Detroit Pistons Hiring of Maurice Cheeks Is Deja Vu All over Again

Greg Eno@@GregEnoSenior Analyst IJune 15, 2013

CHICAGO - DECEMBER 02:  Head coach Maurice Cheeks of  the Philadelphia 76ers coaches against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on December 2, 2008 in Chicago, Illinois.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Detroit Pistons President Joe Dumars sat before the haggard media and was speaking into the microphone. A team logo backdrop was behind him. It had been another disappointing season of NBA basketball at the Palace, and Dumars was determined to make sure it wouldn’t fester.

He was describing yet another coaching hire. He spoke of “the process” and why it took so long. He said it dragged a little because the Pistons just wanted to “get it right.”

As he spoke, the new coach sat on the makeshift stage, to Dumars’ right, waiting for his cue so he could speak his lines. The new coach was full of excitement and determination as well.

Dumars told the press—and, by extension, the Pistons fanbase—that this time, he really did pick the right coach. This time, the guy to Joe’s right was the one who would be a long-term solution, and not be run out of town after a couple of years like so many of the new coach’s predecessors had.

The new coach was a former head coach who’d taken his team to the playoffs. But, as is always the case sooner or later, the coach had grated on the nerves of his previous employers and players and was eventually shown the door.

As Tom Cruise said in Cocktail, things always end badly, or else they wouldn’t end.

But this was a new team, a new beginning for the new Pistons coach, who spoke of not looking backward but looking forward. Besides, the new coach would say after Dumars introduced him, the Pistons have a tradition and a high standard. There are three championship banners hanging at the Palace, to show you.

Dumars turned the mike over to the new coach, who started talking about his philosophy and about putting his stamp on this bedraggled franchise while the media people scribbled and their digital audio recorders captured every word for posterity.

That was the scene when Dumars introduced his new coach—Lawrence Frank, back in August 2011.

It was also what transpired at the Palace on Thursday, when Maurice Cheeks was introduced as the latest sad sack charged with shaping the Pistons into a team whose losses don’t far outnumber their wins.

I watched the Cheeks presser via video on the Detroit Free Press website on Thursday afternoon. I watched Dumars give his opening statement, and listened to him describe “the process” of choosing a coach and why it took the team about two months after firing Frank to pick a new guy.

Then, for kicks, I clicked on another video that was offered in that same set. It was the video of the Frank presser from two years prior.

The similarities, especially when it comes to Dumars’ remarks, to the Cheeks meet-and-greet were eerie.

Dumars, almost verbatim relative to his Cheeks comments, spoke of “the process” in hiring Frank. Dumars said the Pistons took their time because they just wanted to get it right—just as he said in introducing Cheeks.

Dumars added that in Lawrence Frank, the Pistons felt like they had the right man for the job for the long haul. He said the same thing about Mo Cheeks on Thursday.

Cheeks, for his part, aped Frank in his remarks about the Pistons’ proud history. In 2011, Frank rattled off reasons why the Pistons brand was one to be admired in the NBA.

“You look at the six straight Eastern Conference Finals,” Frank said. “Making the playoffs eight of the past ten years. The three banners—one of only five franchises to have won three championships.”

No one could say that Lawrence Frank didn’t do his research prior to his unveiling.

Cheeks, too, spoke of the Pistons’ history—history that he knew up close and personal, having played against Isiah Thomas, Dumars et al.

The Frank introduction and the Cheek version were so similar, it was either kind of funny, or terrifying. We’ll see which one it turns out to be.

At the very least, the paternal twin media gatherings prove that you shouldn’t read too much into introductory press conferences that involve new coaches—not that any of us do anyway.

Mo Cheeks does differ from Larry Frank, however.

The similarities pretty much end with their both being NBA head coaches prior to coming to Detroit. Frank coached the New Jersey Nets; Cheeks steered the Portland Trailblazers and the Philadelphia 76ers. Both coaches led their teams to the playoffs, but neither went very far into the postseason.

After that, Cheeks and Frank part ways.

Frank never played pro basketball. Not even close. He was a pipsqueak gym rat who started his coaching career as an errand boy for legendary Indiana University coach Bob Knight. After Indiana, Frank lived a hard scrabble basketball life, taking very unglamorous jobs before finally getting his break. Still, he became an NBA head coach at age 33.

Cheeks not only played in the NBA, he was one of the game’s star point guards in the 1980s. He was manning the point when the 76ers won the league championship in 1983. His career was filled with assists and points and both individual and team success.

Mo Cheeks can never be accused of not knowing what it’s like to play in the NBA.

Because of his playing chops, Cheeks didn’t have to scratch and claw for work as a coach, as Frank did. Once you have “NBA player” on your résumé, you jump to the front of the line when applying for coaching jobs, leapfrogging past those who are likely more qualified, but who never played in the league.

Look at the Nets, who play in Brooklyn now. They just hired Jason Kidd as their new coach. Not only does Kidd not have any coaching experience, he just formally filed his retirement papers as a player about 10 days ago.

The NBA hasn’t had a player-coach since Dave Cowens did double duty with the Celtics in the late-1970s.

But that hasn’t stopped the use of the words “player” and “coach” in the same breath.

They have been combined—as in “a player’s coach.”

It’s a label that has been used and abused for decades, in all sports.

It can either be a sign of respect, like when it’s attached to Hall of Fame coaches like Chuck Daly, or one of derision—code for, the coach lets his players run roughshod over him.

The two Pistons coaches prior to Frank—Michael Curry and John Kuester—had let the players run the asylum. Both coaches were about as respected as a substitute teacher.

Frank lost his players at the end, too. It was written that he was a control freak and had a doghouse with a “no vacancy” sign hanging on it.

Cheeks is supposed to be a player’s coach, whatever that means anymore.

We’ll see.

Oh, and as for Jason Kidd, who will surely be learning how to be a coach in Brooklyn vis-à-vis on-the-job training, he spoke of reaching out to a former head coach to be his lead assistant with the Nets—a man steeped in league experience who can help Kidd navigate through the treacherous coaching waters.

That man is Larry Frank.

And around and around we go.


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