The Detroit Pistons fired head coach Maurice Cheeks on Sunday, just 50 games into the two-year deal he signed to lead the Pistons this past summer, and in the latest installment of the ongoing series "NBA Players: They're Just Like Us," it seems that at least a few of Cheeks' now-former players found out about Mo Obama/The Principal/Reverend Obama getting the axe via Twitter.
— BRANDON JENNINGS (@BrandonJennings) February 9, 2014
Tuh. — BRANDON JENNINGS (@BrandonJennings) February 9, 2014
And here's little-used reserve forward Charlie Villanueva, about 20 minutes after that:
Is it true?
— Charlie Villanueva (@CV31) February 9, 2014
And here's Pistons rookie guard Peyton Siva, about an hour after that:
Wow... — Peyton siva (@PeypeySiva3) February 9, 2014
It's unclear whether rising star center Andre Drummond learned of his coach's firing via Twitter — maybe, as he's certainly something of a power social media user, but maybe not, as he's apparently grown quite close with Pistons owner Tom Gores — though it is perhaps worth noting that Drummond posted a photo to Instagram
on Sunday evening of him looking somewhat nonplussed accompanied by the "face without mouth" emoji. ("Imagine the things he would say if he had a mouth!")
I suppose it's not necessarily shocking for players not to be made aware of upper-management dealings before the hammer fell on their head coach, and especially for small-role-playing reserves like Villanueva and Siva not to have been kept in the loop. It does feel sort of weird for the team's starting point guard to have no idea it was coming, though; then again, while the Pistons' disappointing start to the season certainly had many wondering just how hot Cheeks' seat was getting, it's likely that very few us had much of an idea that a firing was in the offing after the Pistons had posted consecutive double-digit wins over the Brooklyn Nets and Denver Nuggets on the preceding two evenings to draw within a half-game of the Charlotte Bobcats for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Those two wins apparently weren't enough to appease Gores, who bought the Pistons two summers ago, opened up his checkbook for the offseason additions of Jennings and Josh Smith, and has watched a roster for which he's paying nearly $62 million this year sputter to a 21-29 mark behind a predictably shaky offense (19th among 30 NBA teams in points scored per possession, according to NBA.com's stat tool, dead-last in the league in 3-point and free-throw shooting accuracy) and a somewhat-less-expectedly dismal defense (20th in points allowed per possession, bottom-10 in points allowed off turnovers, on the fast break, in the paint and on second chances).
Cheeks never found a way to turn the jumbo set of Smith, Drummond and Greg Monroe — three power forwards/centers who miscast as a five, a four and a three — into a productive trio, running lineups featuring that threesome out there for nearly 900 total minutes and watching them get outscored by an average of 6.6 points per 100 possessions. That "net rating" (measuring whether you outscore opponents over the course of 100 possessions, or vice versa) is the 22nd-worst among any three-man group to have played at least 500 total minutes this season; if you strike units culled from tanking teams in Philadelphia, Orlando and Utah, it's the fourth-worst. (Take a bow, Pau Gasol-Wesley Johnson-Jodie Meeks, Carmelo Anthony-Andrea Bargnani-Raymond Felton, and Kyrie Irving-Tristan Thompson-Dion Waiters.)
That Detroit struggled to score at a league-average clip with its three high-priced bigs on the floor isn't especially surprising. Questions about half-court spacing, a lack of reliable long-range shooting (or, at least, accurate long-range shooting, since you can always rely on Smoove to shoot from long range, even in the midst of perhaps the worst 3-point shooting season ever) and gummed-up interior works cropped up virtually the second the Pistons dropped $54 million on Smith this past summer. That Detroit's big lineups struggled to defend at a league-average clip is a bit more surprising, considering Smith's talents as a versatile frontcourt defender and Drummond's promise as a rim protector (eighth in the league in block percentage and top-20 among rotation bigs in field-goal percentage allowed at the rim when he's within 5 feet of the shot) and defensive glass-eater (10th in the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage). It gets a bit more understandable when you consider Monroe's limited quickness and struggles as a pick-and-roll defender, and the reality that the big frontcourt frequently shared the floor with guards (especially Jennings) who don't do very much to prevent penetration on the ball or help stymy opposing offenses ... and, as Grantland's Zach Lowe noted, that Cheeks couldn't seem to settle on how exactly he wanted his big men to defend the screen game, just one of a number of examples of disorganization that have marked the Pistons' disappointing 50-game opener and helped send Cheeks searching for the want ads.
Again, Cheeks' flameout isn't a major-league shocker in and of itself — he took a sub-.500 career coaching mark into Detroit, along with some less-than-stellar reviews of his work on the bench for the Portland Trail Blazers and Philadelphia 76ers, and while Jennings spoke kindly of his deposed coach after the initial Twitter shock, David Mayo of MLive.com wrote that many of the same issues that reportedly dogged Cheeks in his prior stops cropped up again in Motown:
Cheeks never got things going. He was supposed to be the anti-[Lawrence] Frank, and he was, in the basketball verbiage and preparation sense. He didn't talk a great game.
The bigger problem may have been that Cheeks also was supposed to be the anti-Frank in terms of player relationships, and boy, did that never happen.
The most recent example, and perhaps last straw, was a nose-to-nose confrontation between Cheeks and Will Bynum, the reserve point guard, in Wednesday's loss at Orlando. [...]
Cheeks was no bastion of preparation. He replaced a coach criticized for not using all his weapons, then didn't use all his weapons. He replaced a coach criticized for his player relationships, then lost his team to the whisper mill barely halfway through his first season. He commonly didn't know at his press briefing, less than two hours before a game, who the Pistons' inactive players would be.
For all that Cheeks got wrong — repeatedly sitting down Monroe in the team's consistently disastrous fourth quarters, largely refusing to stagger the three bigs in favor of lineups that would include an actual shooter at the three spot, failing to make something steadily productive out of a roster inarguably more talented than the one Frank had — there would also appear to be a fair amount of blame owed to general manager Joe Dumars for A) constructing a roster that required an awful lot of imagination and creativity to maximize its productivity and B) hiring a coach who had never really shown that level of imagination and creativity to do so. As others have detailed, it's the decisions made by Dumars — who has now parted ways with eight coaches since rising to the rank of the Pistons' president of basketball operations in 2000 — that have set the table for the team's struggles, by throwing good money after bad, by expecting leopards like Smith and Jennings to change their spots for the greater good, and by overvaluing his own players to the detriment of future flexibility.
Whether you're looking to lay the blame for a 21-29 mark at the feet of a mismatched roster or an overmatched coach, the same guy's ultimately responsible for both. And given the word that Dumars wanted to give Cheeks more time only to be overruled by Gores, it seems like that guy's next up on the chopping block.
“Our record does not reflect our talent and we simply need a change,” Gores said in a team statement. “We have not made the kind of progress that we should have over the first half of the season. This is a young team and we knew there would be growing pains, but we can be patient only as long as there is progress."
Whether the Pistons can make enough progress over the next 32 games under interim coach John Loyer to make Dumars anything more than a dead man walking remains to be seen. At this point, though, it's probably a good idea for Detroit players and observers alike to keep an eye on their Twitter feeds; this seems much more like the start of the changes to come for the Pistons than the end of them.
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