Sunday, March 25, 2012

Millen "Disciple" Mayhew a Self-Learner

As a pro football player, Martin Mayhew, being a defensive back, became used to going to work every Sunday trying to succeed with one arm tied behind his back.

Don’t let anyone tell you that the rulebook doesn’t play favorites.

In the NFL, receivers are given more benefits of the doubt than the teacher’s pet. The rules are tilted away from the defender and toward the pass catcher. It’s not enough that receivers are taller, faster, know where they’re going, and are running forward.

The pass defender is shorter, slower, has no clue which way the man he’s covering is going to juke and jolt, and he has to run backward, to boot.

Then the guys in the zebra stripes, not content with such a disadvantage, are prone to clutter the football field with yellow laundry if the defender so much as breathes on his opponent.

It’s poker with a marked deck; a carnival-midway pyramid of milk cans.

Playing defensive back in the NFL is a weekly, soul-sucking, often losing battle, mitigated only by the nirvana of defying the odds and batting a football away or, if the quarterback and the receiver are on Venus and Mars, respectively, actually intercepting a wayward pass.

Mayhew, the Lions general manager, played this game of loser’s poker for eight years in the NFL. He knows a little about working when the rules are not on your side.

It hasn’t gotten all that much fairer for him as an executive.

First, he learned the GM business by working as an underling of Matt Millen’s, which was like learning how to move a piano from Laurel and Hardy.

For years, Mayhew was Millen’s second banana, his silent partner. We knew only that Mayhew was in the organization; we didn’t really know what he did, nor did we pay much attention to him. We only thought that we knew one thing: if he was a Matt Millen hire, then how good could he really be?

Then one October day in 2008, Lions owner Bill Ford Sr. made the most overdue mercy killing since ABC canceled “Happy Days.”

Ford fired Millen, and shoved Mayhew into Millen’s seat as team GM.

Martin Mayhew! Another “MM” guy, to go along with Matt Millen and Marty Mornhinweg.

I hope we were all forgiven in our skepticism.

The tabbing of Mayhew was accepted cautiously by the fanbase, because they figured his ascension to Millen’s throne would be interim, that very sports word for “keep renting your house, don’t buy.”

Surely, the fanbase convinced itself, the Lions will wait until the end of the season and bring in a “real” GM—preferably a guy with a big name.

Bill Parcells, et al.

Now, back in the fall of 2008, the idea that Mayhew could be the long-term answer for what ailed the Lions’ front office was considered folly. Worse, it was considered incompetent and malevolent toward the fans.

The Lions were in the middle of a 0-16 season when Mayhew replaced Millen. To not go after someone outside the organization was looked at as a big old nose-thumbing by Ford to his patrons.

Yet just days after taking over from Millen, Mayhew fleeced Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys of a first-round draft pick in exchange for uneven receiver Roy Williams.

It was David fooling Goliath; some kid chess player placing Bobby Fischer into checkmate.

Beginner’s luck?

The Lions played out their winless season, and then the fans rubbed their hands together. Despite the fleecing of Dallas for Roy Williams, there still wasn’t much excitement at the thought of Mayhew staying on as GM.

Not with Bill Parcells out there!

Ford did another end around, as has been his wont as Lions owner. He went against public sentiment—another Ford trait—and hired Mayhew permanently, ripping the interim tag off him like a decorated officer losing one of his stripes.

Only this was in reverse—a promotion based on little more than faith, hope and loyalty—again, another Ford-ism.

Well, guess who’s pretty good at this GM thing, after all?

Mayhew had it all going against him—just like he did every Sunday lining up against the Jerry Rices and Cris Carters of the world—yet here he is, continuing to show deftness as an NFL executive.

Mayhew had his pedigree (Millen) going against him. He had his inexperience with contract negotiations going against him. He had the Lions’ losing culture going against him.

Mayhew as brand-new GM was like one of those disadvantaged kids who is born poor to bad parents, in a home situated in a bad school district.

Perhaps Mayhew took everything he saw and heard from Millen and pretty much started doing the opposite. Whatever, it’s working.

As a player, Mayhew lived for the fall and early winter. Once, his challenge was the quick slant; now, it’s the salary cap. As a GM, this is his time to shine—his time to set the pins up for coach Jim Schwartz and his players to knock down.

