Saturday, May 27, 2006

Saunders Is Flip When Compared To Daly

The Pistons’ first round playoff series was expected to be over quickly – most likely in the three-game minimum. Even though the opponents wore the green and white of the Boston Celtics. But these Celtics were wounded – minus Larry Bird the entire season due to injury.

The first two games were comfortable Detroit victories, but as the teams prepared to fly to Boston to complete the expected sweep on schedule, the Pistons coach acted as his own Grim Reaper.

“I’m taking enough clothes to Boston to last several days,” Chuck Daly told the pallbearers with notepads and microphones who weren’t used to being beaten to the punch when it came to messages of foreboding. “Those are still the Celtics. I’m going to plan on being in Boston longer than you think.”

The Pistons bumped the Celtics out in Game 3, completing the sweep. They may have still been the Celtics, but they were the Celtics without Larry Bird, so they weren’t the real Celtics. And the Pistons had handled them. Easily. It was the first speed bump in their 1989 playoff run – a run in which they didn’t lose a game until the Conference Finals, on their way to the first of back-to-back championships.

Chuck Daly had multiple nicknames in Detroit. To the fans and the media types, he was “The Prince of Pessimism.” To his players, he was “Daddy Rich,” due in large part to his natty threads and well-coiffed hair. To others, he was simply “Chuck.” A one-word moniker – like Madonna. And alongside those of his players: Isiah. Vinnie. Joe.

Not only was the glass never half-full in Daly’s eyes, it sometimes never existed. He would find something to wring his hands about if the Pistons were playing Grosse Pointe High School.

But it worked, because nobody has been as successful prowling the Pistons’ sideline as Chuck Daly was from 1983-1992. His teams appeared in five straight Conference Finals (1987-91), and three straight league finals (1988-90). They darn near won all three, too – coming within a whisker of overcoming the Lakers in 1988.

Daddy Rich, The Prince of Pessimism ... and Chuck

Daly won not only because he had the talent on his roster, but also because his pessimism act, though over the top, kept the lid on any arrogance and complacency that could poison a season full of potential.

One year – 1985 to be exact – the Pistons prepared to play the New Jersey Nets in another of those best-of-five first rounders.

“I don’t see how we can win a game,” Daly said with the usual gloom, even though his team would have home court advantage. “They’ve beaten us like a drum all season. They all but toyed with us.” It was semi-true. The Nets had lost to the Pistons only once in the regular season.

Doubtless Daly told his players something totally different behind the closed lockerroom doors. The Pistons swept the Nets aside in the three-game minimum.

Now we have Flip Saunders, and he’s been compared to Chuck Daly in some respects this season – a season in which Saunders’ Pistons bested Daly’s 1989 team by one in terms of regular season victories.

Flip Saunders was hired last summer with one basic charge: Don’t screw anything up.

“He lets the players be themselves.”

“He doesn’t really coach – he babysits.”

“He doesn’t smother his players.”

“He lets them police themselves.”

They are words that were once used to describe Chuck Daly and his style of managing his Bad Boys.

Saunders might have done all those aforementioned things this season as he guided the Pistons to a 64-18 record, but he is no Chuck Daly. And that’s not a bad thing.

Saunders seems to have a lot of “gee, whiz” about him. He is, compared to Daly, almost Perry Como-like in his relaxed state. He could coach in a cardigan sweater and not be out of place.

When Daly arrived in Detroit, he was an unknown – an old Ivy League guy who’d had one NBA shot, in Cleveland, and had a partial season record with the Cavaliers so miserable he probably wished it could be put into a time capsule and buried, struck from the NBA’s books entirely. He was 53 years old, and yet nothing he had accomplished in his basketball life excited the folks around here too much.

Flip Saunders was hired last summer with one basic charge: Don’t screw anything up. For the Pistons had had far more success in the previous two seasons than Saunders had managed in ten seasons coaching the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Flip "Perry Como" Saunders

And so Saunders is credited with taking the offensive shackles off Chauncey, Rip, and Tayshaun. Another group of hardcourt heroes with one-word names. He was, by all accounts, the perfect antidote to Larry Brown.

To say that Flip Saunders merely rolled the basketballs out in practice for 82 games and let the boys play would be far too simplistic and disrespectful. But he certainly didn’t have to do nearly as much in his first season in Detroit as Daly had to do in his.

In the recently completed series with the Cavaliers, whispers spread around town that Saunders was being outcoached by Cleveland’s Mike Brown. Never were those whispers louder than when the Pistons fell behind their inferior opponent in the series, 3-2. Suddenly, Saunders’ “hands-off” approach was being vilified as being too laissez-faire.

I was one who wondered whether Saunders had it in him to coach the Pistons out of the Cavaliers series.

“Now, when a little smothering might be in order, it's questionable whether Saunders -- especially in 36 hours -- can muster the guile needed for such a chore,” I wrote in my “Out of Bounds” blog in the wake of Game 5’s surprising loss.

You might ask how one can write when his hands are wringing. And, unfortunately, you do not write a blog in invisible ink.

Saunders did indeed have what it took to coach the Pistons out of the Cleveland paper bag. There were defensive adjustments made at halftime of Game 7 that sealed the deal – along with a heady insertion of Lindsey Hunter into the game late in the third quarter that helped balloon the Pistons’ lead from one to ten points awfully quickly.

The naysayers were out after Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals – a loss. They retreated a bit after Game 2 – a win.

But with Saunders, the glass is now half-full again.

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