June 30, 2009
I don't know what else it will take for people to realize that they constantly underrate Flip Saunders.
And, though this somewhat excuses the job Michael Curry did with the Detroit Pistons, and Joe Dumars' choice to hire him while dumping Saunders, I will never understand why people continually refuse to believe that it was the Pistons players that were screwing up, all along.
Curry was fired today. Woj broke the news and, while it is a little surprising to see a personnel boss admit to a mistake so soon after making it, the actual comment on Curry's coaching abilities that this firing shouted wasn't a shock. He never had control of the locker room. He never seemed to be head coaching material. Down the line, perhaps. Not now. Certainly not in 2008-09.
You shouldn't be able to deal with the multifold changes in the Piston organization since the team went down in the 2008 Eastern Conference finals in black and white, either/or terms, but somehow things stay simple with this team despite all the complexity, mitigating factors, and heaps of excuses.
Really, it still comes down to Saunders being good, Curry not being good, and the Pistons players (both former and current) not playing hard. With Joe Dumars matching each and every brilliant move with a bum one.
Yes, the team had its legs swept out from underneath them when Dumars traded Chauncey Billups(notes) to the Denver Nuggets for Allen Iverson(notes) last November. The team was 3-0, and seemingly, never recovered. Teary-eyed hotel room goodbyes and post-trade on-court ennui seemed to drive this point home. Toss in a 3-0 Pistons record at the time of the deal, and the blood is on Dumars' hands, right?
Not exactly. Two of those wins came against hapless Wizards and Bobcats squads, and another was a two-possession victory over the middling Indiana Pacers at home. This team, as great as Billups was and is, wasn't going anywhere.
Part of that has to do with the uncertainty the players had to feel throughout the 2008 offseason. Dumars made it clear in the press conference hiring Curry that he would hold no cows as sacred during the summer months, and that everyone was on the block. That the player least expected to be jettisoned, the well-respected yet highly-compensated Billups, was sent out seemed to drive that point home.
But his deal took place in November. Not July or August or September. The deed was done in November, after months of wondering when the hammer was to fall, and after a training camp and season-opener bent on establishing a team identity and a new start under Curry.
So, Dumars' fault, right?
Yes, it's his fault for trading Saunders for Curry. It's his fault for not doing more to chide his Pistons after they lost to inferior (not to denigrate the Miami Heat or Cleveland Cavaliers; but let's get real) teams in the 2006 and 2007 Eastern Conference finals. Several front office transactions were clearly his fault, it's his fault Billups will be overpaid toward the end of his massive contract (necessitating a trade), and his fault he needlessly extended Rip Hamilton's contract after the Billups deal.
But even with all those excuses, Curry was still in over his head. Detroit's once-gorgeous slow-down offense looked a right mess in his hands, and you can't pin that all on Iverson's dribble-happy ways, and the exchange of Billups minutes for Rodney Stuckey(notes) minutes. Rasheed Wallace(notes) turned into Brad Lohaus under his watch, while Stuckey alternated between a Brevin Knight(notes) and World B. Free-clone.
The team seemed to trade defensive assignments and philosophies on the fly, switching off how they played pick and roll or dealt with dribble penetration (the team's greatest weakness) seemingly from possession to possession. The team seemed to have no cogent plan, night after night.
Now, I fully realize that this could entirely be on the players. Did we not see the Pistons (Tayshaun Prince(notes), especially) breaking play after play after play under Flip Saunders in the 2006, 2007, and 2008 playoffs - especially after executing those plays with ease during the regular season? Sure. Did we see them improvise defensively under Saunders (and even Larry Brown) during the playoffs, after regular seasons spent listening and executing. Definitely.
But it's to Saunders' credit that he got until spring before this lot tuned him out. Curry didn't even make it out of November.
That's on the players, sure, but when you hire a coach to lead a group of gripers and moaners like these Detroit Pistons, you better have someone who can make it out of the first month. Curry wasn't that guy. In the end, it is the players' fault, and it is Dumars' fault, but that doesn't mean Curry should have been hired last summer, or retained this summer.