Saturday, June 8, 2013

Nothing Men

Don't get me wrong; by all accounts Maurice Cheeks is a very nice man. At every stop in his playing and coaching career, Mo's coworkers have had nothing but fine things to say about the guy. He is a living legend in one of American basketball's holy places (Philly) and he has often been described as a "player's coach" in NBA circles. He signs autographs, provides a decent sound bite for media types and has a championship ring to lend gravity to his often eloquent words. To the public at large, coach Cheeks is perhaps best remembered for gallantly coming to the aid of 13 year old Natalie Gilbert when the young girl briefly forgot the words to the national anthem before a 2003 game between Portland and Dallas. After two years of dealing with the stubborn, often churlish Lawrence Frank there's no question that interacting with Cheeks will be a breath of fresh air for fans, the media and Pistons management alike. Hell, he might even develop a strong relationship with his players and put an end to all the public bickering that has plagued this organization for nigh on a decade now. I say might because, despite Cheeks' reputation as a player's coach it should be remembered that he presided over the infamous "Jail Blazers" era in Portland and eventually clashed with both Allen Iverson and Chris Webber as coach of the 76ers. These facts are troubling but can be partially explained by the fiery personalities involved; few men could hope to contain a young Rasheed Wallace and Pistons fans are already intimately familiar with the living hell that is an unhappy Iverson. No, from a character perspective, I can't really argue with the Pistons' decision to hire Mo Cheeks to be the 33rd head coach of the often maligned franchise. The problem of course, is that after a nearly 3 month long coaching search that purportedly spanned the globe and in which money was no object; the Pistons brain trust came back with a man who can't actually coach basketball.

Any discussion of Cheeks as a coach must invariably begin with a look at his less than impressive career numbers. In 570 regular season games at the helm of an NBA franchise, Cheeks has lead his team to 284 wins and 286 losses for a career winning percentage of .498. At first blush that doesn't seem so bad; a man could make a fine career in the NBA out of coaching under talented young teams to a nearly .500 record year after year and still be regarded as a great coach. When you're coaching players like Zach Randolph, Allen Iverson, Rasheed Wallace, Andre Iguodala, Damon Stoudamire and Andre Miller however, a little more is expected. Mo's playoff numbers are equally abysmal; in parts of 8 seasons as a head coach, Cheeks has guided his squad to the postseason 3 times where they finished 5-11 combined (.313 win %). No team coached by Maurice Cheeks has ever won a division title or a playoff series and his last winning season was way back in 2003 during his second year in Portland. Taken as a whole, it could objectively be argued that Mo's legacy as a head coach is that of a man who has inherited talented rosters and accomplished virtually nothing with them whatsoever. Even Cheeks' supposed magnum opus as a headman is fraudulent: the 2007-2008 76ers only finished with a record of 40-42 and their ascension to the postseason says more about how putrid the Eastern Conference was than it speaks to any great coaching miracle wrought by Mo.

I would love to tell you that the numbers lie about Maurice Cheeks as a head coach but truthfully, they may actually work to hide how miserable his performance was. In both Portland and Philadelphia his failings as a tactician were legendary. He was noted for being routinely out-coached, having a poor understanding of his own roster and spending a tremendous amount of time sitting on the bench attempting to grimly stare his team to victory. His mind-numbingly poor play calling skills were also a problem as his teams invariably contested for the league lead in turnovers immediately after a timeout. Okay so if he's not much of an X's and O's guy, he must be a master motivator right? Not so fast folks, there's actually very little evidence that Cheeks can motivate anyone to do anything at all. He couldn't motivate the Blazers to stay out of jail. He couldn't motivate Wallace and Stoudamire to avoid smoking pot during the season. He couldn't motivate Zach Randolph to keep his weight down and avoid breaking Rueben Patterson's eye socket during practice; despite the two men being teammates! During his time as coach of the Blazers he did manage to motivate both Bonzi Wells and Darius Miles to utter profanities in his direction. In Philly, he was so motivating that the Sixers managed to finish with a better record both the year before he was hired and the year during which he was fired after compiling a 9-14 record to begin the season. By the end of his time with the team, a 76ers huddle looked like a scene from The Breakfast Club; with slouched players staring up at the scoreboard, off into the crowd or just ignoring the coach's existence altogether. In other words: the second coming of Red Auerbach, Cheeks is not.

