An Easy Sell

As Pistons start coaching search, selling points ensure quality field

Joe Dumars
Joe Dumars won’t have a hard time attracting a quality field of head coaching candidates.
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
In an increasingly polarized world where there is no patience for nuanced positions, we sort coaches into two bins: dictators or pushovers, often coded as “a player’s coach.”

Except the best coaches rise above those labels. Chuck Daly, the best coach in Pistons history, certainly did.

If he were available, Joe Dumars would hire him. Alas, he’s not. So the search goes on.

As it will for roughly a quarter of the league, perhaps a third, in the days and weeks ahead. Philadelphia will be looking for its fifth coach since 2006 with Doug Collins’ departure. Milwaukee might be looking for its fifth, depending on what happens with Jim Boylan. Minnesota could be on the hunt for its sixth coach in that time if Rick Adelman walks away, as he’s said he’s considered. Phoenix will be looking for its fifth coach if Lindsey Hunter isn’t retained.

And on it goes. Sacramento, Washington, Toronto, New Jersey/Brooklyn, Charlotte … all have had at least three and as many as five coaches since 2006 alone, and it’s possible all will be joining the hunt again this off-season.

This notion that churning coaches is the exclusive province of the Pistons is myopic. It’s the province of all franchises looking to gain traction, and in the NBA – to a greater degree than any other team sport – traction often comes down to the presence of one great player.

San Antonio is the pillar of NBA stability. Gregg Popovich has been on the job since 1997. Does anyone think it coincidence that Tim Duncan was a rookie that year? Let’s see what happens in San Antonio when Duncan retires and Popovich, as he has long joked (insisted?), follows suit. Dollars to donuts the next Spurs coach doesn’t match 25 percent of Popovich’s longevity.

Losing is toxic. All coaches come to the job with a wealth of ideas and enthusiasm. Almost all are initially well received. Then the season starts and somebody walks away a loser every night. As those losses mount, eventually the ideas seem flawed and the enthusiasm diminishes. In media speak, this becomes the “he’s lost the team” moment. Nothing about the coach has changed, but the coach-player dynamic has, and at that point, you can stay the course and hope it changes again … or change coaches. Neither is a magic bullet. Only winning is.

Coaches of winning teams who tack right or left when seas get choppy are hailed for their ability to adjust. Coaches of losing teams who do so are derided for their lack of conviction.

No one thought Daly a genius when he fled the spectacular disaster that was the Ted Stepien Cleveland Cavaliers with a 9-32 record. If it hadn’t been for Jack McCloskey and their common ties to the University of Pennsylvania, it’s likely Daly – hardly a young man, 52, when the Cleveland experience was unplugged – would have never gotten another shot in the NBA, his genius undiscovered.

If Phil Jackson hadn’t been in the right place when Jerry Krause ousted Doug Collins – the right place being assistant coach of Michael Jordan’s team – he probably would have been dismissed as a crackpot Zen hippie. Popovich might have coached his backside off had his first shot come with the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies instead of the Tim Duncan-David Robinson Spurs and no one ever would have guessed he was headed for enshrinement in Springfield.

Dumars built an NBA title team from scraps, essentially, inheriting a roster with nothing approaching a star player once Grant Hill high-tailed it for Orlando a month after Bill Davidson turned the Pistons over to him. He did it within four years of assuming command, an astonishing achievement in a superstar-driven league.

The rebuilding is well under way. Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond give the Pistons two rare building blocks – young, big and talented – that separate them from virtually everyone else dining at the lottery-team table.

Their presence also will differentiate the Pistons from other teams casting lines in the pool of coaching candidates, but Monroe and Drummond aren’t the only things Joe Dumars will take to the marketplace as the search to replace Lawrence Frank unfolds.

Those three NBA championship banners fluttering above The Palace’s hardwood might be dismissed as a selling point if they weren’t all directly linked to Joe D, two won as a player and one as an executive. He’s done this before. He was also the guy who picked Monroe and Drummond.

No, not every personnel decision has been flawless. Of course not. There’s not an executive with a track record of any consequence who doesn’t have a long list of regrets in that regard. No one can project how a confluence of factors – age, injuries, motivation, etc. – will affect one player as opposed to another.

But when Joe D goes to New York for the May 21 lottery, he’ll be sitting with many peers who wish they’d picked Monroe and Drummond when they had the chance. The notion that the Pistons will have a hard time attracting a quality field is insane. Run from anyone who tells you otherwise. Jobs with starting salaries in the $3 million-and-up range don’t usually have a hard time attracting desirable candidates.

There’s a decent chance, in fact, that Joe D will have a new coach in place by the time he attends that lottery draw, a candidate out there now intrigued by: (1) coaching the most dynamic pair of young big men in the league; (2) working for one of the five NBA franchises with more than two titles; (3) coming to a team with more cap space than all but two other NBA franchises to add significant talent in the off-season; and (4) working under one of the few active executives who’s built a championship team – and the only one to do so without benefit of a sure-fire Hall of Famer.

Whoever that next coach is, the factors at work for the Pistons as the 2013-14 season awaits will give him a much better chance to avoid being labeled a dictator or a pushover, a much better chance to emerge a genius.