From the Super Bowl in February until training camp starts in July, the NFL general manager rides a greased slope. This is the time when guys like Mayhew truly earn their bread.

The Lions are no longer stained with 0-16. They have progressed nicely under Schwartz, going from 0-16 to 2-14 to 6-10 to 10-6 and the playoffs. Just like that—like a checker traversing from one end of the board to the other.

Almost—the Lions haven’t been crowned yet.

But with every step of success comes another hurdle. The further the Lions get from their inglorious decade of the 2000s, the closer they get to the pitfalls and land mines that must be navigated through in order to make the leap from a one-week playoff run to playing in February—and I don’t mean the Pro Bowl.

Martin Mayhew seems to be the guy that can take this thing from 0-16 to the Super Bowl. He has done a marvelous job of drafting, trading, signing and re-signing.

The latter—re-signing—has been far more important to the Lions’ future than any free agent from outside the organization they’ve signed in recent years.

Mayhew wanted to keep his own free agents in the fold, and rework the contracts of some of his star players to create the financial space in which to do all that re-signing.

His off-season, thus far, has been A+.

Mayhew reworked the contracts of QB Matthew Stafford, WR Nate Burleson and DT Ndamukong Suh. He then gave WR Calvin Johnson a contract extension that makes Johnson the richest receiver in league history.

Mayhew kept LT Jeff Backus and backup QB Shaun Hill.

And, very importantly, Mayhew managed to keep MLB Stephen Tulloch for four more years, preventing him from signing with another team.

All this and it’s not even April yet.

That’s when the draft happens.

Another area in which Mayhew excels.

Who knew?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

NBA's "Player's League" Claims Another Coaching Victim

It’s hard to imagine now, but there really was a time when NBA players didn’t rule the roost. There was a time—really, truly—when the players listened to the coach, obeyed orders, and felt privileged to play in the league.

The NBA coach of days gone by wore rumpled suits, chomped on cigars and taught things like the bounce pass and how to “deny” your man the basketball.

There were stars on the court, for sure. But for every Bill Russell, there was a Red Auerbach to rule with an iron fist.

The NBA coach had no assistant; he coached the team himself—offense and defense. He had the keys to the gym and made sure the trainer had enough tape. The coach helped make travel arrangements while also explaining the back door pass.

And the players listened.

It started to get away from the coaches during the late-1970s. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the league and it became very evident that the fans paid to see superstar players play, not cerebral coaches teach and strategize.

Before long, the likes of Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan happened upon the scene and the coach became a foil—a second banana with a squirting daisy on his lapel.

It’s a player’s league, people say today. It’s a kind way of saying, “The coach can be replaced with a snap of certain players’ fingers.”

Today’s NBA coach is better off following the philosophy of the Pistons’ legendary Chuck Daly, who once described coaching the tallest millionaires in the world as akin to managing 12 different corporations.

Few coaches—if any—were better than Daly at making the players think that they were running the show, when it was “Daddy Rich” who was the real Great and Powerful Oz behind the curtain.

The so-called “player’s league” has chewed up and spit out another victim.

The New York Knicks, eons ago, lived in the penthouse of the NBA. Once, the Knicks were to basketball what the Canadiens were to hockey, what Shoemaker was to horse jockeying. Pro basketball and the Knicks went together like a pick and a roll.

It started as an East Coast game, pro basketball did, and you couldn’t get much more East Coast than New York City.

After some down years in the mid-1960s, the Knicks—with the help of a dreadful Pistons trade in which Detroit sent Dave DeBussschere to New York—not only got in the way of the vaunted Boston Celtics for league supremacy, they surpassed Auerbach and Bill Russell’s bunch.

The Knicks of Reed and Frazier and DeBusschere and Bradley won championships in 1970 and 1973.

The pro basketball team from Manhattan hasn’t won a championship since. They’ve only qualified for two NBA Finals—in 1994 and '99—since ‘73.

The Knicks tried it with a superstar center (Patrick Ewing) for about 12 years, surrounding Ewing with various and sundry mini-stars, but aside from ’94 and '99, they really didn’t come close to winning it all.

The latest victim of the “player’s league” is Mike D’Antoni.

