Laurence Kesterson/Associated Press
Maurice Cheeks stepped into the perfect storm for an inevitable firing when he assumed the position of Detroit Pistons head coach last summer. The story of why has more to do with the Pistons’ general manager, Joe Dumars, than it does with Cheeks, though.
The first thing that needs to be understood is that Dumars has "legacy" status in Detroit. He’s been a major factor in all three of Detroit’s championships. He was the NBA Finals MVP for one of them, in 1989.
Then, after his playing career, he was the general manager who assembled the team that won the franchise's third championship in 2004. That included making a trade for Rasheed Wallace, which helped to put them over the top. From the 2002-03 season to 2007-08, the Pistons made it to at least the conference finals every single year. In 2004, Dumars was named the NBA’s Executive of the Year.
That’s an impressive run, and enough to earn a little latitude.
But, since then it’s been a steady stream of disasters for the Pistons. They were bounced from the playoffs in the first round of the 2008-09 season and haven’t been back since. Over that six-year span, the Pistons have had Michael Curry, John Kuester, Lawrence Frank, Maurice Cheeks and John Loyer serve as head coach.
And, of the mere five teams with a worse total winning percentage than Detroit since 2010, only the Kings are presently worse. And, a lot of the reason why is on Dumars.
In 2009, he issued two of the dumbest contracts in recent history: a five-year, $55 million deal for Ben Gordon and a five-year $35 million pact for Charlie Villanueva. He also re-signed an aging Tayshaun Prince for an ill-advised four-year, $27 million deal.
The Pistons weren’t just losing, they weren’t capable of winning because they were badly constructed. Then the players got nasty. In 2011 a core group of players rebelled against then-coach Kuester. They’re all gone now too. But it’s part of Dumars' recent history.
He has been struggling to come back. He made some trades to get rid of the Gordon contract first and then the Prince contract. That opened up cap space for last summer.
Because of the turnstile of coaches, the player rebellions and the bad contracts, this was supposed to be a summer of reprieve for him. He was desperate to make a splash-signing in free agency.
The problem, though, was all the "splash" names had no intention of going to the Motor City because there was just no allure there. They have some nice young players in Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, but they also had too many missing pieces.
Meanwhile, in another storyline, Josh Smith was stewing in Atlanta, thinking he deserved a max contract. When you have a GM desperate to pay someone too much and a player desperate to get paid too much, the two are going to inevitably work out a deal—and they did.
The problem wasn’t so much that Smith didn’t have talent as much as he had redundant talent. His offensive strength—scoring at the rim—was duplicated by both Monroe and Drummond, and you can only fit so many humans in the restricted area.
That meant Smith was going to be asked to do his scoring from the perimeter. The problem with that is Smith is a horrible jump-shooter, sinking just 30.7 percent of his jumpers from more than three feet for his career.
Then, Dumars made another move, taking on Brandon Jennings in a sign-and-trade. He shoots a whopping 35.2 percent on his jumper from outside the restricted area. While that's better than Smith, it's still bad.
Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated wrote what went wrong with the Pistons’ offseason.
The roster’s awkward construction, which at present hinges on a symbiosis between Smith and Jennings that may be impossible. Both are prone to fits of terrible decision making with the ball, and yet the current Pistons will rely on the two players as integral elements of the offense. Without the kind of moderator who could channel possessions away from Smith and Jennings in problematic spots, Detroit will likely struggle to create a high-functioning offense necessary to be anything more than a low-seeded playoff team.
And that was kind of the best-case scenario. The “problematic spots” seem to be more of a constant than an occasion. Cheeks was handed a roster that depended on the shooting of two poor but eager jump-shooters.
Cheeks was handed a badly designed team and was blamed for the design not working. He’s just another coach, in a long list of Piston tragedies, being blamed for the failures of Dumars. Meanwhile, Dumars’ failures are overlooked by a too-forgiving ownership group because of his legacy.