The first, and maybe among the best, was Ray Scott. He was a true Piston. A player first, drafted fourth off the board in 1961 – a towering, rebounding and scoring machine from the University of Portland, but a born and reared Philly kid – who would adopt Detroit, and vice-versa.
Then there was Herb Brown, with his open collars and shoes with no socks. He had coached everywhere, including Israel. He rubbed his players so wrongly, the confrontations nearly became physical.
Then came Bob Kaufman. He played in the league, and wore the dual hats of coach and general manager in Detroit for a time. That is, before he gave way to the maniacal bleatings of Dickie Vitale, who became a de facto GM, too – when Kaufman gave up and fled town.
After Dickie was dragged screaming into the night – only to resurface on American television sets that were best off equipped with that wonderful invention called the “mute” button – there was another New Jersey guy to take his place: Richie Adubato.
Scotty Robertson was next, with his southern drawl and down-home honesty and humility.
Then the best: Chuck Daly, who rolled into town with coiffed hair and a resume that was in line with his predecessors. That is, largely undistinguished and filled with basketball stops in small towns and oh yeah – there was a college somewhere out east. Plus a brief NBA head coaching stint in Cleveland, one of the league’s two Siberias. The other was … Detroit. The won-lost record in Cleveland was so bad as to be best left off the undistinguished resume.
Some good, long-overdue stability with Chuck, before the door became revolving again. Ron Rothstein, who openly campaigned for the job and was brutally ineffective once he had bullied his way into it. Don Chaney, a nice man – and former Celtic champion – whose roster was filled with the dregs of the league and Grant Hill, pretty much. Doug Collins, whose claim to coaching fame was being lucky enough to be in charge in Chicago when Michael Jordan claimed ownership of the league. Alvin Gentry, another of those assistants who was minding his own business when management shoved the silver whistle into his mouth. George Irvine, who never really wanted the job, then coached like it, just to drive home his point.
More brevity, but with some success. Rick Carlisle, once labeled an up-and-coming genius, but who now finds himself in an ESPN studio, telling us what just happened and why. Larry Brown, a champion here, whose brevity was fait accompli, befitting his nomadic past.
All of which brings us to Flip Saunders.
Saunders is doing something quite extraordinary in Detroit, starting next week in Miami. For he is being entrusted to coax, prod, and nudge his players along through a third perilous NBA season. He’s breaking the string of two-and-out when it comes to Pistons coaches hired by the sage Joe Dumars. But the two-and-out wasn’t invented by Dumars. Far from it.
Saunders will get a third crack at reining in Rasheed Wallace
There have been 15 Pistons coaches during the ownership of Bill Davidson, which began in earnest in 1974. Yet only two of them, prior to Saunders, have been allowed to complete a third full season at the helm: Robertson and Daly.
See? The two-and-out pre-dates Dumars’ management significantly. It even pre-dates Davidson.
The Pistons are celebrating their 50th anniversary in Detroit this year, moving from Fort Wayne in 1957. Special commemorative patches are going to be worn on the players’ tank tops and everything. A one-shot logo has been crafted. Only – and I really don’t want to be a party pooper here – this is actually the 51st season in Detroit for the franchise. But they never have counted so good in the Pistons offices.
Back in the days of phantom attendance numbers, that is. And when the team used the two-and-out system of running coaches in and out of town. Ahh, those fabulous ‘60s!
Just about every coach the Pistons hired had the requisite two-year contract, and many didn’t even survive that long. Dumars, somewhat surprisingly to me, had seemed to carry on the tradition, despite significant team success. Out with Irvine, in with Carlisle. Two 50-win seasons with Carlisle, but it’s two-and-out! In with the basketball vagabond Brown. A championship and a runner-up, but it’s two-and-out! So out with Brown and in with Saunders.
Flip kicked things off with a record-setting 64-win year, but the suspected over-use of his starting five – four of them made the All-Star team – led to a flame-out in the playoffs against the Miami Heat in the conference finals. Last season, Saunders eased off a bit and worked some more bench players into the rotation, but the result was the same: sayonara in the Final Four, at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers of all people.
Chances are that Saunders will be allowed to complete his third season, making him only the third man to do so during Davidson’s ownership – and the first during Dumars’s president-ship. Where that will get him is anyone’s guess, here on the eve of the Pistons’ 50th anniversary/51st season in Detroit. But it, at the very least, puts him in an elite group. A SMALL, elite group.
Daly survived nine seasons because he won. And he won because he was smart enough to know that talented NBA players aren’t so much coached as they are managed and empowered. In the history of the NBA, you won’t find many more with such a combustible combo of strong wills and high-strung pedigrees than Bill Laimbeer, Isiah Thomas, and Dennis Rodman. Throw in the petulance of Kelly Tripucka and Adrian Dantley and the antics of Dennis Rodman and John Salley, and the supposed childishness of Mark Aguirre (pre-Detroit) – and it’s a wonder Daly lasted nine months. But the final tally under Daly was two championships, a runner-up, and five straight trips to the conference finals. Amazing what you can do in three years or more!
Saunders has extended the Pistons’ current streak of conference finals appearances to five as well. Yet they’ve only won two of those. The Chuck Daly Pistons won three of their five – and all in succession.
Flip is here for Year Three. But it’s only his two-year anniversary. See how that works?