Proven Commodity

Lawrence Frank’s track record gives him a head start on success with Pistons

Lawrence Frank
Lawrence Frank
Christian Petersen (NBAE/Getty)
Almost nobody becomes an NBA head coach at 33. These days, relatively few make it at any age without having an NBA playing career of some duration on their resume. If you don’t have that going for you, then you better have served on the staff of an acknowledged NBA coaching legend.

Lawrence Frank, who now takes over as Pistons coach, comes up empty across the board. Yet he not only wasn’t awed by the moment of his swift ascent when the New Jersey Nets stunned the basketball world by installing the Doogie Howser lookalike as their head coach midway through the 2003-04 season, he started marching boldly forward immediately, dragging a team filled with cantankerous personalities along with him.

The Nets won their first 13 games under Frank after GM Rod Thorn canned Byron Scott, who’d taken the Nets to the NBA Finals the previous two seasons. But they’d stopped playing for Scott.

The first remarkable aspect of Frank’s unlikely rise to NBA head coach was that an NBA lifer like Thorn – who followed a long playing career with stints as a coach, a league administrator and a general manager – saw in Frank the stuff to lead despite the odds stacked against him.

Joe Dumars saw firsthand the work Frank did with that New Jersey team in the course of the 2004 playoffs. The Pistons would go on to win the franchise’s third NBA title eventually, but they very nearly were extinguished in the second round, losing a triple-overtime Game 5 at The Palace to trail 3-2 in the series. Maybe if Frank’s veteran point guard and leader didn’t come up with a gimpy knee in Game 6, the course of history changes.

Frank lasted five more full seasons in New Jersey and part of a sixth before Nets ownership, angling to leave for Brooklyn and strapped for cash, directed Thorn to dump salary and start from scratch. That’s an impressive run for any coach these days, never mind someone who came to the job under the circumstances Frank did. The Nets lost their first 16 games of 2009-10 and that forced Thorn to cash out on Frank, fully understanding the circumstances were beyond his control.

Dumars, naturally, called Thorn as he was conducting his coaching search, and Thorn gave him nothing but positive feedback. “This is a guy who can lead,” he told him.

In the course of their interview, Joe D was struck by Frank’s presence, his passion for being a head coach and the sense of comfort he projected at managing the many tasks inherent in the position of NBA head coach in the modern era.

Frank groomed himself for this all along. He was cut every year from his high school team in Teaneck, N.J., so he coached youth league teams. He hounded Howard Garfinkel, the iconic grass-roots basketball camp director, into allowing him to come to his famed Five Star camp that for years drew the biggest names in college coaching. He chose to attend Indiana University so he could be a student manager under Bobby Knight, which he was for all four years, finishing as the head manager of a 15-man unit.

His IU ties landed him a spot as a grad assistant on staff at Marquette under Kevin O’Neill right out of college, and he followed O’Neill – who would later become a Pistons assistant under Rick Carlisle – to Tennessee for three years. Then he made the leap to the NBA, serving as an assistant on the staff of Brian Hill, who for the past two years was an assistant to John Kuester with the Pistons.

He spent the past season as the No. 1 assistant to Doc Rivers in Boston, time he put to good use. Rivers, another whose opinion Dumars respects and solicited, also gave Frank a glowing endorsement. While in Boston, Frank told Joe D, he learned by watching Rivers how to ease up on the throttle as necessary and delegate more to his staff.

The knock on Frank became that he couldn’t do that in New Jersey – couldn’t pull back, wouldn’t stop coaching for a second during practices and let other voices fill the room.

So the Pistons are getting a guy who, at 40, already has experienced the whipsaw of NBA emotions – 13-game winning streak to start, 16-game losing streak to finish – and has had the benefit of regrouping and gaining a new perspective on his head coaching experience.

His reputation is as both an inveterate worker and an innovative tinkerer. I asked someone familiar with the situation how Frank was able to win over that tough New Jersey locker room so quickly.

“Because he kept showing them his decisions were right,” was the answer. Keep making the right substitutions, punching the right buttons, drawing up the right out-of-bounds play during a timeout – in short, keep putting players in position to win – and even the most cynical respond.

There are almost no easy situations a new NBA coach enters. What Lawrence Frank inherits and will be asked to change with the Pistons won’t be easy. Compared to what he already proved he could handle in New Jersey, it’s a walk in the park.