Time for Change

Gores’ era’s first big decision: John Kuester out as Pistons coach

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There is a rarely a perfect time for a coaching change, but there is almost always a time when the necessity for change is unmistakably clear. That time had come for the Pistons, Tom Gores and Joe Dumars concluded, on John Kuester’s watch. I don’t suspect anyone who’s followed the Pistons closely the past two seasons would argue any differently with much conviction. Not any more.

Gores, upon his introduction as Pistons owner last week, said Kuester deserved the courtesy of a conversation with him before any decision was made. Gores’ business empire was built, according to those who know the world of private equity investment, because the Platinum Equity team he founded and leads employs a truly unique business model that learns the nuts and bolts first, then acts surgically and decisively.

He promised swift action on several fronts and that’s what he delivered with Sunday’s decision to let go of Kuester with one year left on his contract. There will be tougher decisions ahead, to be sure. This one seemed inevitable not long into a second season that began with a series of wrenching losses, one more numbing and frustrating than the last.

Momentum goes in reverse as surely as it goes forward. The Pistons convened for training camp last September eager to prove their 27-win 2009-10 season was a fluke, one betrayed by a string of damaging injuries. But blowing a seven-point lead in the final 100 seconds of the season opener, followed by a buzzer-beating loss in the home opener two nights later, seemed to suck the wind from their sails. That negative momentum just rolled over on them.

The ride soon got very bumpy, with the first very public sign being the dustup between Kuester and Rodney Stuckey in Atlanta in the season’s fifth game that resulted in Stuckey’s one-game benching. Then came the November confrontation in Golden State between Kuester and Tayshaun Prince, also played out very publicly. Soon, players were openly questioning decisions large and small, strategy and tactics, starting lineup moves and inconsistent roles.

Those things happen to good teams and proven coaches, as well, and by themselves aren’t necessarily toxic. The Pistons just never strung together success in stretches long enough to tamp down those brush fires before they joined in conflagration.

At those times their oars all the hit the water in rhythm, the Pistons looked very much like the basketball team Joe D was confident he had put together when he handed Kuester a roster deep with perimeter scorers and infused with a nice dose of young talent. Dumars understood it wasn’t a finished product. But it was a team with enough depth and versatility to seriously challenge for a bottom-four playoff berth in a top-heavy Eastern Conference.

It’s probably fair to assume that addressing the coaching situation might have happened earlier if not for the effects of the transition of ownership. When Dumars said on Thursday at Gores’ introductory press conference that, “I look forward to being able to address some of the things we’ve been wanting to do for the past couple of years.” And, “It’s been tough not to be able to get things done because we were just at a standstill,” it’s fair to extrapolate from those words that a coaching change as the season started to slip away would have been likely without the constraints of that transition.

When I asked Joe D in early February what he would say to someone who wanted a recap of the first two-thirds of this Pistons season, he said, “A lot of missed opportunities. A lot of nights where we’ve had chances to win games and found ways to lose. These first 55, 56 games have been missed opportunity after missed opportunity.”

Their oars weren’t synchronized with any consistency. That’s how all those opportunities got missed. That’s how they kept finding ways to lose games they should have – could have, at least – won.

A good game one night had no carryover on their performance 24 hours later. The Pistons came to training camp singing a common refrain: that they had enough talent to, at a minimum, make the playoffs if – and they underscored the if – their chemistry developed as they hoped.

It never did. Chemistry doesn’t coalesce overnight, but it can’t be months in the making, either. And when you get there, you know it, and then it’s something you have in the bank. It doesn’t come and go. Some nights the legs might not be there, others the mind might wander. But chemistry is a constant. Teams don’t have chemistry some nights and not others.

Chemistry isn’t the sole responsibility of the head coach, but nobody influences it more than he does. And ultimately, when a team shows cracks as numerous and deep in the foundation as the Pistons revealed last season, change starts at the head coach.

It would have been tough to sell the kind of change Gores’ mere presence, now backed strongly by his words, represents on one hand and announce that Kuester was returning for a third season on the other. A coaching change was an inevitable part of a fresh start for the Pistons.

I think even Kuester would agree, in his heart of hearts. Coaches always believe the next game is the opportunity for a win that launches a turnaround. But even Kuester seemed resigned to the reality that the window had closed on his chance to make this relationship work over the last few months of the season. Coaches might not be the first to sense that their message is no longer being received, but eventually they almost all know when they’re tilting at windmills.

That time had come for the Pistons. It might not have been the perfect time, but it was time.