Back in the Saddle

Hill rediscovers comfort zone as he fills in for Frank on Pistons bench

Assistant coach Brian Hill filled in for Pistons head coach Lawrence Frank for Wednesday's game against the Knicks.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Brian Hill isn’t sure how long he’ll keep Lawrence Frank’s seat warm while the Pistons coach is home in New Jersey as his wife deals with an illness, but it didn’t take him long to adjust to sliding over 12 inches on the bench.

Make that “readjust.” Hill isn’t exactly an NBA head coaching novice. Over nine seasons – two stops in Orlando sandwiched around a stint with the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies – he coached 613 NBA games. And his 298-315 record would look a lot better if not for the two-plus seasons nursing the baby Grizzlies along to a 31-123 record.

“It didn’t really feel a whole lot different,” Hill said the day after the shorthanded Pistons – playing without not only Andre Drummond but Greg Monroe and Charlie Villanueva – rallied to take a 10-point lead over the Knicks but ran out of gas in an 87-77 loss. “Probably the hardest part was the opponent in that New York is one of the more difficult teams to play against when you’re making an adjustment like this from one coach to another because they’re a much different team defensively than any other team that we play. But as far as reading defensive situations and making offensive adjustments, it’s basically the same. I don’t know that you lose anything just because you’re one seat removed.”

Hill’s primary role during games at Frank’s side is to be his eyes and ears defensively, just as John Loyer takes the lead on the offensive side. Dee Brown moves into that role while Hill stands in for Frank.

“He’s going to do similar to what I did – keep track of everything going on defensively,” Hill said. “If there’s something that escapes me when we meet in a timeout on the floor, I can say, ‘The last three scores – what were our breakdowns,’ and he can refresh my memory because you have a few more things on your mind rather than just concentrating on the defensive end.”

Hill spoke to Frank after the game and filled him in on the ups and downs of the night with the Knicks.

“I went through the game with him, pretty much quarter by quarter,” Hill said. “I just talked about the effort that our guys gave. I thought they gave us an excellent effort and I said the guys played a lot of minutes. I didn’t play Kim (English) and Khris (Middleton). If we have the same numbers tomorrow night, I might need to play those guys just to spell guys a couple of minutes each half. Otherwise, we just talked about the game and everybody’s effort during the course of the game.”

Frank and Hill are usually on the same page, not surprising given their shared past. It was during Hill’s time in Vancouver when he gave the fresh-faced former Bobby Knight student manager from Indiana University his first crack at an NBA job. Frank had followed Kevin O’Neill from Marquette to Tennessee but wasn’t interested in tagging along with O’Neill – the former Pistons assistant to Rick Carlisle – to Northwestern, so he looked into NBA opportunities.

Hill offered a shot to be Vancouver’s advance scout, a typical foot-in-the-door job, and was so impressed by Frank’s hunger and his work with young players on the rare occasions he wasn’t on the road scouting that he brought him on staff. After Hill was fired in the 1999-2000 season, Frank stuck around to finish the year with the Grizzlies and then found his way to Byron Scott’s staff in New Jersey, where he eventually rose to become his lead assistant coach and ultimately his successor when Rod Thorn made a move midway through the 2003-04 season.

To replace himself on staff, Frank hired Hill, as he would seven years later after Hill’s second Orlando stint ended and Joe Dumars named Frank as Pistons coach, where Hill had served under John Kuester for two seasons.

“It’s nice to be back in that position, but more important, it’s about Lawrence and his family situation right now,” Hill said. “We just want to try to keep the players working as hard as we possibly can during this time period and try to get a win or two until he gets back.”

The quest for wins gets a little easier with something closer to a full cast. The frontcourt rotation Frank had used from late November until early February – Monroe, Villanueva, Drummond and Jason Maxiell – was down to one regular against the Knicks, Maxiell.

Hill said after Thursday’s practice his hunch is Villanueva (left hamstring) will be ready for Dallas on Friday, and Monroe said the same about himself.

“I’m feeling a lot better,” he said. “I still feel a little pain. I’m expecting to be ready for tomorrow.”

The Knicks game, Monroe said, was the first he’d ever missed in his life, at any level, due to injury.

“It was tough,” he said. “I think the guys played hard, they played well, but was definitely tough. A new experience for me.”

After the Dallas game, the Pistons take off on their last extended Western Conference road swing of the season, a weeklong, four-game trek that starts with a Sunday game against the Clippers. The season’s down to its final 19 games and the playoffs are all but officially out of reach, but Monroe senses no diminished focus.

“Guys aren’t slowing down right now,” he said. “Guys still have the same focus, going out every night and trying to win games. We’re trying to win no matter what position we’re in. That’s what we get paid to do. That’s why we’re here – to try to win games. As long as there are games left to be played, we’re going to go out every night and try to win.”