really talented team on the floor and we feel good we’ll do that. Now it’s just bringing it all together, forming a chemistry on the floor and playing winning basketball. But in terms of putting the pieces together, we got accomplished a lot of what we wanted to do this summer.”
The marquee additions were Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, two young veterans whose interactions since joining the organization have given Dumars the confidence that they’re coming to the Pistons at the right time in their careers.
Posted Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Joe Dumars had Josh Smith at hello when they met at the stroke of midnight as the door to free agency swung open on July 1. But if Smith felt good about his decision to sign with the Pistons then, he feels better about it now.
“I feel great about my choice,” Smith said after a brisk workout Wednesday at the team’s practice facility. “Our team, our roster, is very impressive to me. We have a lot of hard workers who’ve been in here, getting it in, getting to know each other. I’m real excited. We have rookies that are sponges. They just want to get better. We have young fellas that play hard and everybody wants to get better and everybody wants to do it together. Whenever you are able to be a part of something like that, it’s special.”
Smith’s third child, a son, was born a few days after he signed with the Pistons. The family is settled in Detroit now, the first time in Smith’s life he’s lived away from Atlanta other than his days at the Virginia prep school Oak Hill Academy, and he feels reinvigorated after nine seasons with the Hawks.
Posted Wednesday, September 11, 2013
It’s hard to believe that in less than three weeks, I’ll be in the middle of my first training camp in the NBA. It’s been a really busy summer, from going through predraft workouts to getting drafted by the Pistons, then going to Summer League and getting married, which we talked about the last time I checked in.
A few weeks ago, I went to Canada for a couple of days to be at a summer camp for kids. It was a few hours north of Toronto, near Huntsville, at a place called Camp Olympia. I had a great time up there, really good kids. I had a chance to talk to them and meet all of the counselors. It was really fun. I really enjoyed it. There were kids of all ages, from elementary school to high school, all types of kids.
Then last week I went to Portland, not too far from my hometown of Seattle, to do some stuff with Adidas. I got a chance to meet all the people in their office, got to see the new gear and everything. I had a really good time in Portland. We already had a good relationship and they put a lot of stock in me, so I was excited to join Adidas.
Now I’m back and working out with all of the coaches in Auburn Hills. The things I’ve been working on most is pick and rolls and my shooting. I’ve really been seeing great improvement in my shot. You’ve got to get better every day. It’s a process and I’m just really enjoying it, just trying to get better.
Posted Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Brandon Jennings didn’t take long to get over being traded for the first time in his career, agreeing to a contract with the Pistons that enabled Milwaukee to deal him as a restricted free agent. In the roughly six weeks since the trade, he’s had more time to envision what his new team might look like. It’s a pretty good vision.
“Andre Drummond, his potential is very high. He’s so young, too,” Jennings said Tuesday after his first workout in the team’s Auburn Hills practice facility. “Greg Monroe, he’s a guy we can get the ball to under the basket and make plays, get buckets. They’re two big, physical guys, too. And with Josh (Smith), bringing him in here, I think we should own the glass this year, defense and offense.”
Early in Jennings’ Milwaukee career, when Andrew Bogut was healthy, he got to see the effect of a low-post presence on the rest of a team’s attack. When Jennings said at his introductory press conference in early August, “I definitely have to change my game for this team, for my teammates, everybody to be successful,” that’s what he had in mind.
Posted Monday, September 9, 2013
For two weeks, Andre Drummond has been waiting for Rasheed Wallace to accede to his desire to partake in spirited competition. Monday was that day.
“He always says he wants to catch me when I’m tired,” Drummond grinned – perhaps an indication of which side came out on top – after he and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope went two on two against Coach Sheed and Peyton Siva. “So he thought today would be a good day to get me.”
Drummond has been joined at the hip with Wallace, a first-time assistant coach but long regarded as one of the shrewdest big men at either end in recent NBA history, since returning from his successful week at USA Basketball’s July minicamp in Las Vegas. Wallace took care of him in H-O-R-S-E last month, but every day Drummond soaks up a little more of the nuance that made Wallace so unique and well-rounded.
Posted Friday, September 6, 2013
(Editor’s note: Last of a four-part story that looks at the life and basketball career of new Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks. A version of this story appears in the current edition of Courtside Quarterly.)
Talk to a handful of people about Maurice Cheeks and an unmistakable theme emerges. There’s an empathetic quality about him. Maybe it stems from the way he saw Chicago southsiders striving to maintain their dignity in the face of a daily struggle for survival. Maybe it was lessons learned when he was dropped into dusty West Texas among natives who looked and acted very differently than anything he’d known. Maybe it evolved as he suddenly was on the other side, walking out of the Spectrum on wintry nights in warm clothes to adoring kids fighting a familiar war.
Ask anyone to tell you about Maurice Cheeks and they light up and let it rip.
“The first thing that comes to mind when I think about Maurice Cheeks is class and professionalism,” Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti said. “In addition to being a heck of a basketball coach and someone who is certainly going to move the Pistons forward, he’s also one of the classiest people I’ve come across in the business.”
