Poised for Success

Lawrence Frank’s fast start bodes well for Pistons’ future

Joe Dumars and Lawrence Frank have their work cut out for them for the start of the 2011-12 season.
Allen Einstein/Getty Images
There is no definitive litmus test for projecting the success or failure of a head coach stepping into a new job. But I’ve seen dozens come and go over the past 25 years, the first 20 of them spent covering all four Detroit pro teams and Michigan and Michigan State’s football and basketball programs as a daily newspaper columnist, and have come to at least sense some of the essential elements that will determine their fate.

First and foremost, does the coach himself project an aura of self-confidence? Does he believe he can lead his team to title contention – or at least to be the best it can be?

As simple as that sounds, not all of them do. Some, in fact, project an aura of inevitable defeatism. I found that in Darryl Rogers with the Lions, way back when. I remember after one loss that devastated the locker room, Lions assistant coaches being taken aback to find Rogers blissfully munching on a sandwich minutes after the defeat.

I’ve seen at least a handful of coaches who, in the heat of the moment, get that unmistakable 1,000-yard stare about them, a panic-induced state, where a decision that would have come easily to them if it had presented itself two hours before or two hours later suddenly paralyzes them.

It didn’t take too long into the regimes of Brian Ellerbe, Marty Mornhinweg or Bobby Williams for me to conclude they were fighting uphill battles.

But I’ve been wrong, too. I thought Tommy Amaker was going to succeed famously at Michigan. (Still think he might have, if the taint of the Ellerbe era hadn’t been so overwhelming, and if he’d have had a stronger advocate in administration.) And I thought Michael Curry was a rising star when the Pistons hired him in 2008.

Curry oozed confidence. He spent a few years in the NBA’s New York headquarters – where everyone whose path he crossed raved about him – and one year as a Flip Saunders assistant. But Curry felt he was ready to be a head coach the second he retired as a player, and he said as much at his introductory press conference. In the end, I think there were elements of the job he hadn’t considered that overwhelmed him. He’s now an assistant under Doug Collins in Philadelphia, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he gets another shot and gets it right.

All of this is a long way of getting to Lawrence Frank, who has been a revelation to those who have had the chance to get to know him even a little bit and see how he’s thrown himself into the job in his first few months as Pistons coach. Even without a team to coach yet, Frank has demonstrated not just his as-advertised encyclopedic knowledge of the sport – you ought to see the library in his office, crammed with a combination of how-to basketball books and tomes on leadership – but also a rare degree of clarity of thought.

Wherever I’ve gone since Joe Dumars announced Frank’s hiring, I’ve been asked what I think of the new coach. After I recite my early impressions – confident, knowledgeable, highly organized, great communicator – I issue a caveat and a rebuttal to the caveat. Caveat: I’ve been wrong about these things in the past, most recently about Curry. Rebuttal: But you never know about a first-time head coach; Lawrence Frank has been there, done that.

When they had a team that could compete in New Jersey – before ownership, for reasons that had everything to do with preparing for the move to Brooklyn and getting the financials in order, ordered the slashing of payroll – Frank pulled just about every right string. On a team with no shortage of headstrong veterans, there was barely a whisper of discontent with a head coach who outlasted the average life expectancy by double.

I don’t think there are going to be any surprises with Lawrence Frank. I’ve talked to at least a dozen people from his past at length now and the story never changes. Great student of the game, great teacher of the game.

The staff he’s put together – and, top to bottom, it’s an impressive group – echo those thoughts. In a profession of workaholics, Frank’s drive amazes even them. It’s no secret the Pistons are well into a transition to a younger team. Everybody I’ve spoken with about Frank believes he’ll be ideal for that transition. Not that he wouldn’t be effective with a more veteran team, or a team prepared to contend, they caution, only that if you want a teaching coach, you’ve found your guy.

So, yeah, take everything with a grain of salt when you try to project how a coach is going to fare in a new job. But my guess is the Pistons couldn’t have come out of this coaching search with a better fit and a better candidate to sink roots than Lawrence Frank.