‘Exactly What We Needed’

Joe D puts his trust in Cheeks’ ability to command Pistons locker room

Maurice Cheeks
Maurice Cheeks was introduced as the Pistons' new head coach.
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
It’s not always easy to go from field general to first lieutenant. Maurice Cheeks had been a field general for a good long run between his stints in Portland and Philadelphia. But he enjoyed his four years at Scott Brooks’ side in Oklahoma City. It was a good organization with great young talent and championship possibilities. He wasn’t itching to jump at just any job.

But when Joe Dumars made it known that Cheeks was under consideration to coach the Detroit Pistons … well, easy call.

“The tradition of this organization sold me, period,” Cheeks said at his introductory press conference Thursday at The Palace. “Joe Dumars, Isiah Thomas, those guys, the way they played the game. I always point to the jerseys in the rafters. Those guys played right, they played committed and I think this is what this team needs to be.”

There shouldn’t be much debate about team president and coach being on the same page with Joe D and Cheeks. Their harmony couldn’t possibly be better synchronized when it comes to a vision for how a team should be molded and the qualities it should live and breathe.

The challenge, as both also would agree, is in achieving and nurturing the coach-player-team connection that has proven so elusive across generations in basketball but particularly in today’s NBA. The challenge is taking the common Dumars-Cheeks vision and imprinting it on a locker room. Basketball is a game more heavily dependent on chemistry than perhaps any other team sport. And responsibility for creating the environment that produces winning chemistry falls on the shoulders of the field general.

More than any other reason that led this coaching search to the feet of Maurice Cheeks, Joe Dumars felt in his gut that it would be Cheeks above any other candidate – and there were many vetted and interviewed – who had the stuff to produce that chemistry.

“There’s a lot that goes into trying to hire a coach,” Dumars said. “You do a tremendous amount of background, you talk to an ungodly amount of people, and the message that just kept coming back with Mo was the ability to connect with people, the ability to have a steady hand every day and the ability to infuse confidence in his players. The more and more we talked about it, the more and more we studied it, we felt like this was exactly what we needed.”

Coaching at the professional level has become an incredibly complex job. The great ones only make it look easy, which defines their greatness. The complexity of the job makes laughable the simplistic labels that become affixed to coaches. The one that Cheeks brings to the Pistons is “players’ coach,” which Joe D addressed before it was asked.

In the course of painting a full picture of his next coach, Dumars and his inner circle tapped every resource at their disposal. That included talking to executives who’ve worked with Cheeks, coaches who’ve rubbed shoulders with him over full seasons and players he’s encountered, Rasheed Wallace one of many.

Cheeks is coming from an organization that executed a sharp turnaround after amassing All-Star-level drafted talent in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden. Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight, Andre Drummond and the No. 8 pick in the draft two weeks away give the Pistons a talent base to launch a turnaround of their own, and Cheeks several times mentioned eagerness to put his “stamp” on the team by conveying his vision to those players.

“That infusion of this group has to come from me,” he said. “That’s one of the things I look forward to doing for a young team. When you have young players, you can put that in their brain. Whether they’ll do it or not, I don’t know. But to me, that’s the way it has to be played and that’s the way you win games.”

Everything Dumars heard from those trusted voices who weighed in convinced him that Cheeks would deliver his message with just the right pitch.

“I think you have to have a coach that makes that connection with today’s player,” he said. “Mo has proven that throughout his career. He’s proven that at Oklahoma City, even as an assistant coach, the ability to connect with today’s player. When you stand there in front of these players in 2013, they have to believe in you. They have to believe in your vision, they have to believe in your plan, they have to believe in your discipline and I think he brings all of that. The fact that he’s Maurice Cheeks, the fact he has a resume not only as a player but as a coach, I think that’s going to bode well for us.”

Maurice Cheeks would have been OK remaining a first lieutanant. But he sure looked pretty comfortable in his first day back in the field general’s seat.