June 8, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

In new coaching era, Pistons must end culture of backstabbing

Maurice Cheeks has a favorable reputation around the league despite a less-than-impressive record in his coaching career. (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)


That’s the word that’s being leaked as the Pistons appear to have settled on their man, Maurice Cheeks. And barring a change of heart or a breakdown in negotiations, that’s the word we’ll undoubtedly hear whenever Cheeks is officially introduced as the franchise’s next coach.

It has to be, given the widespread perception that the previous coach, Lawrence Frank, wasn’t really Joe Dumars’ first choice the last time. (Sometimes perception is reality, by the way.)

It has to be, even if Nate McMillan was Dumars’ No. 1 choice this time, as many around the NBA believed at the start of this latest coaching search.

And it has to be, after that silly public-relations stunt Pistons ownership pulled last month, touting Phil Jackson’s brief consulting gig at the expense of the one guy in the front office with multiple championship rings of his own.

So rest assured, whenever Cheeks is introduced, consensus is what they’re going to tell us and sell us.

For once, though, it’d be nice to see them — and hear them — deliver on that promise at The Palace. No more hanging the coach out to dry with silence, regardless of ownership’s edict. No more whispers about a coach’s shortcomings behind his back, regardless of whether they’re true. No more of the kind of passive-aggressive behavior that has plagued this organization for years, from the exit-interview character assassinations of Rick Carlisle and Larry Brown to the tacitly-endorsed player mutinies that were the highlight of John Kuester’s tenure, among others.

I know that’s asking a lot of any professional sports franchise, let alone one in the NBA, where the players — by virtue of their unique standing and huge guaranteed contracts — are allowed to torture coaches the way little boys treat ants with magnifying glasses. But we’ve seen too much of it here in Detroit as Dumars & Co. wasted time and money “trying to stretch the window” on one championship era only to discover too late that, as the general manager put it this winter, “It’s time to build it.”

The more they change ...

They’re finally building something, it appears. And the new guy, despite a mediocre track record (284-286 in stints with Philadelphia and Portland), does bring some experience, some name recognition and a player’s background that could make him a good fit with Detroit’s young roster.

But if there’s any chance of Cheeks keeping his seat warm long enough for the home warranty to expire, it’s going to take the kind of team effort we haven’t seen out of the Pistons in quite some time.

It was only 22 months ago Frank was introduced as the Pistons’ newest coach, following an interminable interview process and preceding a lengthy owners’ lockout. There was lots of talk that day in August 2011 about changing the culture and the attitude, and even some about changing the roster, too. Mostly, though, there was lots of talk about Frank, The Little Engine That Could, if only because the lockout rules forced everyone to pretend the players didn’t exist.

“The guy sitting in that seat,” Dumars said then, motioning to his coach, “he truly becomes the face of what you’re trying to do.”

But if the faces keep changing — Larry, Mo … who’s next, Curly? — what does it say about what the Pistons are actually doing here?

Sure, it reaffirms what we knew: Coaches are hired to be fired in the NBA. Nearly half the teams in the league are changing coaches this offseason, so the Pistons certainly have company. But they’ve taken that notion to such an extreme in Auburn Hills over the last decade or so that Rodney Stuckey, were he to stick around for another year, would be playing for his fifth coach in seven NBA seasons in Detroit. As coach-turned-analyst Jeff Van Gundy put it earlier this spring, “Detroit Pistons basketball slogan: When the going gets tough, we fire the coach.”

Addition by subtraction

This coaching hire surely is Dumars’ last as general manager, however, so he has no choice but to back him or be gone when he goes. And if I’m Cheeks, I’d ask Dumars to do it loudly enough — and by that I mean publicly enough — so that the players can hear it.

Even before that, though, I’d make sure ownership was serious about overhauling the roster, if not their public expectations of it.

I don’t care if you’re Mo Cheeks or Mo Cheese, you’re not sitting on a sure-fire playoff team with these leftovers, no matter what owner Tom Gores thought.

“I expected to be in the playoffs,” Gores reiterated in April. “So I’m disappointed by that. When I said that last year, I meant it.”

If he really meant it, he probably should’ve fired Dumars, too. But if he means business now, he’ll make sure his general manager starts by getting rid of what’s left of the malcontents — Stuckey, for one — and then gets to work using that salary-cap space. Creatively, not carelessly, this time.

After that, though, it’s not simply up to the new coach to get the job done. It’s up to all of them to get the job done.

Somewhere along the way, it seems as if this franchise forgot that’s what building a consensus — and teamwork — really means.


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