Flip Saunders never truly got entrenched in Detroit. He was the Pistons coach for three seasons, but two things about that: 1) GM Joe Dumars has a fetish for canning coaches after a couple years or so, and 2) you never got the feeling that Saunders was securing his place, about to defy the odds created by item #1 in this paragraph. He won a ton of games — 176 of them in three years — but couldn’t push the Pistons past the NBA’s Final Four.
“When you get to where we were,” Dumars said yesterday at the press conference announcing Saunders’ ziggy, “you never feel like you’re not good enough to get to the Finals. Nobody gets to the conference finals and wonders if they’re good enough to move on.”
Dumars used those words to deflect any heat he might face from firing a coach with a winning percentage of over .700 in Detroit. What Joe D was saying was that the Pistons didn’t luck themselves into these last three Final Fours. Yet they couldn’t take that next step, falling in six games three straight times — kind of like Groundhog Day, only with a different groundhog each time. First, it was the Miami Heat, on their way to an NBA title behind the nearly flawless Dwyane Wade. Then it was the Cleveland Cavaliers, behind the nearly flawless LeBron James. Then it was the Boston Celtics, a team that went from 24 wins to 66, and a team that Dumars chided.
“They got some very good players, and didn’t have to give up much to get them,” Dumars said of the Celtics’ acquisitions of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett over the summer. “It’s not like they had to give up depth. I would have liked to have done that, too,” he added with a wry grin.
So now Dumars may have just set a record for firing the most coaches with 50+ win seasons than any GM in history. He let Rick Carlisle go in 2003 after two 50-32 campaigns, it being hinted that Rick simply wasn’t all that nice a guy to team employees, and wasn’t all that nice to his bosses, either. Dumars replaced Carlisle quickly with the mercurial Larry Brown, who was shown the door after a title and two Finals appearances and two more 50+ win seasons, largely because owner Bill Davidson found Brown despicable toward the end, with the coach’s wandering eye and career restlessness always taking center stage. Again Dumars acted quickly, and brought in Saunders, a coach with some success in Minnesota but none to speak of in the playoffs.
Ahh, the playoffs. That’s where you can start tracing the fan base’s distrust of Saunders — and maybe even the players’, too. I, for one, wasn’t all that giddy about the Saunders hiring three summers ago, mainly because I looked at the standard being set in Detroit — the team was coming off another Finals appearance — and then I looked at the results Flip was getting in Minnesota (there were a lot of early exits with good teams) and I felt a little squeamish. But I also subscribed to the In Joe We Trust mentality, and figured that Saunders must have something for Dumars to commit four years of Davidson’s dough into him.
Then the Pistons went out and started 35-5 in Flip’s first season, and they looked damn near invincible. The second half was a bit more disjointed, and the team had to scramble to beat the Cavs in seven games in the Elite Eight before being melted by Wade’s Heat.
From there, it was dicey, as far as overall belief and trust in Flip Saunders in Detroit. While I hate to give the sports talk radio jabbermouths too much credit, they and their often misguided callers seemed to unite under one common belief: the Pistons win in the regular season despite of Saunders, but will never get back to the Finals — mainly because of Saunders.
Saunders was, by far, the least embraced coach in Detroit — ranking below even the Lions’ Rod Marinelli, who has largely been judged as more of an innocent bystander than anyone with losing blood on his hands. There wasn’t any sort of true affection for him. We never knew much about him, for starters. We knew he had a kid who played at the University of Minnesota, his alma mater, and that he coached the T-Wolves all those years. And that he narrowly missed being a victim of that bridge collapse — also in Minnesota. Maybe he was just too much Minnesota for our liking. Regardless, there wasn’t any of the lovable gruffness and supposed genius that Tigers fans found so alluring about Jim Leyland. There wasn’t the quiet calm and confidence exuded by Red Wings coach Mike Babcock that hockey fans find reassuring. There wasn’t even the “Aw, shucks/pound the rock” affability projected by Marinelli. With Saunders, he was like the outsider who was just keeping a seat warm until Dumars decided to satisfy his fetish again. No real connection. No real affection. No real empathy about what would ultimately happen to him.
Fair? Probably not.
I think that Flip Saunders became the Pistons coach at a very difficult time in team history. And all his regular season success couldn’t wash away the film that the disappointing playoff endings always left on the organization. He had to win another championship, Saunders did — or at least make it to a Finals or two — to continue to coach here. He was the victim of the expectations built first by Carlisle and then reached by Brown. And in the end, for whatever reason, Saunders simply didn’t have enough moxie to achieve those lofty goals.
There was his relationship with Rasheed Wallace, for one. Sheed is a reminder that coach killers are still a long ways away from becoming extinct in the NBA. They’re alive and well, and Sheed contributed, more than any other player, to the decision Dumars reached regarding Saunders’s status. Ironically, Wallace himself may also be gone — but not before having plunged a knife into Flip’s back. You can’t kill a coach killer, but you can get rid of him. Maybe Wallace will be some other team’s headache.
Dumars spoke — and with some definite agitation — of the final ten minutes of the Pistons’ season, those final, ghoulish minutes against Boston in the fourth quarter of Game 6. The ten minutes that put Saunders in the coffin and lowered him six feet under the daisies. The ten minutes that saw the Pistons turn a 10-point lead and a raucous crowd and an imminent Game 7 into yet another ugly, gut-churning, cold ending to a season. The ten minutes that gave Wallace one more chance to show why he’s one of the least clutch starters in the league, and why the Pistons didn’t have the heart or the guts to beat back the Celtics, even on their home floor, their crowd behind them and their opponents about ready to gag.
The Pistons coughed up two hairballs in the Final Four: Game 3 and the final ten minutes of Game 6 — both at the Palace. They were 58 minutes of basketball that are now the first domino of a summer of change in Auburn Hills. Flip is gone, just as we all suspected he might be. But this isn’t a fire-the-coach, keep-the-players sort of thing. Not even close.
“I’m open for business,” Dumars declared of his personnel plans. “No one is a sacred cow.”
No; they’re four fatted calves — you know who I mean — and at least one of them is about ready to be slaughtered.