D’Antoni resigned from the Knicks as coach this week, with the typical slings and arrows darting around him because of his supposedly tenuous relationship with superstar Carmelo Anthony.

Anthony, like Ewing, has the same amount of championship rings as you and I have.

D’Antoni joined the Knicks in 2008, in the midst of their latest state of disarray. It was yet another turbulent time inside Madison Square Garden, which was still shaking from the Isiah Thomas/Anucha Browne Sanders sexual harassment scandal.

D’Antoni then went out and did something unusual, for the Knicks: He brought some stability and a calming influence. It was only slightly less impressive than when Moses parted the Red Sea.

Then the Knicks acquired Anthony from Denver in February 2011, and the balance of power again shifted from coach to player.

The D’Antoni-Anthony drama was replaced on the back pages of the New York Post, temporarily, by “Linsanity”—the out-of-nowhere story of journeyman point guard Jeremy Lin and his ridiculous exploits in January and February.

The Knicks were winning games with Lin manning the point. They still weren’t anything close to elite, but they weren’t fodder for the Post’s cleverly stinging headlines on the back page—for a while.

Linsanity ebbed, the Knicks started losing again and the focus returned to D’Antoni and whether he had “lost” his players, something that happens a lot in this “player’s league.”

Stuck in a six-game losing streak, D’Antoni surprised everyone by turning in his coach’s whistle to his MSG bosses earlier this week.

Pistons coach Lawrence Frank, a firing victim with the New Jersey Nets a couple years ago, reacted with disgust to the circumstances surrounding D’Antoni’s resignation.

“That's a damn shame,” Frank told the Free Press before the Pistons faced the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night.

“Mike, one, is a hell of a coach, and a great guy. I'm sorry to hear that. That's ridiculous.”

Frank wasn’t done.

“(The Knicks) had to get their (mess) right,” Frank said. “They were over the cap, very high paid, underperforming, so they had to suck scum. They had all these guys on one-year deals. So finally, they go for it, without a true training camp, then they add talented players a couple weeks ago. It's a shame.”

It’s today’s NBA.

It didn’t do D’Antoni any favors that in their first game without him, the Knicks trounced Portland, 121-79.

Mike Woodson, an assistant and a former head coach himself, is the interim coach in New York. Good luck to him.

There were reports out of Orlando, in the days leading up to Thursday’s trading deadline, that Magic superstar center Dwight Howard had the power, if he wanted, to essentially have coach Stan Van Gundy fired.

The news barely made a ripple.

If reports came out of Boston that Bill Russell had the power to fire Red Auerbach, it would have been filed in the “man bites dog” category of journalism.

But that’s today’s NBA.

With all due respect to Lawrence Frank, et al, you gotta have a screw loose to want to coach these guys.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Will Knight Be Next Great Pistons Point Guard?

What does it say for the Pistons when, in the middle of their season, they are getting nudged off the front pages by the likes of a baseball bench warmer who hit .197 last season?

Brandon Inge is getting more media coverage than the Pistons. So is Ndamukong Suh, the football player, and his team doesn’t play any games of any meaning for another six months.

Even the high school girls are getting more space in the local papers, as their March Madness games get into full gear. Before long, the hoop-playing boys will be knocking the Pistons further from the front page.

The NBA season, in these parts, is about as in the background as elevator music.

The Pistons stink. On some nights, their stench is every bit as strong as the stuff the Brits famously wrap in newspaper and eat with chips.

But the Pistons don’t stink without some brightness in their future. They’re not ready for prime time, but they have a couple pieces—Mr. Little and Mr. Big.

Mr. Big is Greg Monroe, the Pistons’ second-year, athletic power forward/center, who’s beginning to make the 16-point, 15-rebound night a routine.

Mr. Little is Brandon Knight, the rookie point guard.

The two of them are reasons to be genuinely optimistic about a basketball team that has spent the past several years in purgatory after six straight trips to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Knight handles the ball on every possession, and despite his inexperience as a pro, the kid from Kentucky is averaging less than two turnovers per game. That’s a reason to get giddy, right there.

The Pistons have had two of the best point guards in NBA history—Dave Bing and Isiah Thomas. Both of them have something in common with Brandon Knight: the Pistons stunk when Bing and Isiah joined them, too.

