The picture of the NBA coach is usually one of frenetic movement. He treats his chair as if it is wired to a thousand volts. He’s a blend of foot stomping, arm waving and yelling. He often acts like a petulant child who’s just been told he can’t have a cookie before dinner.
You can pretty much do a Google image search for any NBA coach, past or present, and you’ll see a menagerie of photos of men who look like they’re pointing out someone who just stole their wallet.
Not Maurice Cheeks.
Cheeks, the Pistons coach, is the antithesis of this stereotype.
Google Cheeks and the images look like photos of statues.
You’ll find one photo after another of Cheeks, expressionless, arms folded, watching the action before him as if almost bored by it all.
Before last Sunday’s game against Portland at the Palace, Cheeks talked about his coaching demeanor, which is from the Charlie Watts School of excitement.
“There’s no wrong way of doing it,” Cheeks told Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press. “If you’re getting your message across, you do it the way you feel comfortable doing it. For me, I do it my way and let someone else do it their way.”
Laissez-faire and poker face don’t always work in Detroit. Fans here like for their coaches and players to yell, carry on and flip over the post-game food spread. The paying customers have gravitated to the Kirk Gibson types. Just ask Prince Fielder.
Scotty Bowman stood behind the Red Wings bench and it was impossible to tell from Scotty’s face whether the Red Wings were winning 6-0 or getting their butts kicked.
But Bowman’s staid disposition was accepted because the Red Wings won Stanley Cups.
If the basketball fans in Detroit are looking for their coach to pitch a fit on the sidelines and rack up technical fouls like loose change, they can forget about it.
Maurice Cheeks was a cool customer as a player, when he ran the point for the Philly 76ers of the 1980s, and he’s no more antsy as a coach.
To be honest, it’s a nice change of pace after the last four years of John Kuester and Lawrence Frank, two tightly-wound dudes who were as rigid in their basketball ideology as they come.
Cheeks has been praised, already, by his players on the Pistons for his willingness to listen. That in of itself is a big deal.
Bob Lanier once said of coach Ray Scott, “Ray and I have differences of opinion sometimes. He may say f— you, but at least he’ll listen before he says f— you.”
Cheeks seems to listen, but he puts the onus on the players if he allows them to integrate something they’ve suggested.
He lets players call plays, number one. Being a former point guard, Cheeks knows how far it can go with players when you trust them a little bit on the court—another entity that had been missing from Cheeks’ predecessors.
But Cheeks isn’t a screamer. He just isn’t. In many ways he’s the opposite of Kuester and Frank, which is not a bad thing, considering how little success the Pistons have had lately.
The Pistons, heavily made over last summer, have been the portrait of inconsistency this season. It’s a team that can win in Miami and Indiana—the two teams slated by many to face each other in the Eastern Conference Finals—yet get knocked off at home by a bottom feeder.
It’s all part of integrating a new coach, new players and a different philosophy, and in the weak East, the Pistons should make the playoffs.
One of Cheeks’ biggest challenges is the enigmatic Josh Smith, the expensive free agent signee from the summer. It’s up to Cheeks to help Smith strike that delicate balance between shooting and…not. It’s a balance that Smith often found elusive, playing for the Hawks—and he’s got the boo-birds from Atlanta to prove it.
“I don’t think there’s anyone we can alter shot selection and he’s in that category,” Cheeks said of Smith. “If I think he’s taking a bad shot, we look at it, we try and correct it and see where it goes from there.”
But it’s all done privately, in film sessions. No Bobby Knight is Mo Cheeks.
It’s still far too early to tell whether Cheeks is, finally, the right coach for the Pistons, who have been in the Coach Wanted business every couple of years for what seems like forever.
One thing is certain—and it’s that Cheeks is unlikely to rub his players the wrong way because he’s not grating to the nerves. Finally there seems to be some calm in the coach’s chair around here, and that’s a start.
Cheeks has Rodney Stuckey on board, for starters. Stuckey has played the last four seasons while rolling his eyes, but he has had nothing but good things to say about Cheeks, who seems to have the shooting guard happy and motivated so far.
And Cheeks has already been helped by veteran guard Chauncey Billups, whose 37-year-old body has rebelled a few times since the season began, but who is nonetheless a calming influence and another basketball mind that Cheeks can tap into. Billups bleeds Pistons Blue and didn’t come back to Detroit to preside over nonsense.
Cheeks has two big men who most NBA coaches would drool over—Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. The coach has a point guard, Brandon Jennings, who comes from the Isiah Thomas School, which says the point guard can call his own number freely and with impunity.
Cheeks has spent the first 28 games of the season (the Pistons are 13-15) trying to find the right rotation, but he hasn’t been perplexing about it. Gone are the days of Kuester and Frank, who buried certain players inexplicably and maybe even irrationally. Frank even doled out playing time to Drummond like a miser, which is an indictment on Frank’s player development chops.
Through it all, there hasn’t been a screaming fit or a tantrum on the sidelines yet—and there won’t be.
“There’s not always one way to do it,” Cheeks says. “There’s some coaches that can chastise a guy out in front and there’s the coaches that can pull them to the side and talk to them.”
Huh. Imagine that.