The actual particulars of Jeff Van Gundy’s latest rant don’t matter, because his point is spot-on. So the fact that the former coach and ABC/ESPN analyst is defending recently fired Detroit Pistons coach Lawrence Frank really shouldn’t get in the way of his salient argument. It’s a players’ league, and not only don’t the coaches play the games, they also don’t draft, sign or trade for the players who play the games.
While appearing on XM’s Mad Dog Radio with Chris Russo, Van Gundy let loose with a classic coach’s lament:
"Detroit Pistons basketball slogan: When the going gets tough, we fire the coach," Van Gundy said. "It's unbelievable. It's unbelievable. You know what surprises me, Chris? These new owners in Detroit have to be exceedingly bright to have made as much money as they have. And to be duped again that your G.M. tells you that the roster is good and the coach is bad ... what was the problem with Michael Curry? What was John Kuester? Now Lawrence. They run through coaches and they haven't even begun to address their problem. They have very little talent and very little basketball character. You combine that, you're going to be in a long rebuild.
"I'm just surprised that when everybody acknowledges it's a player's league — everybody would agree with that — then the most important player or person in any organization is the person that picks the players. But we don't, as organizations, examine them. We just take the easy way out time and time again. You lose, the G.M. convinces the owner, 'We got good players. It's the coach's fault.' We fire the coach; we bring a new coach in; we continue to lose. We fire that coach, saying that 'We have better players.' It just goes on and on. It's typical and I can't believe that the Detroit owners fell for it. I just can't believe it."
(By the way, isn’t it completely obvious that Jeff Van Gundy doesn’t want to coach anymore unless he’s given major front-office control and/or a contract 1 1/2 times the size of a typical high-end coaching deal? Just listening to his ABC/ESPN work makes it clear that he’s kind of turned into a league-skimmer in comparison to his bleary-eyed turn as a head coach, instead of devoting fully to it, and it appears that he prefers the cushier and less-stressed lifestyle of just having to rant on TV during games for a few hours a week.)
Pistons owner Tom Gores was behind Frank’s firing, and in comments he made to the press last week, Gores appeared to picture the Pistons as a playoff-level team in his mind’s eye, a squad that could battle to be where the Milwaukee Bucks are right now. If Gores blamed Frank for the difference between the Bucks and the Pistons this season, then he’s got it all wrong about the game of basketball.
The problem is that you need a basketball guy to hire your “basketball guy” to work the front office … and Joe Dumars is currently Detroit’s “basketball guy.”
Dumars was ahead of his time when it came to stockpiling players that other teams were willing to dump in a cap-conscious frenzy during the first three years of his tenure, resulting in a championship in 2004 and years of tough defeats either in the NBA Finals or Eastern Conference Finals. Beyond that remarkable run, though, Dumars has had some pretty big whiffs in the draft (and it’s not just Darko Milicic we’re talking about), in deals and especially in his choice of both free agents and contract extensions to players who just didn’t need them at the time.
As an ex-player, Dumars probably understands the uncertainty that comes from working through a season with a free-agent deadline looming, so he’s been kind to spend the team’s money on extensions far, far down the line. Because of all this generosity, though, the Pistons have been swimming in it for years. All the bright spots that Dumars keeps pointing to, talking incessantly his team’s cap space in 2013, are a direct result of 5 1/2 years spent in the wilderness since the team dealt for Allen Iverson and extended Richard Hamilton’s deal.
Hamilton hated Detroit so much by the end of his deal that he requested a bought-out contract for far less than the $22 million he was owed — because back in 2008, Dumars thought Rip Hamilton would be worth $13 million in 2011-12 and $9 million in 2012-13. Jose Calderon’s expiring contract was sent to the team from the Toronto Raptors as a way to get rid of Tayshaun Prince’s contract extension. The same goes for Corey Maggette’s expiring deal, as the Pistons had to give up a lottery pick to the Charlotte Bobcats in order to free themselves from the $13.2 million Ben Gordon is owed in 2013-14. And the Pistons are going to have to use the amnesty clause on Charlie Villanueva’s $8.5 million next year, money that Gores will still have to pay CV.
So it’s pretty well established that Dumars, now seeking the seventh coach of his 12-year GM career, deserves the once-over.
With that in place, though, let’s also point out that Frank was not the right coach for this team.
If Frank thought that playing free-agent-to-be Jason Maxiell over the developing Andre Drummond at center was good for either the short term (“we’re makin’ the playoffs with Maxiell!”) or long term (that, perhaps, Drummond would respond badly to getting minutes Frank thought he didn’t deserve), he was as deluded as Gores and Dumars were about this roster. As Eric Freeman put it earlier this year, Frank’s choice to work as more of a “life coach” instead of “the Pistons’ coach” with Drummond blew up in his face, as Drummond didn’t get nearly enough of the minutes he’ll need to develop a rapport with scoring forward Greg Monroe, the Pistons lost tons of games, and Frank is now out of a job.
Van Gundy is right, because the Pistons ended up about where they should have in this year’s standings, acting as drearily as ever. This was a rebuilding year, as Van Gundy pointed out, and Frank did not work as a rebuilding coach. That’s significant — and though it was a mistake for Dumars to hire a “win now” guy for his young team back in 2011, that doesn’t mean Frank should have been around for any part of 2013-14.
We spend parts of the season complaining about bum coaching moves on this site, but we spend the entire year batting around bad trades, worse signings, and blown draft picks. Hint-hint, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, NBA owners — it’s the GMs that are putting you in this mess.