Friday, July 22, 2005

Pistons' Coaching Change Will Tell More About Players Than About Flip Saunders

The Pistons have a new coach and the throttle will be on "high" for the team to march right back to at least the conference finals. It could very well be a pressure cooker kind of situation.

Hear that, Chauncey? Got that, Rip, Tayshaun and Ben? Can you stand the heat, Rasheed?

Contrary to popular belief, and maybe even conventional wisdom, this Pistons coaching change is going to tell us a whole lot more about the men in uniform than the man in the suit.

I don’t mean to be a lone wolf here, but after two seasons of playing "the right way" and being led by the NBA’s coaching Yoda, Larry Brown, I am convinced the Pistons players should be the ones on the hot seat, not their new coach, Flip Saunders. But you’ll be hard-pressed to read such a thing around here, because all the focus will be on Flip and how daunting a task it will be to follow a Hall of Fame coach, especially on a team that has been to two straight NBA Finals.

Yet it will be the players about who we will find the most out. For as long as Brown was at the helm, the lightning of criticism and second guessing struck the aluminum pole that was the coach. Sure, there was some critique of Chauncey Billups’ style of play, or Rasheed Wallace’s perceived lack of shooting or Ben Wallace’s free throw shooting and overall offensive game, but in the end Brown was the one who was pulling the strings, according to most folks, as if he could will a Chauncey trey to go through or make Rasheed shoot the ball just by staring him down.

But Larry is gone now, and how will his disciples react? Will they put their money where their mouths are and continue on with the things that brought them success -- selflessness, defense, passing and toughness -- or will they drift and make excuses, if convenient, that things aren’t going so well because the coach is different?

Flip Saunders will have some say-so in how the Pistons perform, no question. He’d better for what they’re paying him. But as solid of a career as Flip has had on an NBA sideline, he simply does not cast a shadow nearly as long as Larry Brown. Not that that’s a bad thing, of course. Frankly, maybe it’s exactly what the team needs, whether the players agree or not. Regardless, because Flip isn’t Larry, we will now see just what kind of men these Pistons are. We will find out if they became what they are -- usual suspects when it comes to NBA title contenders -- because of who they are, instead of by who was guiding them. We will know, sometime around next January, I’m figuring, if this is a machine that runs fairly well-oiled no matter who the mechanic is. We will see if the Pistons have true, unequivocal leadership from within their playing roster.

One of the easiest things to do in pro sports is to be seduced by the allure of ready-made excuses. Conversely, one of the best tests of character and focus is how vehemently a team refuses to be sucked in by such excuses. The Pistons have built a nice cache of credibility by their recent success, and so hardly anyone would argue with them if they floated comments about how tough it is to change coaches and gee whiz, we’re still trying to get the hang of this Flip dude.

So let’s see if the Pistons rise above that and almost go into the season with the mindset that, dammit, we ARE two-time defending Eastern Conference champs and we can increase that by one no matter who the coach is because we’re the Detroit Freaking Pistons.

My man Flip, you’re not irrelevant, not at all. But I think it would be wonderful if your new players proved that you certainly could be.

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