“NBA players aren’t fools, either — even if they sometimes play ones on TV.”

All eyes were on Michael Curry.

How would the Pistons’ first-year coach handle his first genuine playing time/ego massaging crisis? It was written that Curry’s “small ball” lineup wasn’t going to fly much longer, now that the whirling dervish shooting guard Rip Hamilton was healthy and ready to return to the lineup, the Pistons having played very well with Rodney Stuckey, Allen Iverson, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Amir Johnson as the starters. Someone would have to come off the bench, it was duly reported, so that the big man Johnson could continue to start. Would that benchwarmer be Hamilton or Iverson? Three-time Pistons All-Star and NBA champion, or future Hall of Famer?

Oh, such a decision for a veteran coach to make, let alone a rookie one.

So Curry did what a lot of us who aren’t paid millions of dollars to coach might have done: he benched Johnson, and kept both Hamilton and Iverson as starters.

Curry was staring down a tempest in a teapot, and he blinked.

The small lineup started the game yesterday at home versus Charlotte — an 80-78 Bobcats win. But Hamilton was asked to the bench with barely half the first quarter in the books. Perhaps a sign of things to come.

But it may not be enough, to simply start the small lineup and request either Hamilton or Iverson to sit down a few minutes into the game. Probably not very smart, either. You’re either a starter or you’re not, right?

You can blame Rodney Stuckey for all this, by the way.

The second-year point guard is threatening to turn Chauncey Billups’ last name into “Who?”. Stuckey is blossoming as fast as those flowers do in time lapse photography. One moment there’s nothing there; a few seconds later, you have a fully-bloomed rose. And it happens before your very eyes, even if you can’t quite believe what you just saw.

Curry chickened out, it says here, when confronted with his first real challenge as an NBA head coach. But he can’t keep chickening out. Sooner or later he’s going to realize that it’s probably not best that the Pistons keep this lineup throughout the regular season and into the playoffs. I, personally, have no problem with small ball. But I admit that it might make even me uneasy to attempt to use it through the rigors of playoff basketball.

How Curry handles this situation will go a long way toward determining whether he’s got the goods to be an NBA head coach

Curry explained himself yesterday.

“When we looked at everything with the team, we really liked the way we start the first and third quarter, ’cause in the past it had been a problem with this small lineup,” Curry said. “What we have to do is try to find a way for about 32 minutes of the game to have two bigs out on the court. … Regardless of what group starts and plays throughout the game, we’ve got to continue to get better defensively. And I think everyone understands that.”


But Curry still chickened out. Doesn’t mean that he’s a chicken by nature, because he’s not — at least he wasn’t as a player. He’s not a player anymore. He’s also not an assistant coach anymore, which is the next best thing to being a player. He’s the head man now, and these are the decisions that head coaches have to make sometimes in the NBA: decide which minutes-gobbling guard to come off the bench. Curry’s no fool; he knows that whatever route he takes, that won’t be the most pleasant of conversations.

NBA players aren’t fools, either — even if they sometimes play ones on TV. They see everything, especially when it comes to playing time and how the coach treats everyone. If they, also, eventually believe that Curry is playing chicken with this Hamilton/Iverson decision, they’ll lose respect for him very quickly. We’re not the only ones watching to see how this plays out.

Curry came to a fork in the road and instead of picking one way or the other, he chose to turn around and head back down the straight path from which he came. You can only do that for so long.