Meeting of the Minds

Kuester, Hamilton smooth differences, point to final 21 games

Rip Hamilton and Coach Kuester have set their sights on the future.
Steve Yeater/NBAE/Getty Images
The John Kuester-Rip Hamilton impasse that’s hung like a mushroom cloud over the Pistons for the better part of two months has been resolved, both parties agree. Now the questions become if and when Hamilton can work his way back into the lineup and how reluctant Kuester will be to break up the nine-man group – devoid of the four most senior and most decorated Pistons – that produced one of the season’s most satisfying and entertaining wins.

Hamilton practiced Monday for the first time since suffering a groin injury on Feb. 5 at Milwaukee, which was his first appearance since coming out of the rotation after a two-point game in 20 minutes at Chicago on Jan. 10.

Those 20 minutes represent Hamilton’s only action in the team’s last 23 games. He missed three with the flu and nine more with the groin injury. In nine games, Hamilton was dressed and available but didn’t play. And in one – the Feb. 4 game against New Jersey, one night before he returned against Milwaukee – Hamilton was on the inactive list.

All that inactivity would necessitate a cautious return to the lineup under the best of circumstances, which haven’t been much in evidence during a season of restlessness and frustration. But the meeting of the minds between Kuester and Hamilton was a necessary first step that should at least allow the season’s final 21 games to be played out amid relative normalcy.

By multiple accounts, Monday’s practice was highly competitive and spirited, with Kuester addressing the team beforehand.

“What we talked to all the players about today was we’re starting this thing really fresh,” he said. “What I mean by that is being able to earn your minutes on the basketball court in practice, in shootaround, in the game itself. The energy was pretty much there today.”

Neither Hamilton nor Kuester would say specifically when their meeting occurred. Hamilton repeatedly said it took place “a minute” ago but not on Monday. Kuester said “it was recent” and was provoked by “a mutual agreement.”

Hamilton answered questions for approximately nine minutes. Here are the highlights:

On missing Friday’s shootaround at Philadelphia, leading to a fine and a game in which Kuester would play only the six players who arrived on time that morning: “I went back home. It was my fault. I didn’t call them and let them I know I went back to Coatesville (his hometown, near Philadelphia). I called them at the last minute. That’s why I got fined. I should have called before.”

On denying his absence was part of a planned team action: “It was crazy. We were all laughing as it was reported. It just happened that guys didn’t get the opportunity to make it to practice and the first thing people said was there was a protest. I heard about it – people calling me – probably just like y’all read it. … I guess that’s what happens when you’re not winning any games. Stuff comes out. People leak stuff. That’s kind of crazy to me.”

On reports that he rejected a trade to Cleveland and subsequent buyout that would have allowed him to become a free agent: “Don’t always believe what you read. There was a situation there, but it wasn’t as documented. … It was an offer, but it wasn’t like it was reported.”

On reports he verbally tore into Kuester during a January practice, after he had been removed from the rotation: “It was just a disagreement. I’m the team captain, he’s the coach. It was one of those things. It wasn’t like it was reported – argument, Rip Hamilton not playing any more. It was nowhere near like that. It was a disagreement. I continued to play after that. It was just one of those crazy things that came out of nowhere. Crazy part, (it was reported) right after the trade deadline passed.”

Hamilton worked out at the practice facility on Sunday, a day off for the team after a Friday-Saturday back-to-back set, and wound up going hard with Austin Daye, who said it was one of the toughest workouts he’s had in a long time. Hamilton wanted to test the groin before returning to practice. Now he hopes that he can win back some minutes and help the team salvage whatever can be gained from the season’s final 21 games.

“Since I’ve been here, I’ve made the playoffs every year but last year, when I got hurt,” he said. “You’ve got 20-some games left. You still feel as though you’ve got an opportunity. We’ve just got to get everybody on the same page.

“It’s fun. The game is the game. I love the game. The guys on the floor want to see me out there. It’s just unfortunate that I had a groin injury the game I came back, the Milwaukee game.”

The Pistons, ironically enough, were off to Milwaukee after Monday’s practice for Tuesday’s game with the Bucks, similarly hanging to playoff contention by a thread. Hamilton is listed as questionable with his groin injury. It’s also uncertain whether Tayshaun Prince, dealing with a sore lower back, will return. He worked out on the side during Monday’s practice.

Ben Wallace remains away from the team after the Saturday death of a brother. Those three, along with Tracy McGrady, were not available for the win over Utah in which Kuester used all nine players who were in uniform for a 120-116 win in which the Pistons played at a higher tempo and finished with a flourish, a 37-point fourth quarter.

“I was so proud of that group that played against Utah,” Kuester said of the nine-man group, whose oldest player was Chris Wilcox at 28 and whose average age was 24.8. “Their energy and effort was phenomenal and that’s the type of energy and effort I want for the next 21 games.”