Pistons Flip the Script, Fire SaundersIn the wake of three straight losses in the Eastern Conference Finals, Detroit Pistons President Joe Dumars is determined to do whatever is necessary so that his team can return to the NBA Finals. Dumars began that process by firing Coach Flip Saunders and boldly declaring, "Make no mistake, everybody is in play right now. There are no sacred cows here. You lose that sacred cow status when you lose three straight years...I think this team became way too content and did not show up with a sense of urgency to get it done. I can't sugarcoat it. It is what it is."
Saunders is not a bad coach--but he is not a great coach, either, and most teams that win NBA titles not only have talented rosters but they also have great coaches. As I have mentioned on many occasions and summarized in an article titled Requiem for the Pistons, there have been two main problems with the Pistons during the Saunders' regime:
1) Under Saunders' predecessor Larry Brown, the Pistons built an identity as a strong defensive team. Saunders' Pistons were not nearly as good defensively, especially when it mattered most: in the Eastern Conference Finals against elite teams. As I noted in the "Requiem" article, Saunders' Pistons were most known for "lacking focus, not playing up to their potential and taking off quarters, halves and sometimes complete games." Is that entirely Saunders' fault? Perhaps not, but ultimately the responsibility for a lack of focus and productivity falls on the shoulders of the CEO, the general, the man in charge. Here is another way to look at this. Greg Anthony has repeatedly made a very perceptive observation about Phil Jackson's teams: they never underachieve. Think about it: when Jackson has championship level talent he wins championships, year after year. However, when Michael Jordan suddenly retired, Jackson guided the Bulls to 55 wins--just two fewer than in the previous year--and had them within a horrible Hue Hollins call of making it to at least the Eastern Conference Finals. Jordan's last minute departure left the Bulls no time to try to draft a replacement or sign a top free agent, so they ended up with Pete Myers as their starting shooting guard that year. Contrast that with Saunders' situation: he inherited a team that had won a championship and made it to the Finals in back to back years. Do you honestly think that if Jackson had taken over such a team that it would never get back to the Finals?
2) Ben Wallace did not fit in with the "liberation offense" that Saunders wanted to run and that certainly played a factor in the Pistons electing to let him sign with the Bulls. Saunders believed that he could increase the team's offensive efficiency by so much that it would compensate for any slippage in defense in the wake of Wallace's departure (perhaps Saunders also thought that the Pistons would still be great defensively even without Wallace). Saunders may run the best baseline out of bounds plays in the league and his offense--run by three All-Stars--may look great in the regular season against weak teams but it annually falls apart for extended stretches in the playoffs against elite teams. Defense wins championships, not "liberation offense." It may seem like this year's Lakers are turning that adage on its head a bit with their high powered offense but their formidable scoring differential and field goal percentage differential are indicators that they are not only scoring a lot of points but also slowing down their opponents' offenses.
It remains to be seen what other changes Dumars will make before the 2008-09 season. However, the formula for the Pistons to return to the NBA Finals must address the concerns mentioned above: the new coach must reassert Detroit's identity as a strong defensive team, the Pistons must find a way--either through a change in personnel or an adjustment in their defensive scheme--to make up for the shotblocking that Ben Wallace once provided and the Pistons must develop an offensive attack that can withstand the rigors of high level playoff basketball. As with the defensive problems, the latter issue may be addressed by making personnel moves--acquiring or developing a low post scoring threat and/or a slashing wing player who can create shots for himself and others--or by strategic changes that better emphasize the strengths of the team's players.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:56 PM