Coaching introductions don’t come much more inauspicious than this. The Detroit Pistons have been flailing as a franchise since dealing away Chauncey Billups in 2008, and general manager Joe Dumars has been through five head coaches since that year. As a response to five straight dreary and ultimately losing seasons, and with his job possibly in danger under new’ish owner Tom Gores, Dumars had to make a splash with someone that could be his final coaching hire.
He decided to go with former Trail Blazers and 76ers coach Maurice Cheeks. First, the internet yawned. Then it set to digging in to research, and it didn’t like what it found.
Cheeks was second in command at Oklahoma City, working for a team that made the Finals last year while appearing well on its way toward defending its Western Conference crown this year before an injury to Russell Westbrook got in the way. This sort of status usually serves to align for a successful hiring, what with types like Tom Thibodeau doing so well after working next to Doc Rivers in Boston, and San Antonio’s Mike Budenholzer recently taking to Atlanta in what was a well-regarded hire.
The Thunder coaching staff has earned its fair share of criticism over the years, though, and while nobody will be able to tell just how much influence Cheeks had over those decisions gone awry (to say nothing of the ones that went well), at least he has his coaching past to lean on.
That might not be a good thing.
Cheeks went 284-286 in eight years coaching the Trail Blazers and 76ers, and while those teams weren’t championship contenders along the same lines as the Thunder, it isn’t a sparkling resume. Worse, as news of Cheeks’ hiring hit the media in Portland and Philadelphia, some old and unflattering skeletons started to amble their way out of the closet.
Here’s one laundry list of misdeeds, from Comcast Sportsnet’s Dwight Jaynes:
Well, I've covered the NBA since the days when Jack Ramsay was roaming the Blazer sidelines in paisley pants. And I don't think since that time I've seen a coach as poorly informed, as casual about his duties and as lazy as Cheeks. NBA head coach? He should have been charged with identity theft. This is a guy who... :
... sometimes within an hour of game time couldn't tell you the starting lineup of the team he'd be facing on a given night.
... after a game one night famously (I used to play the tape of this on my radio show) needed prompting to understand how standings worked -- you know that complicated thing where if two teams have the same number of wins but one team has fewer losses? Yeah, there was a problem with that.
... didn't listen to assistant coaches who knew way more about the game than he did.
... spent a large portion of the game yukking it up with fans behind the bench rather than paying attention to the game.
... got outcoached on a nightly basis, especially at the defensive end.
As Jaynes states, he has been covering the Trail Blazers for nearly four decades now and has seen quite a bit of coaching turnover, but he pulled no punches in calling Cheeks the “worst Blazer coach ever.” Jaynes even credits Cheeks’ brilliant National Anthem-saving move from 2003 – possibly the coolest thing we’ve ever seen anyone do on a basketball court – for helping Cheeks stay employed moving into the tumultuous 2003-04 season.
Following that critical take, Dan Feldman of Piston Powered dug in to remind us all of the night that Cheeks seemed unaware that 76ers Allen Iverson and Chris Webber were going to pass on playing on a particular contest in the 2005-06 season, having to be told by a reporter that AI and C-Webb had deigned to show up to the game. Various accounts from the time make Cheeks look somewhat off in his leadership while discussing the incident with reporters.
Not the finest introduction, to Piston nation. Still, Dumars isn’t hearing any of it. And loaded with cap space as the free agent season begins in July, he made a point to let Piston fans know that the team could be on the receiving end of some one-sided deals this summer. One-sided on the Pistons’ behalf, for once, as teams attempt to shed bigger contracts with the Pistons as trading partners. From the Detroit Free Press:
“It’s already started,” Dumars said at the introductory news conference for new coach Maurice Cheeks. “The phone calls for that have already started. The calls have already started because those teams are already facing it.”
Dumars made his mark in the NBA upon fully taking over command of the Pistons in 2001 by taking on these sorts of contracts via trade. It was a smart move that was somewhat ahead of its time, and paired with coach Rick Carlisle, he created a deep, winning team on the cheap.
The problem this time around is that Dumars is facing a league that has caught up with him, and many of the teams that are looking to dump big salary are looking forward to the boffo free agent summer of 2014 – a summer the Pistons could trade their way out of, if they make a series of imprecise, win-now moves in order to save jobs. Detroit is on pace to have plenty of cap space in 2014, even if the team extends Greg Monroe, but a whiff of an offseason that runs closer to the lost 2009 free agent signings of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva could set the franchise back once again.
Detroit can’t have that, but the team seems hesitant to cut ties with Dumars. Understandably so, considering he was the NBA Finals MVP in 1989, a starter on the Detroit championships from that year and 1990, and the architect of the much-beloved 2004 champs.
Detroit Free Press columnist Drew Sharp thinks that part of the pressure on Dumars, and by extension Cheeks, is a product of the times. And although we’ve seen some major coaching turnover over the last few weeks, both Cheeks’ coaching record and Dumars’ work since the team’s defeat in the 2008 Eastern Conference finals has been far less than stellar. If anything, while working through a change in ownership, the Pistons have been more than patient.
Dumars and Cheeks are good guys, and we’re rooting for this to be the coaching call that goes right. Mainly because Detroit Pistons fans, after too many years of this mess, deserve much better than a couple of well-liked good guys. It’s time to start piling up wins again.