Coaching isn’t the only profession where being in the right place at the right time under the right circumstances is more often than not what separates success from failure. But under the public glare of coaching in professional sports, labels are harder to shake than they are for a district sales manager who has a tough year because the company he represents had to issue a product recall.
Mo Cheeks comes to the Pistons with essentially a .500 career record across two coaching stops. He’s 284-286 in six full seasons and parts of two others with both Portland and Philadelphia. In an NBA off-season where it appears a full 40 percent of jobs will turn over – assuming Memphis eventually splits with Lionel Hollins after granting him permission to look around – his wasn’t considered a glitzy name.
You know who else wasn’t considered a very glitzy coaching name less than a decade ago? Doc Rivers, who shares with Cheeks a background as products of Chicago’s prep basketball scene and careers as NBA point guards. Now he’s the second-longest tenured head coach in the NBA, behind only Gregg Popovich, and if Rivers hits the free-agent market the only suitors who need to queue up are those with championship-ready rosters and contract offers that start somewhere north of $5 million a year.
He’s been on the job in Boston since Danny Ainge hired him following a stint in Orlando that defined mediocrity. In fact, it was much like the stint Cheeks was putting together simultaneously in Portland.
Rivers left the Magic with a record of 171-168, fired after a 1-10 start to the 2003-04 season. Orlando made the playoffs in three of his seasons but didn’t get out of the first round, just as Portland lost in the first round in both of the seasons Cheeks got them to the postseason. Rivers was on the other bench, you might recall, when the Pistons came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat Orlando after Rick Carlisle turned to Tayshaun Prince out of desperation to guard Tracy McGrady. Nobody was calling him a genius then.
There was no immediate transformation of Rivers’ reputation once he landed in Boston, either. Celtics fans yawned when Doc Rivers was hired and they were ready to run him out of town after his first two years. He was 50 games under .500 at that point and he and Ainge were both in peril after a 24-58 2006-07 season when Ainge shot for the moon on draft night, sending the No. 5 pick to Seattle for Ray Allen. A month later, he used a budding post scorer, Al Jefferson, as the centerpiece of a package to land Kevin Garnett from Minnesota.
The Celtics nearly tripled their win total, going from 24 to 66, and beat the Pistons in six in the conference finals on their way to winning the 2008 NBA title, the first for the franchise since 1986. If he never coaches another game, Doc Rivers probably ends up in the Hall of Fame.
I don’t know that the Pistons are going to land two perennial All-Stars and future Hall of Famers like Garnett and Allen over the summer, but the possibilities created by adding another lottery pick and the more than $20 million in cap space they’ll have are intriguing.
I suspect when the Pistons introduce Cheeks as their coach later this week, he’ll talk about his vision for building around young big men Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond and the connection he hopes to build with Brandon Knight, Kyle Singler and a host of other young Pistons.
He won’t just be uttering coach-speak or talking with his fingers crossed on those scores, either. Cheeks will come with the full endorsement of several NBA players, now established stars, whose careers he helped nurture. Russell Westbrook, Andre Iguodala and Thaddeus Young are all Cheeks protégés.
Popovich is living proof that a gilded playing resume isn’t a prerequisite for NBA coaching success, not that the Pistons – a franchise whose first two NBA titles came under the steady hand of Chuck Daly – should need such a reminder. But it can’t hurt Cheeks’ case that he comes to the Pistons as a four-time NBA All-Star, a four-time member of the All-Defensive team and the starting point guard for the 1983 NBA champions. On a team with bigger-than-life personalities like Julius Erving and Moses Malone, Cheeks was the one who earned Billy Cunningham’s trust to carry out his marching orders.
The relevancy of his playing accomplishments might have diminished after three decades if he wasn’t coming to Detroit with the vocal support of the Oklahoma City players – Kevin Durant, Westbrook, et al – whose opinions carry weight with their peers around the league.
The value of having a coach and leader in the front office who share a common vision is up for debate, I suppose, but it seems Joe D couldn’t have found a more simpatico personality if he’d stretched the search out for months. Cheeks was cut from the same cloth, a no-nonsense, tough-as-nails competitor who punched the clock every day and happily let the spotlight fall on teammates. They both come devoid of histrionics.
Mo Cheeks arrives with a check mark in pretty much every box: major achievements as a player, NBA head coaching experience, recent and meaningful endorsements from respected NBA players for his work as an assistant. What he’s never had is a right place, right time, right circumstances intersection to prove his bona fides as a head coach. Joe Dumars has put the Pistons in position to realize that happy convergence with another productive off-season, one that starts with landing a head coach who played the game exactly as Joe D did.