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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Chuck Daly: A Winner at All Levels of the Game

"It's a players' league. They allow you to coach them or they don't. Once they stop allowing you to coach, you're on your way out."--Chuck Daly

Chuck Daly, who coached the Detroit Pistons to NBA championships in 1989 and 1990 and who led the original--and only--"Dream Team" to the Olympic gold medal in 1992, has just passed away from pancreatic cancer. Daly, affectionately known as "Daddy Rich" because of his penchant for wearing fancy suits on the sidelines, was 78 years old. Coaches and members of the media have been honoring Daly throughout the playoffs by wearing lapel pins with his initials on them.

Many coaches--even some of the most successful ones--have skill sets and/or personality types that are best suited to a particular level of their sport; a great college coach will not necessarily thrive in the pro game, and vice versa. Daly proved that he had the right mindset to win at all levels of the game, from high school basketball in Pennsylvania to guiding an Ivy League team (Penn) to four NCAA Tournament appearances--including a Regional Final berth in 1972--to his great accomplishments in the NBA and with the "Dream Team." Daly was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1994 and was also voted as one of the Top 10 Coaches in NBA history.

Daly got his start in the NBA as an assistant coach for Billy Cunningham with the Philadelphia 76ers. Cunningham, then a recently retired great player with no coaching experience, relied on Daly's Xs and Os acumen much like Larry Bird later depended on Dick Harter with the Pacers. Daly left the 76ers in 1981-82 for a brief stint as the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who were at that time the NBA's version of the Titanic under the ownership of Ted Stepien, who made so many bad player transactions that the league actually had to step in and prevent him from making any more roster moves. After going 9-32 in Cleveland, Daly worked as a broadcaster for a couple years before the Pistons hired him to be their coach for the 1983-84 season. In his first season with Detroit, Daly guided the Pistons to a 12 win improvement and their first playoff appearance since 1977. The Pistons lost a memorable first round series to the incomparable Bernard King and his New York Knicks.

Daly's early Detroit teams were offensive juggernauts but defensive lightweights; the 1984 Pistons ranked third in the NBA in scoring (117.1 ppg, up from 112.7 ppg the year before) but they placed 18th (out of 23 teams) in points allowed (113.5 ppg). Daly understood that this was not a formula for championship success so he and Detroit's management worked together over the next few years to remold the team's roster and mentality. The Pistons made the playoffs in each of Daly's nine seasons with the team and in 1987 they made the first of five straight appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals. Larry Bird's famous steal of Isiah Thomas' inbounds pass in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals played a big role in helping the Celtics ultimately win that series in seven games but it was obvious that the Pistons had become an elite team. For most of the 1980s, only the Lakers, Celtics and 76ers won championships but Daly and the Pistons broke down the doors to that exclusive club in the latter part of the decade; they lost a tough seven game Finals to the Lakers in 1988 after a severely sprained ankle hobbled Thomas (the Pistons had led that series three games to two) but the next year they acquired the final piece to their championship puzzle, Mark Aguirre. Adrian Dantley had done a fine job for the Pistons but when they traded him to get Aguirre they obtained a player who had a better postup game and who was a better passer out of double teams. The Pistons went 31-6 with Aguirre--including 29-4 with him as a starter--and got revenge by sweeping the injury-riddled Lakers in the Finals. The Pistons earned back to back titles by beating Portland in the 1990 Finals. The Pistons won with team defense and employed a versatile offensive attack spearheaded by guards Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Vinnie Johnson. Thomas, the shortest Finals MVP ever, is one of a handful of players to win that honor without being paired with one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History.

Daly's success in Detroit helped him earn the opportunity to coach the 1992 "Dream Team," the first U.S. Olympic basketball squad that used NBA players. Daly never called a timeout during the entire tournament and he did a masterful job of managing the minutes and the egos. Ironically, Thomas--who had once lobbied Detroit management to keep Daly when some people wanted to replace him--was not selected to the "Dream Team" even though he had won more championships at that point than anyone on the team other than Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. It has always been rumored that Michael Jordan, Thomas' bitter rival from Chicago, vowed to not participate unless Thomas was left out.

Daly left the Pistons after the 1992 season. He led the Nets to a pair of playoff berths in 1993 and 1994 and then finished his coaching career in Orlando in 1998 and 1999, guiding the Magic to the playoffs in his final season with the team.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:36 PM

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At Monday, May 11, 2009 1:02:00 PM, Blogger Tomislav said...

Chuck Daly once said: "I never had a player, other than maybe Dennis Rodman, who worked as hard as Drazen Petrovic did. He was one of those special guys."

Daly also said that Drazen was the best pure shooter he's ever seen.

 

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