Sunday, March 16, 2008

Coming To A Basketball Arena Near You: Coach Joe Dumars

The Pistons were in the midst of another search for a coach. It was typical, for a franchise that had two winning seasons on its resume in 26 seasons in Detroit.

It was the spring of 1983. General Manager Jack McCloskey was rumored to have interviewed several candidates. A couple, it was whispered, turned him down. One of those rejecters was supposedly the revered Dr. Jack Ramsay, a future Hall of Famer. McCloskey, it was reported, turned to an old friend from his days with the Lakers, Jack McKinney. McKinney, too, said no.

Other names bobbed to the surface. The days dragged on. Then it occurred to me.

Jack McCloskey wants to coach this team himself.

He could have done it, you know. McCloskey was a successful coach in the Ivy League, back when some of the best college basketball in the country was played in the small arenas of Princeton, Brown, and Yale. And Penn, where McCloskey roamed the sidelines in the 1960s. In the NBA, McCloskey coached the woeful Portland Trailblazers, getting fired just before the team drafted Bill Walton. He assisted his friend Jerry West with the Lakers, and did the same thing for McKinney with Indiana.

It was while on the Pacers bench as an assistant that McCloskey was recommended to Pistons owner Bill Davidson as just the basketball man the dysfunctional franchise needed to recover from two years of Dickie Vitale’s destruction. That was in December 1979.

So I was bracing myself for the announcement that I was sure to come, that McCloskey had tired of the coaching search and was going to assume the role himself.

He made a fool of me. He hired Chuck Daly, another former Penn coach. I suppose it was a good decision.

I hit McCloskey with my theory in 1989, the summer after the Pistons’ first-ever championship.

“If I thought it was the best decision for the team, I would have taken the job,” McCloskey told me with a shrug. But no, it wasn’t his intention.

I wonder if Joe Dumars will ultimately show the same restraint.

Flip Saunders is the Pistons coach, but he isn’t where the buck stops when it comes to in-season personnel matters. They do things a little differently in Detroit. Most NBA coaches bristle when it’s suggested that he’s not the one pulling all the strings all the time – during the season. The GM’s role for those teams is to make trades, look at free agents, and sit in a suite somewhere during the games. And keep the pie hole shut when it comes to who should play when, and for how long, and against which teams.

Dumars doesn’t play that.

Frequently he’s consulted, and I wonder how much of it is Saunders consulting Dumars, or Dumars consulting Saunders, if you get my drift.

The coach was talking to the media last week about veteran Lindsey Hunter, idle for over a month and resting – getting ready for the playoffs, when he’ll once again coax energy and ball-hawking defense out of his 37-year-old body.

When, it was asked, will it be time to suit up Hunter and begin blending him back into the rotation, the playoffs about a month away?

“Not sure,” Saunders said. “Gotta talk to Joe (Dumars) about it. See what Joe thinks.”

You can count on one hand how many NBA coaches would be comfortable with such an idea, and have some fingers left over.

Gotta talk to the GM first? See what he thinks?

Hey, if it works for Saunders and the Pistons, then everyone has my blessing. But it’s starting to crystallize now – why Joe Dumars has burned through coaches like a teenager does with his allowance.

Let’s take a look back. Dumars canned Alvin Gentry in 2000, promoting assistant George Irvine. Irvine was gone a little over a year later. Dumars then brought in Rick Carlisle, who lasted two seasons – both 50-win seasons, by the way. Despite leading the Pistons to the conference finals, Carlisle was fired. Larry Brown was hired. Brown flamed out in two seasons, as well – with a championship and a runner-up on his record. Enter Saunders, who’s actually survived into a third season – a record for any man that Dumars has hired.

Dumars, letting another coach go (Carlisle, in 2003)

I wonder how much of this is Dumars being aggressively restless and risk-taking, and how much of it is that he can’t get along with coaches? Or, rather, that they can’t get along with him?

I’m not castigating Dumars here. There’s no crime in running things the way you see fit, especially if the success rate is high. But something tells me that Joe Dumars may not be totally content until he seizes control of the team himself, as coach someday. He already is mega-involved in personnel decisions. Don’t kid yourself here. One of the reasons you see Saunders’s rotation fluctuate and change so often – in an ongoing effort to bring the youngsters Dumars has drafted into the fold – is because Dumars has ideas. And he isn’t shy to flex his muscles with his coach when it comes to those ideas.

Is Flip Saunders a puppet? That’s far too strong of a word. But it’s not inaccurate to describe Dumars as a sort of micro-manager, and those types aren’t ever happy unless they can do things themselves – like coach basketball teams.

Gregg Popovich is maybe going to go into the Hall of Fame one day as a coach, leading the San Antonio Spurs as the team of the 21st century. But Popovich was an accidental coach himself. He was a little-known GM when he fired his coach one day, took the job on an interim basis, and never gave it up.

Saunders will coach the Pistons next year, odds are – barring a total meltdown in the playoffs, i.e. a first or second-round exit. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess. And I’ll again brace myself, as I did back in 1983, for the Pistons GM to announce that, guess what, he’s the new coach, too.

McCloskey made a fool of me in ’83. I doubt that Dumars will.

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