Of course, once you've established that Maurice Cheeks isn't a very good coach; the obvious question then becomes "why would the Piston's hire him?" To understand the answer to that question however, it becomes necessary to examine the dynamics under which the franchise currently labors. A long time ago, Joe Dumars won championships for legendary owner Bill Davidson; first as a player and then in 2004 as president of basketball operations. In the process of building the latter squad, Dumars laid the foundation for six consecutive appearances in the Eastern Conference finals and something of a "mini-dynasty" in Detroit. Although he made some mistakes along the way, Dumars was at the time widely regarded as one of the better team builders in the NBA. Then came the rains. In 2008, Dumars traded popular team leader Chauncey Billups and veteran rotation forward Antonio McDyees to the Denver Nuggets for what was left of Allen Iverson. At the time the move was billed as a way jump start an aging team who's championship window had clearly closed; in reality however, it was a thinly veiled attempt to blow up the roster and start over. The decision was made all the more curious by Dumars' choice to award a rapidly deteriorating Richard Hamilton with a three-year, $34 million contract extension at roughly the same time. After being swept out of the 2009 playoffs by Lebron James and the Cavaliers, Dumars used the cap space created by dumping Billups to sign Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva to 5 year contracts worth a combined $90 million. To say these signings were atrocious would be a mild understatement; neither Gordon nor Villaneuva had shown the ability to be key starters on a good NBA squad before Dumars signed them and giving them a bunch of money didn't alter that dynamic. Along the way Dumars also burned through two hand-picked coaches (Michael Curry, John Kuester), traded prospects Carlos Delfino and Amir Johnson before they blossomed into valuable assets and wasted immeasurable team resources trying to make Rodney Stuckey into an average point guard.    

As difficult as Dumars made his life with his own mistakes however; it was ultimately an incident beyond his control which compounded them. In March of 2009, Bill Davidson passed away at the ripe old age of 86, throwing Joe and the rest of the franchise into turmoil. Ownership of the franchise transferred to widow Karen Davidson, but she was not the basketball enthusiast that her husband had been and quickly put the team up for sale. Unfortunately economic conditions and what some described as an inflated asking price kept the team on the market well into the 2011 playoffs; during which time Dumars was handcuffed in his ability to remake the roster. If Dumars was hoping for some kind of miracle when the team finally did sell, he was likely disappointed in the arrival of 46 year old billionaire Tom Gores. Whereas Davidson had been low-key and content to let Dumars operate the franchise while advising from the shadows; Gores is about as brash and "in your face" as an NBA owner can get. Although the owner began his tenure by saying all the right things about building a championship culture and decided to keep Dumars on for that process, Gores has taken a decided turn towards impatience since. At the start of last season, Gores told media that he expected the Pistons to make the postseason in 2012; although he backed away from providing Dumars and then-coach Frank with an ultimatum to do so or else. While a burning desire to win is a wonderful trait in a team owner the statement suggested that Gores knew little if anything about basketball; not even their own immediate families could have looked at last year's roster and envisioned a playoff berth. When the team predictably finished with a lottery pick in the draft, Frank was fired and Gores once again began rumbling about the need to win now.

At this point it may actually be fair to question Tom Gores' sanity on some level. From his disheveled appearancereputation in the league and celebrity lifestyle it's hard to get the impression that Gores is a particularly stable owner. He clearly likes the attention owning the team grants him and takes every opportunity to speak at length to reporters about his plans for the franchise. Unfortunately, Gores seems to open his mouth long before he's really decided what those plans actually are. This has lead to unfortunate gaffes such as promising a quick resolution to the Piston's coaching search before taking weeks and weeks to actually resolve the issue, for example. He's also displayed a penchant for ridiculous theatrics; it was Gores who promised to spend big, it was Gores who emasculated Dumars by bringing in Phil Jackson as an unpaid adviser during the team's latest coaching search. Since the end of the season, Gores has done nothing but make the franchise look foolish and turn up the pressure on Dumars to work miracles with a Pistons team that is nowhere near contention. In the final analysis it seems more than reasonable to suggest that it was this pressure on Dumars that ultimately lead him to hire a "never-was" like Cheeks. No established NBA coach of any repute would be willing to take over a franchise with both this poor a roster and an owner who seemingly has no connection to reality when it comes to assessing his own team. The logical approach then would be hire some kind of Euro League wizard or College ball innovator to begin a bold (and lengthy) re-imagining of the entire franchise. Unfortunately for Dumars, that would be admitting to an impatient Gores that the team is nowhere near contending and that admission would likely cost Joe his job.

This naturally brings us to today, or rather to the end of this weekend; when a desperate Dumars will introduce a desperate Cheeks to fans and media, under the watchful eye of an owner desperate for instant success. While Dumars will try to put a fresh coat of lipstick on this pig of a decision, the simple truth is that he never had much say in the matter of who would be the next Pistons' coach anyways. The hiring of Cheeks is the final sign that Dumars has become a lame duck president who's merely marking time until the inevitable moment Gores decides to fire him. It's Tom's world now and everyone else in the organization is merely living in it, for the moment. In selecting Cheeks, Gores was no doubt swayed by Mo's legendary career as a player and reinvention as some kind of "guard whisperer" during his time coaching Russell Westbrook as an assistant with the OKC Thunder.  There are already some rumblings in the media that Cheeks may be able to unlock Brandon Knight's potential in the same way; although these predictions seem to charitably forget that Westbrook is many times the player Knight is talent-wise. No, the reality is that Maurice Cheeks is not going to perform a coaching miracle with the Pistons and in fact it's extremely unlikely that either he or Dumars will still be with the team 3 years from now. For all the declarations, threats and promises of the past two off seasons the Pistons will likely remain precisely where they were when Gores purchased the team; near the bottom of the league, treading muddy water.

- Sportsball Chic

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