It had been coming for a long while, but that doesn’t make the timing any less strange. Maurice Cheeks was fired as the head coach of the underachieving Detroit Pistons Sunday in a change that was arguably long overdue. The irony comes in the fact that the Pistons had arguably their two most impressive wins of the season back-to-back on Friday and Saturday.
In the last two games, Cheeks’ Pistons inflicted heavy defeats on both the Nets and Nuggets at the Palace of Auburn Hills. Detroit averaged 118.5 points for the two games to win by an average margin of 16.5 points, with Saturday night’s blowout win against Denver setting a season high for points. Those results came after, in search of a positive reaction and greater floor spacing, Cheeks had introduced Kyle Singler to the starting lineup earlier in the week. With that change paying dividends and the offense more free flowing since, things had began to look up for the Pistons. So, why was now the time to dispense of Cheeks’ services?
Locker Room Conflict
The atmosphere has appeared far from rosy in the Pistons camp so far this season and with a team losing as often as they have, that should come as no surprise. Tension and conflict are a natural part of life in any locker room in any sport. When a room full of highly competitive characters are put together in a losing environment, emotions will inevitably spill over. When this becomes a problem is when these issues are aired in public though.
Over the past few weeks, public disagreements between the players and coaching staff have become a more and more common sight at Pistons games. Veteran point guard Will Bynum is the most recent player to have had a verbal confrontation with Cheeks mid-game, but he wasn’t the most high profile.
Josh Smith, the Pistons marquee free agent signing this past offseason, fell afoul of Cheeks on more than one occasion. After being benched by Cheeks early on in a game against Washington back in December, Smith vented his disappointment. He later told the media that he was offended by his work ethic and energy being questioned.
More recently, it was star center Andre Drummond who was in disagreement with Cheeks. Drummond was benched twice in quick succession in a defeat against the Mavericks two weeks ago and appeared far from satisfied, as the rest of the Pistons coaching staff were forced to calm him down on the bench.
If relations between the players and coach had become this bad, the Pistons risked the disenchantment of key players if they failed to act and make a coaching change.
The Pistons represented Cheeks’ third attempt at making things work as an NBA head coach. After spending three and a half years with the Portland Trail Blazers, Cheeks went on to spend roughly the same amount of time as head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. Four years after losing his job in Philadelphia, Cheeks found himself in Detroit, where his 50 games in charge is his shortest spell in his coaching career.
Why cut it so short? Well, with Cheeks struggling to find a winning formula, the Pistons had the opportunity to take their pick from many high caliber coaches currently unattached. Now that they have pulled the trigger, owner Tom Gores and general manager Joe Dumars have decisions to make.
Do the Pistons have the roster and stature to lure some of the biggest names in coaching to Detroit? Their short list will surely contain the likes of the Van Gundy brothers and last season’s coach of the year, George Karl, but it’s another top coach who appears to be the favorite to succeed Cheeks.
Lionel Hollins is the man who is rumored to be the Pistons’ first choice and so far Hollins’ representatives have indicated his openness to negotiations. Hollins has stepped into the head coaching hot seat during the middle of a season on three occasions during his career to date and so should not be daunted at that prospect. Last season, he guided the Memphis Grizzlies to the Western Conference Finals and during his time in Memphis he oversaw rosters that weren’t dissimilar in feel to the current Pistons group.
Perhaps most interestingly, early last season he managed an incredibly talented frontcourt of Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. It was only following the departure of the explosive and unpredictable Gay that the Grizzlies thrived with the defensive influence of former Piston Tayshaun Prince though. With this Detroit team struggling to find a defensive identity, could we see the sacrifice of Josh Smith or Greg Monroe down the line in order to replicate this success? If Lionel Hollins becomes head coach he could be an advocate for that.
Dumars Decision, Or Not?
In most cases in the NBA, when a coach has been fired, the general manager is most often the man behind the decision. This may or may not be true in this case regarding to Pistons GM Joe Dumars though. Dumars, an NBA champion as a player in Detroit, has made countless poor decisions over the years that have prevented the Pistons from being consistently successful.
He drafted Darko Milicic ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. He traded Chauncey Billups at the peak of his powers, in exchange for an aging Allen Iverson. In 2009, he reportedly refused to trade Stuckey, Rip Hamilton and Prince for Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo. While this summer he potentially added to the list by spending most of his free agent dollars on Josh Smith, a forward renowned for his lack of shooting touch, when he already had two players who thrive inside in Monroe and Drummond.
These errors of judgement, along with countless baffling coaching decisions have led many to believe that Dumars has had his head on the chopping block for a considerable length of time. With rumors intensifying recently, if Cheeks’ firing was Dumars’ decision, it made sense as one final attempt to detract attention from his own misgivings and buy more time. Yet, if as reported, the decision was made by the ownership, there’s no reason to believe that Dumars won’t be out the door soon after Cheeks.
No matter why the decision was made, or indeed who made it, it’s now time for the Pistons to move on. With a slight improvement in results of late, the new head coach will have the ideal platform to kick on and change the team’s fortunes.