By Kevin Lamb
With another installment of “Deeetroit Basketball” set to kick off in 2011-12, a city founded on motors and music is hungry for something that has been distinctively missing since trading away star-player and fan-favorite Chauncey Billups in 2008 – Identity.
The Palace of Auburn Hills has been without a rightful heir to the throne as Lawrence Frank represents the third head coach in four seasons pinned with the task of erecting a collection of names and faces into a basketball team that a city can stand behind.
Frank was handed the preverbal torch by John Kuester, who failed to make the playoffs after boasting a dismal 57-102 record in his two year stint with the Pistons. The highlight of Kuester’s 2009-10 season was his best effort to avoid mutiny after feuding with descending star Richard “Rip” Hamilton and the resulting fallout from the team including Rodney Stuckey’s refusal to enter a November game versus Atlanta.
“Buffoonery” and dysfunction ran rapid following Kuester’s decision to bench Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince in January. A clear disconnect between players and personnel crippled the Piston’s ability to win games, stemming from a failure to effectively communicate and ultimately unify.
The house that former Piston’s owner Bill Davidson built has seen a steady decline in attendance since 2008, falling from a little over 900,000 to just below 769,000 in 2009-10. Internal conflict and a series of poor personnel choices by Joe Dumars have contributed to the reality of the Pistons as yet another Detroit entity fighting to keep its head above water in 2011.
Coming off its lowest win total since the 1993-94 season (20-62), the Pistons are under new ownership as Tom Gores, a native of the Flint area and Spartan alumnus, hopes to once more ignite the city that produced 259 consecutive sellouts between 2004-2009.
“A lot of that transformation stems from the ownership in place. With Mr. Gores we believe the organization has a clear direction that starts with his passion for succeeding on the next level. Lawrence has a place in that as well; we all do” said VP of Basketball Operations for the Pistons, Scott Perry.
Currently Chairman and CEO of Platinum Equity, a global investment firm, Gores believes the organization must first learn before it can build on the legacy left behind by Davidson.
“Anytime you have someone that is born and raised in a place, with family connections, it’s a little extra special,” said Perry on the allure of Gores being local. “Mr. Gores grew up a fan of this team, and now he has the ability to make an impact in a major way.”
It will not be easy for Gores and Frank as Pistons fans are tired of such status’ as “rebuilding,” and “transition period;” but who better to turn a disconnected team around than the ultimate student of the game?
A native of Teaneck, NJ, the short-statured Frank is often described as the ultimate student of the game. With every great student comes a greater master; at age 13 Frank decided he wanted to be a basketball coach; not long thereafter he identified a mentor that would best realize his dream: Bob Knight.
While under Knight at Indiana Frank developed a tremendous work ethic and the necessary intangibles to inspire and lead a basketball team. Frank is very much a back to basics coach who values accountability and relationship management.
“Lawrence is a very prepared guy, he’s studied the history of the franchise and understands that quality play stems from a fundamental and basic team approach,” said Perry.
In 2010-11 Frank worked under Doc Rivers as the assistant coach in Boston where he is credited for helping cultivate the dynamics of head coach-player-relationships something that Detroit was desperately missing in 2009.
“Leadership requires being able to effectively communicate and relate to a wide variety of people in professional sports,” said Perry. “Lawrence has demonstrated an ability to do so and we believe we are back on the right track.”
Frank has emphasized that his staff will preach defense first in 2011-12 – a staple of the Pistons’ 2004 championship run. He believes success will be realized in the team’s ability to rebound, attack, and control the ball. Easily the most experienced of Detroit’s recent coaching failures, Frank could be just what the Piston’s need to establish consistency and reestablish their place in the Central through blue-collar desire and determination.
“Coach Frank is a capable addition at a difficult time,” said the Piston’s 1961 first-round-pick and former head coach, Ray Scott.
Coach Frank addressed the importance of communication when relating to players, in a press conference following the announcement of his hire. He stressed four key principles: honesty, fairness, consistency, and sincerity.
Although plenty remains to be seen what Frank can produce on the court, it is apparent that he is ingrained with the genetics of a winner and turns his focus to convincing 12-15 independent contractors into buying a single vision for the team in 2011-12.