In all three instances, the Pistons had sunk to ridiculously low depths before they plucked Bing, Thomas and Knight off the NBA draft board in 1966, 1981 and 2011, respectively.

Bing’s story has been told before by yours truly, and others.

The one where the Pistons coveted U-M’s Cazzie Russell, playing 30 miles west along I-94, and how they salivated at the thought of the local hero suiting up for them.

Only a stinking coin flip separated the Pistons from Russell in the summer of 1966. The other team in on the flip was the New York Knicks.

The coin was flipped inside league offices in New York. The Knicks must have had home office advantage—the coin flipped their way.

The Knicks grabbed Russell. The Pistons, deflated, nabbed Bing from Syracuse University.

Bing developed into a Hall of Fame point guard, and for my money helped save pro basketball in Detroit. Russell had a decent career, but nothing close to Bing’s.

Ray Scott, a Piston at the time, recalled to me recently that the Pistons did the unthinkable with Bing, initially.

“They didn’t play Dave right away,” Scott told me as he spent some time with Big Al Beaton and me on “The Knee Jerks” podcast a few weeks ago.

I was aghast.

The Pistons corrected that mistake 15 years later, when Thomas arrived from Indiana University.

The Pistons, once again, stunk. They won 16 games two years before Isiah, and 21 games the year prior.

Isiah was aghast.

He made no secret of his concerns.

“I wonder whom I will pass to with the Pistons,” I remember Thomas pondering aloud before the 1981 NBA draft, and he wasn’t trying to be mean. He was right—the Pistons, with their 37 wins spread over two seasons, didn’t have much talent.

But the Pistons played Isiah right away, unlike what had been done with Dave Bing in 1966.

Scott later coached Bing, and Bob Lanier—together. The Pistons’ original Mr. Little and Mr. Big.

If you want some cool, calculated analysis of pro basketball, you can do far worse than to pick Ray Scott’s brain.

So I picked it, that night on the podcast.

What is the best way to develop a point guard in the NBA, I asked, speaking specifically of Brandon Knight, who, like Bing in ’66, didn’t start for this year’s Pistons right away.

“Minutes,” Scott said. “He has to play. It’s the only way to do it.”

Then Scott dropped the bomb of Bing’s baptism, and how the Pistons were reluctant to start the string bean from Syracuse until the season wore on a bit.

Pistons coach Lawrence Frank didn’t unleash Knight until several games of this truncated, aggressive schedule had been played. Frank chose to have Knight come off the bench.

But that meant that Knight was playing against the other team’s second unit, for the most part. So Frank, wise to the ways of the NBA at a relatively young age, saw that his team wasn’t going anywhere this season, except to the bottom of the standings, and gave Knight a starting slot about 10 games into the season.

Knight has started since.

It’s far too early to tell how Knight will ultimately compare with Bing and Isiah, even as rookies. But there is much to like about Knight’s game, as tender as it is.

There’s the quickness, for one—both with the ball and as a defender. Knight moves down the court, with the ball in tow, as well as anyone in the league.

There’s the shot, which isn’t bad for a rookie. Knight has range and can nail a three-pointer—if a three-pointer is needed to be nailed.

But more important is that tiny 1.7 turnovers per game number.

The Pistons, Lord knows, have plenty of players who are good at dribbling the basketball off their foot or throwing it to the other team. It’s very nice that the kid who handles the ball the most isn’t prone to doing that.

Coach Frank, speaking basketball-ese, put it this way to the Free Press the other day.

“I think a big part of it is when Brandon is playing north-to-south and not east-to-west. He has those, we call them ‘rack attacks,’” Frank said in that East Coast dialect that all pro-basketball coaches seem to have.

“That’s vital, especially for a primary ball handler, you have to be on the attack and put pressure on a defense,” Frank continued. “When you do that, it might not be your shot, but you’re going to collapse (the defense) and force help.”

There you have it. The Pistons are better off when Mr. Little makes those big rack attacks.

Only time will tell if those rack attacks, and his growing chemistry with Greg Monroe, will put Brandon Knight on the path of Dave Bing and Isiah Thomas-like greatness.

Or at least enough to be the Brandon of choice for the front page in Detroit.