First Impressions

Rumored Pistons coach candidates run the gamut

Joe Dumars' list of potential Pistons head coaches includes some varied names.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Let’s see: Mike Woodson, Kelvin Sampson, Mark Jackson (nope: gone), Mike Budenholzer, Don Newman, Bill Laimbeer, Dwane Casey … am I missing anyone?

That’s the list – the rumored list, it should be emphasized – to replace John Kuester as Pistons head coach. I touched on many of those names in Monday’s Mailbag, but let’s acknowledge that the names that surface early in coaching searches consist of three types: unemployed former head coaches who still carry cachet; coaches with a link to the organization doing the search; assistant coaches considered by consensus to be ready for a shot at running their own show.

That Mike Woodson has been labeled by various media analysts the “front-runner” for the job probably stems from the fact that he qualifies on two fronts: He’s a former head coach who did a solid job nurturing a young Atlanta team into a top-four playoff qualifier and he has ties to the Pistons, having served on Larry Brown’s staff during the 2004 title run.

There is much to recommend Woodson, starting with his days as an Indiana player under Bobby Knight. Love him or hate him, Knight’s credentials as a teacher of the game are beyond reproach. From there, Woodson had a long NBA career and was exposed to about everything a player could experience in bouncing through six franchises. He paid his dues as an assistant and impressed NBA general managers with the job he did with some headstrong players during his run in Atlanta.

When I asked Joe Dumars about darkhorse teams in the East three or four years back, the first one he mentioned was Atlanta. Woodson, he said, was getting the most out of that team, and it had registered with him.

So there’s that. Woodson was also present during Pistons training camp last fall, watching a few practices alongside Dumars and his front-office staff and chatting afterward with Kuester, with whom he has remained friends since their days together under Brown.

I would stop short of calling Woodson the front-runner, though – only the most obvious candidate to draw an interview.

Here are a few thoughts on the other names that have been reported as potential candidates:

Kelvin Sampson – He’s perhaps the most intriguing name on the list. He made his first big impression on me at The Palace, of all places. It came in early December of 2003 when his Oklahoma team played Michigan State. Sampson and Tom Izzo share a great mutual respect. It goes beyond their allegiance to Spartan legend Jud Heathcote – Sampson was a grad assistant there in 1979-80, three years before Izzo joined Heathcote’s staff – to their shared emphasis on defense and toughness.

And I saw that firsthand that December afternoon at The Palace. Izzo’s roster that year was dotted with players who would get long looks from NBA scouts and four players – Paul Davis, Alan Anderson, Shannon Brown and Mo Ager – who would get drafted and have varying degrees of NBA success.

Oklahoma’s roster was depleted and heavily dependent on freshmen. It should have been a mismatch. But Oklahoma won in overtime, 80-77. Yet it was the way Oklahoma won that opened my eyes to Sampson. That OU team – young and not nearly as big or as talented – should have been overwhelmed by the situation, especially with a Palace crowd that was all Michigan State, No. 5 in the country at the time.

The way they kept clawing at Michigan State, hanging in during a game that grew more physical with every possession, was stunning. Izzo was visibly upset and critical of the Spartans after the game, knowing his team lost because it got “out-toughed” – the one thing he will never abide.

That’s only one element of making for a successful coach, of course – but it’s a big one given where the Pistons are at. Kuester came in sounding all the right notes about the need to defend, perhaps to quell any concerns that he was solely an offensive specialist after his stint in Cleveland filling that role for Mike Brown. If Sampson gets an interview and sounds the same notes, Dumars will only have to investigate the evidence of Oklahoma to understand how it translated.

Beyond that, Sampson’s time in the NBA gives him the credibility he’ll need to make a good first impression with whatever team hires him to his first head coaching job. He generated immediate buzz when Gregg Popovich hired him as a consultant at mid-season when Sampson left Indiana under an NCAA investigative cloud. After the 2009-10 season, Sampson was already being talked about for last summer’s openings.

I know the conventional wisdom here is that after Michael Curry and Kuester, Joe D would be hesitant to hire another first-time NBA head coach. I don’t think that will influence him in the least. If Dumars decides to interview Sampson and likes what he hears, based on what he already knows – remember, John Hammond, Milwaukee’s GM, has Dumars’ thorough trust – then there will be no inhibitions.

Mark Jackson – Yeah, I know – too late. Already hired by Golden State.

As I wrote in Mailbag, hiring Jackson represents a huge leap of faith simply because he hasn’t coached. Jackson retired seven years ago and has been a TV analyst ever since. I don’t doubt the value of the perspective that role has given him, nor his communication skills, nor his basketball intellect.

And if you heard Jackson’s comments after the Warriors hired him Monday night, he sounds like he’s ready for the complexities of a job that requires daily diligence.

It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Jackson validated the faith Golden State showed in him and became a successful NBA head coach. But I’ll say this: I thought the exact same things about the perspective, communication skills and basketball intellect of Michael Curry. For whatever reason, that failed spectacularly.

Bill Laimbeer – Laimbeer has been a favorite of Pistons fans for this job for the past two hires. I didn’t take his candidacy seriously either time, simply because he hadn’t sat on an NBA bench or been plugged in much at all since retiring as a player. He briefly served as Pistons TV analyst, but mostly he was a highly successful WNBA coach.

This time around? Spending two years on Minnesota’s bench has to help. Granted, the Timberwolves have been awful, but Minnesota’s big men, Kevin Love especially, talk favorably of Laimbeer’s influence.

I think Laimbeer is more long shot than a short-list guy, and whether he gets the chance to interview really comes down to Joe D’s gut feeling if he’s the right man for the job at this moment. But you have to take his candidacy seriously this time. There’s not much doubt Laimbeer would demand hard work and be intolerant of selfish behaviors.

Mike Budenholzer, Don Newman, Dwane Casey – Grouped as one simply because I don’t have a strong feel for any of them. Budenholzer and Newman are both San Antonio assistants, and there’s certainly something to be said for schooling at the knee of Popovich. Budenholzer has been the hotter name in the past and reportedly was on the short list at Golden State.

Casey has paid some heavy dues, forced to go to Japan to relaunch his career after getting caught in the NCAA cross-hairs during the Kentucky recruiting scandal – the Eddie Sutton-era Kentucky recruiting scandal. He’s coached under some really good ones, including George Karl, Nate McMillan and currently Rick Carlisle. He had 1½ seasons as Minnesota’s head coach before Kevin McHale fired him, a move that was largely seen as unjustified. Casey’s pedigree is defense – that alone probably lends his candidacy credence.

As for a timeline, Dumars said there is no timetable, yet also said the coaching search was a priority. The fact he’s no longer planning to accompany vice president Scott Perry and personnel director George David this week to Europe – where four potential Pistons lottery targets will be at least available for interviews – suggests it really has been prioritized.

Perry and David leave Wednesday and are expected to go to Spain to interview Bismack Biyombo, then to Lithuania to see Jonas Valanciunas – who will be practicing with his national team – and finally to Treviso, Italy, for the Eurocamp. Biyombo, Jan Vesely and Donatas Motiejunas are expected to submit to individual workouts there.