Frank has stressed the significance of the Pistons transcending the basketball court to have an impact on the lives of the people of Detroit.
“We believe his energy, enthusiasm, and passion will transfer into the community,” said Perry.
Certainly the new guy in town is saying all the right things, but a track record of being irreversibly positive, tireless, honest, and a superb communicator tends to give Detroit fans a reason to believe this time around.
After taking over for Byron Scott in 2004, Frank ran off 13 consecutive wins earning him the NBA record for the most consecutive wins by a head coach to begin a career.
Detroit fan’s have plenty of experience with Frank coaching on the sidelines: Frank lead the New Jersey Nets to two division titles in his four years as head coach, including an Eastern Conference Finals sweep of the Pistons in 2003.
Since Billups’ departure the Pistons haven’t regained the swagger that once instilled fear in opponents through oppressive team defense. While Hamilton, Prince and Wallace are the only remnants of the “Bad Boys” that knocked down the heavily favored Lakers in 2004, the return of the Pistons to prominence lies heavily in the cliché, “out with the old, and in with the new.”
In 2009-10 the Pistons ranked 30th in the league in rebounding at 38.6 per game and fared better than just four teams in the league averaging an abysmal 12.6 turnovers per game.
If Rip Hamilton buzzes in Detroit in the 2011-12 season, it will be following his trade, which would alleviate the Pistons of two years and $25 million. Constant trade talks paired with a feud with former head coach Kuester have made Hamilton a flat tire in Detroit’s effort to drive forward as a team.
Dumars’ knack for making the right moves seems to be a thing of the yesteryear in Detroit; most apparent in the decision to bench Hamilton and the resulting failure to trade the fading veteran.
A recurring theme in the team’s rebuilding process is a negative atmosphere as a result of juggling playing time between the old and the new. Lately, Detroit basketball has more closely resembled a man with a beer-gut in the midst of an abdominal workout, layering muscle over rooted fat.
With too many pieces to the puzzle, and lacking vision of what said puzzle could be, the Piston’s are in dire need of rapid weight loss. Can Frank do his best Richard Simmons impression? Will Dumars quit playing the role of an emotionally floored female and let go of the remnants of a historic and championship team? These things are yet to be seen.
An overabundance of guards and a thin frontcourt are atop the list of challenges facing Frank and the Pistons this season.
First-round selection, Brandon Knight, out of Kentucky, is one of the few bright spots for this storied franchise, but will have an abundance of company in the back court joined by: Stuckey, Hamilton, Ben Gordon, Will Bynum, Tracy McGrady, and Terrico White.
Center Greg Monroe and power forward Jonas Jerebko makeup a thin frontcourt for the Pistons and offer attractive upsides in both respects. Monroe showed promising signs in his rookie season and demonstrated an ability to fill several categories averaging 9.4 points, 1.3 assists, 9.5 rebounds, .56 blocks, and 1.16 steals per game. Jerebko missed all of last season with a torn Achilles tendon but is fully recovered and could be a potent inside out weapon for the Pistons in 2011-12.
ESPN ranks Detroit #23 in their preseason NBA Power Rankings.
Stuckey has yet to realize the potential that helped Dumars comfortably part ways with Billups, but returns as the scoring and assist leader for the Pistons at 15.5 and 5.2 per game.
Talent has never been the problem for the Pistons; and that might be the most difficult part of being a Pistons’ fan. There is no greater agony to the people of Detroit that live, breathe, and bleed sports than talent without teamwork, and 27 win seasons.
Despite the type of dysfunction and drama comparable to the Jersey Shore defining 2009-10, new ownership and management amidst a lockout to begin 2011-12, a feverent passion for NBA basketball lies dormant in the hearts and minds of the people of Detroit.
With Frank behind the wheel it is realistic to expect upwards of 40 wins and a possible playoff birth in 2011-12; but more telling will be the new coach’s ability to resurrect the spirit of a team that was the benchmark for success in the NBA over a five year period.
When the lockout ends it will be time for the Piston’s to get their hard hats out and go to work. Will fresh faces and a return to their roots help Detroit finally turn a corner? Or will continued dissonance between the past and the present serve as the excess fat preventing the Pistons from giving this town something it has been desperate missing: “Deeetroit Basketball!?”