AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Flip? He's flopped.
And unless Flip Saunders immediately regains control of the spiraling Detroit Pistons, he should be fired just one season into taking over what seemed to be the ultimate coaching job – in charge of the most selfless, self-motivated team in basketball.
The failures of Detroit, which trails the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals 3-1 heading into Wednesday's Game 5, aren't all Saunders' fault, but he will be the fall guy. He has to be.
The most coachable team in the league doesn't turn into the Portland Trail Blazers for no reason.
The Pistons aren't as good as they were the last two years, when they twice reached the Finals and won the title once. They aren't as tenacious defensively. They aren't as strong-willed. They aren't as cohesive, consistent or coordinated. They are barely improved offensively from the Larry Brown days, and that was the one thing Saunders was supposed to change.
During the regular season, he did. Detroit was an up-tempo team that maintained most of its defensive stinginess, streaking to the best record in the NBA.
But Saunders appears to have lost his team during the playoffs as times invariably got tough.
Because of the Pistons' history of playing their best when they're down and almost out – their own motto is "if it ain't rough, it ain't right" – there is still a belief that things can be turned around.
But this isn't the old Detroit team. And Miami – with a healthy Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O'Neal and a strong supporting cast – is not Cleveland or Orlando or New Jersey. The Heat look like a championship club.
The Pistons, meanwhile, have lost of six of their last nine games and look like a fractured team that has given up on its coach.
Rasheed Wallace, who was the definition of a team guy under Brown, has been pouting, even refusing to slap Saunders' hand coming out of games and even steering clear of a timeout huddle in Game 3. Players, including usually soft-spoken Tayshaun Prince, have publicly questioned substitution patterns.
Earlier this year, Ben Wallace, the heart and soul of the team, refused to enter a game when Saunders called on him, and lately he has been critical of practice emphasis (too much offense). Bench rotations, other than Antonio McDyess, have fluctuated wildly, confusing the reserves.
Privately, throughout the locker room, the players will tell you they dislike Saunders' emphasis of zone defense, which goes against their preferred manly version of man-to-man. There is a distinct lack of respect.
"As a coach I make decisions," Saunders said Monday. "I have to live by the decisions. As players, they play, and they have to implement as far as what we do. I don't agree with what Ben says on practice from a defensive standpoint talking to people who have been here and what we've done. We all know how Ben gets at times."
"They can suggest [changes]," Saunders continued. "That doesn't mean I'll do it."
Anytime the talk in the middle of a playoff series is about a possible feud between key players and the coach, said team's goose is all but cooked.
"We can't worry about what's going on in that situation," Prince said Monday. "But people have [seen] the toughness on the defensive end that we bring all the time hasn't been there lately. But I haven't had any problem with Flip, and I don't think any of the other players have had any problems with Flip."
Nice sentiments, but there is no way they are true. Some players certainly have a problem with Flip.
Saunders' greatest failure is losing Ben Wallace's confidence. Wallace's marginalization in Detroit's offense has affected his entire game.
I've written this before, but as strange as it sounds, the secret to getting the Defensive Player of the Year to play his best is to include him, at least a little, offensively. But Saunders has failed to do that, almost embarrassing Wallace on the offensive end by ignoring him.
During the 2004 NBA championship run, Wallace averaged 8.9 shots a game, at least four or five of which came out of Brown's set plays. Big Ben averaged 10.3 points, 14.3 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and 1.9 steals while putting out a hellacious, and contagious, effort.
This postseason, Wallace is averaging a meager 3.9 shots a game and his numbers have dropped across the board – just 4.3 points, 10.9 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.4 steals.
He isn't playing the way he did a year ago as the motor of the team, and his decreased performance has had a compounded impact. In their three victories, the Heat are shooting a blistering 56.6 percent from the floor. That used to be impossible against the Pistons.
While it is Wallace's job to go all out all the time, it is also a coach's job to foster an environment that makes it happen.
Larry Brown knew it, and that is why – despite his constant sideshow of drama – he never lost his locker room.
Saunders was handed a dream job last year, with a roster that was in place to compete for multiple championships. But, to do so, the players had to want to compete for their coach. They don't seem to now. It is one thing to lose; it is another to lose like this in a very un-Detroit way.
Only one thing changed from then and now: the coach. Barring another miraculous Pistons flip-the-switch-comeback, the coach is going to have to change again.
- Flip Saunders