Posted Thursday, September 5, 2013
(Editor’s note: Third of a four-part story that looks at the life and basketball career of new Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks. A version of this story appears in the current edition of Courtside Quarterly.)
At the height of the Bad Boys’ success in Detroit, the summer between the first two titles won in franchise history, Maurice Cheeks had a homecoming of sorts. Not to Chicago, but back to Texas. After 11 years in Philly, the rebuilding 76ers in August 1989 shipped him to San Antonio, where a coach famous for the demands he puts on point guards, Larry Brown, was returning to the NBA after college stints at UCLA and Kansas.
“I’ve been blessed with all the point guards I’ve been involved with, but Mo, …” Brown’s voice trails off for a moment, remembering their time together in San Antonio. “I have a value system I learned from playing for coach (Frank) McGuire and coach (Dean) Smith and Mr. (Hank) Iba and John McClendon, and all the things I was taught to value, Mo exemplifies that. He’s the ultimate team guy. He made other players better.”
By the time Brown’s winding career path led him to Philadelphia eight years later, Cheeks’ playing days were done – his last season, 1992-93, was spent with New Jersey, coached by Chuck Daly – and his coaching career already launched. He sat on Philly’s bench under both John Lucas and Johnny Davis before Brown arrived.
Posted Wednesday, September 4, 2013
It’s been a really good summer, starting with Summer League. I tried to play my role while playing alongside Dre, Andre Drummond. He’s a tremendous player. Dre stole a lot of rebounds from me, but other than that, it was cool. I liked Summer League a lot. I had a bet with George David, our assistant general manager, that I would get 15 rebounds in a game. I had a chance the one game Dre sat out, but other than that Dre was grabbing everything. I just tried to get what I could.
Since Summer League, I’ve just been working out, getting my jump shot right, lifting, trying to get strong and get ready for the season. I was in Dallas, my hometown, working out with some of my college coaches. I went to Denton, where North Texas State is, a couple of times to work out with the guys, played pickup a little bit, got up some shots, worked on my ballhandling – a little bit of everything.
KCP and I went to Las Vegas for the camp run by Tim Grgurich. We just got after it, did some skill work and got up shots, then we scrimmaged at night. It went really well. We broke down by position and I was in a group with the Plumlee brothers, Mike Scott from Atlanta and Jeff Pendergraph from the Spurs. I worked with different people and I thought it was a good week.
Posted Wednesday, September 4, 2013
(Editor’s note: Second of a four-part story that looks at the life and basketball career of new Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks. A version of this story appears in the current edition of Courtside Quarterly.)
Pat Williams is an NBA lifer who was with Mo Cheeks’ 76ers during their ’80s glory days and later was instrumental in the launching of the Orlando Magic. He remembers well the Maurice Cheeks who showed up as a rookie in October 1978, a second-round draft pick, and almost immediately won Billy Cunningham’s confidence and the starting point guard position.
Cheeks – on a team with Julius Erving, Doug Collins, Bobby Jones, Henry Bibby and a guy named Joe Bryant, who would later have a son named Kobe – was third on the team in minutes played and first in assists. The 76ers won 47 games and advanced to the second round of the playoffs.
Williams remembers how the 76ers became intrigued by Cheeks. They’d scouted him at West Texas and liked him. But scouting back then was a lot tougher than it is today. Getting to Canyon, Texas, was a challenge, and in the days before ESPN and the proliferation of cable channels with their voracious appetite for sports content, players who didn’t suit up for UCLA, Indiana, North Carolina or the other handful of national powers were only rarely seen. The NBA might have been technically a major league, but teams often ran on shoestring budgets in the ’70s.
Posted Tuesday, September 3, 2013
It stands to reason Maurice Cheeks’ mind might have been a little preoccupied around 7:30 p.m. Pacific time on April 25, 2003. Tipoff of Game 3 of the first-round playoff series between Portland and Dallas was minutes away. Cheeks’ Trail Blazers, after dropping the first two games in Dallas, desperately needed a win.
A fan base long known as one of the NBA’s most rabid had the Rose Garden thrumming with the electric charge of postseason basketball, coming to order suddenly to hear a sweet local girl who’d won a competition to sing the national anthem for the city’s only major professional sports team. But a few lines in, a terribly awkward unease froze the crowd when Natalie Gilbert, 13, stumbled over the words, groping to pull them from her memory bank.
The YouTube video of what happened next had been viewed nearly 600,000 times when Joe Dumars named Cheeks as Pistons coach in early June. If you haven’t yet seen it, go look it up. Take a box of tissues with you.
“That’s who he is,” said Bernard Smith, who a generation ago was Natalie Gilbert, coached through the anthem by Cheeks. There were no national TV cameras capturing the moment for Smith and Cheeks in Philadelphia, no cell phones to document it, but it was every bit the act of life-changing kindness that the Pistons’ new coach prefers to perform removed from the spotlight.