With the Detroit Pistons one win away from their sixth consecutive Eastern Conference finals appearance, it’s time we shine a little light in the direction of their coach.
That’s right, Flip Saunders. The man who couldn’t make it out of the first round of the playoffs in his first eight seasons up in Minnesota. The coach who has presided over two conference finals flameouts in his initial two seasons with the Pistons. And, yes, he’s the guy who wouldn’t throw a double-team at LeBron James, even as the Cleveland All-Star was torching the Pistons for 48 points in the Cavaliers’ series-turning Game 5 win last spring.
Saunders deserves some skepticism. After all, Rick Carlisle helped turn the franchise around, Larry Brown was one Game 7 loss away from back-to-back titles, and all Flip has done is seemingly waste a perfectly good regular-season team by allowing it to implode during the playoffs.
Saunders’ detractors have loads of ammunition. In spite of a high payroll and the presence of Kevin Garnett (to say nothing of All-Stars Stephon Marbury, Tom Gugliotta, Terrell Brandon and Wally Szczerbiak), he wasn’t able to make it out of the first round of the playoffs from 1997-2003.
Fired in 2005 by his former college roommate, Minnesota GM Kevin McHale, Saunders resurfaced in Detroit, then lost to what looked like inferior Miami and Cleveland teams the following two seasons. Saunders’ rotations have been criticized for not going deep enough, and he wasn’t been able to keep both Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace in check as they ranted and raved during the playoffs. Worse, his team was 24 minutes away from going down 3-1 to the rebuilding Philadelphia 76ers in this year’s first round.
Fair points, all, but do they hold any water? You can’t point to a single first-round loss for Saunders’ Timberwolves that had the team falling at the hands of an inferior opponent. And the college buddy that gave Saunders his job also made it 10 times tougher with his personnel moves. In spite of Garnett’s presence, Saunders regularly had to make do with minimum-salary rotation players like Dean Garrett, Reggie Slater, LaPhonso Ellis and Kendall Gill. And he did well.
Marbury, Szczerbiak and Gugliotta also ran closer to the Tyrone Hill/Chris Gatling/Jamaal Magloire-level of All-Stardom than your Duncan/Garnett/Bryant-types.
Yes, Saunders kept the rotation tight in his first two years with the Pistons, but did he have much choice? Tony Delk, Carlos Delfino and Dale Davis were solid contributors at one point in their careers, but Saunders hardly had a murderer’s row to work with. In fact, Saunders managed to give Jason Maxiell 26.7 minutes per game in last year’s playoffs, even with veterans like Chris Webber, Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess in the rotation.
As far as the Wallace flameouts go, at what point do we stop blaming the coach for not being able to handle certain players and start to consider the context of their respective histories? Save for Larry Brown and Mike Brown, both players had public issues with each of their NBA coaches, and these are men who have been playing for well over a decade. Saunders hardly stands alone when it comes to this particular brand of ignominy.
The losses to the Heat and Cavaliers are nearly inexcusable. Saunders needed to double-team James last season, and while Cleveland’s lack of help on James aided in Detroit’s Game 5 loss, the edict was in full effect the following game when LeBron took only 11 shots, making three.
It was Detroit’s offense, as was the case in 2006, that failed the Pistons. In that Game 6 Chauncey Billups had just one assist and took only seven shots. Rasheed Wallace took only two three-pointers, but tried perimeter looks from all over the two-point area and missed nine of 14 shots. The team improvised, badly, and shot only 36 percent from the floor.
All this leads to a point that few recognize about Saunders: He’s run one of the better offenses in the NBA for years.
Because of Detroit’s slow pace, and Saunders’ reputation as a zone defense guru, he rarely gets credit for a well-spaced offensive plan that feeds off ball movement and mid-range jumpers. The Pistons were 18th in offensive efficiency during the championship season of 2003-04 and 17th in Brown’s last season. Saunders has led an offensive revival in the years since.
Under Saunders, the Pistons have been fourth and sixth (two times) in the NBA in offensive efficiency while retaining their edge on the other end of the floor, ranking fifth, seventh, and fourth over the past three years in defensive efficiency.
The problem is, once the playoffs hit, the Pistons seem uninterested in executing Saunders’ offense. You can see it unfolding in the early rounds and it ruins the Pistons’ chances as the competition gets tougher: They refuse to attack, make quick decisions or run a scheme that gets any more complicated than your typical, Larry Brown-esque, screen-and-roll attack.
Blame Saunders all you want for the drop-off, but I’m going to give the players a little discredit for refusing to initiate what worked for them in the regular season. They know exactly what they’re doing, and the results have spoken quite clearly.
The Pistons need one win in three games to get back to the conference finals this year, but it’s anyone’s guess as to how hard this team will want to work offensively. Perhaps the improved depth that Pistons boss Joe Dumars put together and Saunders integrated will keep the veterans in check, but it’s still up to the players to execute.
Whatever the outcome, know that Saunders has given this team a blueprint for success. He shouldn’t take the blame for his team’s stubborn insistence on ignoring it.