Loyer’s Turn

Coaching lifer prepared to steer Pistons as they change course at mid-season

John Loyer and Kyle Singler
John Loyer will take over head coaching duties for the remainder of the season.
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
Trite bromides are never in short supply when it comes to analysis of sports teams. But the ones about chemistry’s role in producing winning basketball teams, yeah. They have merit.

For whatever reason, the Pistons never forged a winning chemistry over their first 50 games. And so the tough call was made to fire Mo Cheeks, a good man who over the last few weeks admitted after what became his team’s calling card – losing games after surrendering leads – that he was groping for answers.

John Loyer takes over now, a man who comes to the job with a lifetime’s worth of preparation. He played for Bob Huggins at Akron and coached under him at Cincinnati and he’s worked for Cheeks, Lawrence Frank and Avery Johnson, among others, during his run in the NBA. He’s coached offense, he’s coached defense and he’s drawn praise for his work with young players.

“John’s a good guy,” Rodney Stuckey said. “He knows basketball. He’s really good.”

A big part of coaching – probably the biggest, above the Xing and Oing – is massaging the recipe to produce that elusive winning chemistry. Loyer has been a part of teams that changed coaches at mid-season and knows he can’t reinvent the wheel overnight, nor should he try.

“I’ve been through this situation before, seen it done properly and seen it done not very good,” he said after conducting what players called a brisk, concise shootaround in preparation for tonight’s game with San Antonio. (Nice debut: match wits with Gregg Popovich.) “I told our guys, it’s got to be a gradual process. Playing hard supercedes anything we could possibly change, so we’ve got to start there. But there are things we’ve got to tweak on both sides of the ball and we’ll gradually do that.”

What that might be: Stuckey said there would be more motion and more sets on offense, yet the offense would be simplified. Brandon Jennings said a few new sets were installed at shootaround. The starting lineup stays the same, Loyer said, meaning Kyle Singler – who replaced Kentavious Caldwell-Pope last week – remains the shooting guard.

Loyer said the Pistons should be a dominant rebounding team, block more shots and better protect the rim. They do it in spurts and look like a bona fide playoff team when they do. But all NBA teams have nights when it comes together. Elite teams do it as close to every night as possible. The Pistons have been maddeningly inconsistent, which now becomes Loyer’s challenge.

“He’s going to try to build on what Mo started,” Greg Monroe said. “He’s been on good, winning staffs on both levels. He’s been here. … We know who he is. He’s going to be the same guy, but we have to do it together. That was the main thing he was trying to bring to the forefront – it’s going to take all of us to bring it in the right direction.”

Loyer’s first reaction on hearing the news? “Disappointment,” he said. He had other opportunities when Frank was let go and the rest of his staff disbanded. But he eagerly signed on for a third tour of duty under Cheeks, a man he clearly likes and admires. But coaches understand the mechanism of their profession. He might have preferred an off-season to prepare for his first NBA head coaching opportunity, but nobody who knows Loyer believes this job, even with the attendant challenges that come with a mid-season change, is too big for him.

“I think people undersell players,” he said. “Players figure things out. They know, whether you’re a head coach or an assistant coach, one, whether you know your stuff; two, whether you’re in it for the right things; three, can you make them better; and four, are you a good leader? Guys figure that out. And I’ll take my chances with what they’ve figured out over the last few years.”

Here’s a clue.

“I’m excited for John. He’s been coaching for years and forever,” Chauncey Billups said. “He’ll be very good. He’s just going to be who he is. Everybody loves him. He won’t change because his title’s changed. He’s going to be a coach.”

And coaches matter. As Tom Gores said in announcing the decision to fire Cheeks, “our record does not reflect our talent.” That’s where that chemistry thing comes in. There’s no guarantee that a coaching change makes it happen. But there are plenty of times in NBA history when it did.

Three years ago, the Indiana Pacers were bumping along with a 17-27 record, not that far off the 21-29 of the Pistons. They made a move, dumping Jim O’Brien and hiring an unknown named Frank Vogel. The Pacers went 20-18 the rest of the way and are poised to make a run at their first NBA title in a few months.

Mr. Big Shot can speak to chemistry and a coach’s role in shaping it as authoritatively as any NBA player today – or any other era, for that matter. Ask him if this change, at this time, can spur change for the better.

“Sure,” Billups said. “You would hope for it to change the energy. The spirit will be a little different. That’s mainly why you make a change at this point of the season. We’re hoping for the best.”