Career Crossroads

Coaching change could give Stuckey structure to succeed

The Pistons' future looks bright despite current struggles.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
In the summer of 2002, Joe Dumars faced a critical decision two years into his run as Pistons president. The franchise was positioned to take a significant next step after he’d stabilized a shaky situation and begun reworking a roster filled with mismatched parts.

The Pistons needed an upgrade at point guard, most glaringly. Chucky Atkins had served them well as part of the package received from Orlando in the Grant Hill sign and trade, but Atkins was the prototypical backup point guard, giving up too much size most nights to give the Pistons a chance to dig in defensively.

The free-agent options boiled down to three players, all of whom had strengths and flaws: Travis Best, Jeff McInnis and Chauncey Billups. It was far from the no-brainer then that it seems today.

Billups had rallied late in the 2001-02 season – his fifth NBA season, though he was limited to 13 games by injury in his third year – to finish with averages of 12.5 points and 5.5 assists, shooting .423 overall and .394 from the 3-point line, recording eight double-doubles.

Nine years later, Rodney Stuckey – about to enter his fifth NBA season – is coming off a season in which he averaged 15.5 points, 5.2 assists and shot .439 overall and .289 from the 3-point line, seven times recording double-doubles.

The only notable area of difference there is Billups’ superior 3-point marksmanship. Both players are superb foul shooters – Billups was at .885 when he came to the Pistons, Stuckey at .866 last season. Their turnovers were similar.

Stuckey becomes a restricted free agent on July 1 – assuming the NBA clock doesn’t stop when the current collective bargaining agreement expires at midnight June 30. He could have been an unrestricted free agent if the Pistons hadn’t extended him his fifth-year qualifying offer. But that was never a possibility. Dumars has made that clear all along. He considers Stuckey solidly among the core going forward, right there with Greg Monroe.

That doesn’t mean Stuckey hasn’t caused his share of disappointment or frustration along the way, some of it stemming from the expectations Stuckey stirred very early in his career. He wowed all observers in Summer League 2007 and Pistons training camp, looking very much like a steal with the 15th pick. After missing the first 27 games of his rookie season due to a broken hand, Stuckey made the Pistons a better team immediately and gave Flip Saunders plenty of reasons to play him. Remember how Stuckey saved the Pistons against Orlando when Billups went down with a hamstring pull?

There were times he was their best player during their loss to Boston in the conference finals that season. Asked to shoulder a greater burden the next season when Billups was dealt two games in, Stuckey’s progress has come in fits and starts ever since. He’s often appeared as frustrated with his situation as some Pistons fans are with the fact he’s fallen a rung short of joining the elite young wave of point guards who’ve entered the league since his drafting.

But the solution isn’t letting him walk, any more than Minnesota benefited from allowing Billups to get away just in time to see his career blossom elsewhere.

Joe D is conducting a coaching search on a parallel track to preparing for next week’s draft, and for all the importance of getting it right with the No. 8 pick – new owner Tom Gores showed just how much he values that asset by coming back to it two or three times in his introductory press conference – getting it right with the coaching hire is every bit as critical.

And no one will feel the impact of that hire more than Stuckey, who clearly had a disconnect with John Kuester. On at least three occasions last season, Stuckey was benched by Kuester for insubordination. Every time Stuckey returned from those benchings, he played like the All-Star the Pistons believe is within his reach.

In the 11 games after Kuester sat Stuckey for a game following a Nov. 3 loss at Atlanta in which Stuckey ignored Kuester’s sideline call, Stuckey averaged 18.3 points and 5.4 assists and shot 50 percent.

In the four games after Stuckey sat following his late arrival to shootaround on Feb. 25 at Philadelphia, he averaged 18.3 points and eight assists and shot .483. Then Kuester took him out of the starting lineup.

And in the season’s final five games, after Kuester sat Stuckey for two games for refusing to re-enter the April 1 loss to Chicago in the final minutes, Stuckey put up dazzling numbers: 25.2 points, 9.4 assists, .519 shooting and spectacular numbers at the foul line, getting there 46 times – 9.2 attempts per game – and making 43 of them. Not coincidentally, the Pistons were 4-1 in those games.

I’m not sure of many issues Dumars will put to coaching candidates as he walks them through the interview process, but I feel pretty confident that a big one will be how they view Stuckey and how they are prepared to connect with him and provide the disciplined structure in which Stuckey is more apt to thrive.

It wasn’t just the five years he’d spent soaking up NBA experience before coming to the Pistons that allowed Chauncey Billups to two years later be the Finals MVP for the 2004 NBA champions. Excellent coaching had something to do with it, too. The Pistons owe themselves providing Rodney Stuckey a similar environment to see how far his career can carry them.