Few things about the Detroit Pistons, the once-celebrated franchise turned NBA misfit, make sense. Pursuing Lionel Hollins as their next head coach would be a step in the opposite, and therefore right, direction.
Head coach Mo Cheeks was relieved of his post 50 games into his first season at the helm with the Pistons 21-29, heading for another lottery finish, news first reported by Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.
In dismissing Cheeks, the Pistons have created a gaping hole that ESPN's Marc Stein says they're interested in having Hollins fill:
The only sensible scenario to explain Cheeks exiting first in 2013-14, before [Mike] Woodson or anyone else, is because the Pistons want to make a run at, say, the very available Lionel Hollins before anyone else has a chance.
Hollins was immediately identified Sunday by sources close to the situation as a prime target for Detroit after the Pistons’ failed attempts last summer to convince him to work as an assistant on Cheeks’ staff. If the Pistons brought him in right away, to lend a strong voice and hard edge to a young team that would appear to need some guidance, then the timing of Sunday’s announcement starts to make sense.
Hollins is reportedly open to coaching Detroit too, having told CSNNW.com "of course I’m interested."
If Hollins is genuinely intrigued by their coaching vacancy, then the Pistons must pounce now, before another team can. As currently constructed, they need him. Badly.
Of all available coaches, Hollins is the ideal candidate to instill direction and purpose into one of the league's most incongruous and discordant rosters.
Hollins' continued unemployment shouldn't be fooling anyone, least of all the Pistons. He can still coach.
Before leaving the Memphis Grizzlies, Hollins coached them to three straight playoff berths, including a Western Conference Finals appearance last season. During the last five years, he helped turn Memphis into a defensive juggernaut capable of grinding out sometimes-absurd amounts of victories.
Detroit can use that kind of success, having not made the playoffs since 2009. The Pistons lack an identity and Hollins instantly gives them one.
Where the Grizzlies progressively improved defensively under Hollins, the Pistons have regressed almost every season. Memphis finished in the top 10 of defensive efficiency in each of the last three seasons while Detroit never cracked the top 15.
Moreover, the Pistons' personnel is something Hollins can work with. He was never given a vast array of shooters in Memphis. The starting lineup comprised two big men—Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph—and up until last season, a swingman who didn't stretch the floor much (Rudy Gay).
Sound familiar? It should. It's similar to the starting five Detroit is fielding now.
Expecting him to take Smith, Monroe and Drummond and turn them into the NBA's best frontcourt is unrealistic, but if there's an available coach accustomed to guiding a congested offense, it's Hollins.
Stein also reminds us that Hollins has taken over teams midseason before:
Immediately adjusting to the push and pull of the regular season is something he can handle, which is huge for a Pistons team still hoping to make a playoff push.
As a well-respected disciplinarian, USA Today's Sam Amick points out Hollins is just the type of hard-nosed authority who could whip the Pistons into shape as well:
Randolph, once considered immature and destructive, blossomed under Hollins. Would Smith, a volatile personality himself, do the same? Could youngsters such as Drummond and Monroe, and even Brandon Jennings, make great strides too?
It's worth it for the Pistons to find out.
Memphis and Hollins were rarely on the same page.
The Grizzlies parted ways with him following the 2012-13 campaign, after he coached the team to a Western Conference Finals appearance. Per Wojnarowski, they cited "major philosophical differences" as a driving force behind the severed ties:
After several days of talks among management, Hollins and his representation, the sides were unable to seriously consider terms of a potential contract because of hurdles that they couldn't clear with how new management wants the coach to fit into the franchise's belief systems, sources said.
Management wants a coach willing to buy into the analytic movement, using those mechanisms to make roster, lineup and system decisions. Hollins has resented what he considers undue interference by management, and has stood by his track record and success in maintaining productivity with a roster of diverse and difficult personalities.
Relations between Hollins and the Grizzlies soured following Gay's departure. It was a blatant salary dump that left Hollins rife with regret.
"When you have champagne taste, you can't be on a beer budget," he told TNT's Craig Sager in a pregame interview last season, per The Oklahoman's John Rohde. "It's a small market and I understand the economics of being in a small market."
Rumors of further dysfunction spread in the early stages of this season, but nothing describes Hollins' departure better than simply admitting Memphis wanted to go in a different direction. The Grizzlies wanted someone Hollins wasn't and the existing tensions between him and the front office made his departure inevitable.
There will be no such hurdles to clear in Detroit. While team president Joe Dumars and owner Tom Gores can be considered reckless spenders, they're spenders. The Pistons are willing to pay top dollar for talent in order to win, hence the decision to invest $80 million in Smith and Jennings this past summer.
Those contracts are hardly paying dividends, but they're risks Hollins can appreciate after spending the previous four-plus seasons heading a roster hamstrung by both market and financial limitations. Though the Pistons will always be more stingy than the Los Angeles Lakers or New York Knicks, salary dumps aren't standard practice.
Maybe Hollins is able to accomplish more for a team with deeper pockets.
Can't Wait, Shouldn't Wait
Early returns suggest the Pistons are prepared to wait until after this season to conduct a coaching search, which isn't a surprise given the circumstances.
Dumars has cycled through eight head coaches since 2000 and an impatient Gores, who wanted Cheeks out, may not be prepared to let him make that decision.
If that's the case, then Gores should can Dumars now or make the hire himself. Waiting won't do any good for a Pistons team in search of answers now.
Making the playoffs was supposed to happen this season. Waiting compromises a goal already in jeopardy. The Pistons aren't going to win or contend for anything by standing pat. Firing Cheeks doesn't really change the status quo.
And if the Pistons want Hollins, they must get him now. Playing this season out only ensures they have more competition for his services over the summer, when other teams in need of a new coach will presumably be knocking on his door.
"Our record does not reflect our talent and we simply need a change," Gores said in a team statement. "We have not made the kind of progress that we should have over the first half of the season. This is a young team and we knew there would be growing pains, but we can be patient only as long as there is progress."
Progress can only be achieved through a complete regime change. Dismissing Cheeks was just the beginning. His departure got the ball rolling and it's up to the Pistons to keep it moving.
Hiring Hollins now—not later—gives them a puncher's chance of figuring out a roster on the brink of damaging an already-besieged season beyond repair.
*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.
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