A Logical Choice

In young Pistons like Monroe, Knight & Drummond, Cheeks will find kindred spirits

Maurice Cheeks
Maurice Cheeks has a reputation for mentoring young players.
Doug Pensinger (NBAE/Getty)
You’re right to be leery when you hear broad generalizations about a coach, any coach. That doesn’t mean there isn’t an essential truth to the characterization of Maurice Cheeks as being a good coach for young players, but the caveat is that young players come in all shapes, sizes and dispositions.

Different young players require various motivational approaches, same as for stars in their prime or role players near the end of the line. Any coach who adopts a cookie-cutter mentality to reach players is destined to fall short of pulling out the best in his team. That holds for any era, but it’s fair to say it’s probably never been more essential than it is today with life-altering money at stake in a way it wasn’t to graying generations of NBA stars. That’s an equation changer and a complicating factor for the modern NBA head coach.

The Pistons will introduce Cheeks as their next head coach later this week and I suspect one of the lines of questioning for him will be his work with Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, and before him, with the likes of Andre Iguodala and Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams in Philadelphia. There are a lot of young players across the NBA who will speak highly of Cheeks’ role in shepherding them through their formative, sometimes traumatic, early years in the NBA.

Cheeks comes to the job without knowing what his opening night lineup will look like, and that probably was one of the appealing aspects of the job to him. He’ll speak to that himself, of course, but the $20 million-plus Joe Dumars takes to the marketplace in cap space in three weeks is the stuff that can dramatically change a roster.

That said, the fruits of the last three NBA drafts – Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight, Kyle Singler and Andre Drummond, primarily – are at the center of the Pistons’ immediate future. And here’s why I think we’re OK making a general assumption that Mo Cheeks is going to be good for those particular young players: They’re all cut from the same cloth.

Before they’ve ever met, I think it’s safe to guess that Mo Cheeks is going to click with Monroe, Knight, Singler and Drummond. That’s based not on their ages – from Drummond’s 19 to Singler’s 25 – but on their demeanor. Cheeks will find a young core of talent that will be naturally receptive to leadership and respectful of a head coach’s authority. He’s going to find players who’ll respond to him not so differently than how he responded to Billy Cunningham when he got to Philadelphia as a 22-year-old out of West Texas State in October 1978.

I’ve been struck in recent years, having the chance to talk to dozens of prospects at the NBA draft combine held annually in Chicago, at the connection so many of them have to generations of players whose careers ended before they were born or, certainly, long before they considered the possibility that they might one day emulate them. The Internet’s immediacy has made embracing the game’s history and the players who built the NBA as we know it easy for those with an inquisitive bent.

Kim English is a classic example. Before him, Norris Cole told me how he spent hundreds of hours watching clips of vintage NBA games. And on it goes. Don’t think for a second that the players Mo Cheeks addresses at training camp in less than four months won’t be viewing him through a prism of his achievements as one of the great point guards of his era. NBA-TV released its acclaimed documentary on Julius Erving just this week. It won’t be lost on the young Pistons that their coach was the point guard of that team, the guy who set the tempo that Dr. J danced to, the choreographer of a champion that ascended against the backdrop of a Magic Johnson-Larry Bird NBA during the most competitive decade in league history.

It doesn’t guarantee he’ll win their everlasting respect. But it opens a door for him in ways not possible for others who might have stood in his position.

Coaching success is the product of a confluence of factors, timing right up there. Tom Gores and Joe Dumars have spent the past two years, since Gores bought the team to lend stability and provide management necessary resources, influencing those factors more favorably for the Pistons. Timing hasn’t been more favorable for the Pistons in four or five years.

A foundation of young talent is now in place and the salary structure is positioned to inject major complementary parts. Those are major accomplishments that did nothing for the won-loss record of the recent past, but have everything to do with putting the Pistons in superb position to get off of the treadmill in shorter order than most franchises must endure in a transition of eras.

Finding the right coach for any particular team is more art than science. But the right coach for the Pistons as they’re currently constructed, the facts in evidence suggest, is someone with a likelihood of connecting with the businesslike young core Joe Dumars will provide for his next head coach. The very businesslike Mo Cheeks seems like a pretty ideal candidate to make it work.