Auburn Hills — A season that began with high expectations quickly became littered with problems, and the Pistons ultimately believed Maurice Cheeks was ill-equipped to turn things around in time to qualify for the playoffs.
Cheeks, in his first season as head coach, was fired Sunday, one night after the Pistons won their second straight game and fourth in a row at The Palace. The decision, just 50 games into Cheeks’ tenure (21-29), was made by owner Tom Gores, sources told The Detroit News, during Gores’ visit to Detroit last week.
The Pistons will make John Loyer the interim coach through the remainder of the season. He has been an assistant with the Pistons for the last three seasons, starting under Lawrence Frank.
“Our record does not reflect our talent and we simply need a change,” Gores said in a statement released by the Pistons, following Cheeks’ firing. “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.
“The responsibility does not fall squarely on any one individual, but right now this change is a necessary step toward turning this thing around. I still have a lot of hope for this season and I expect our players to step up. I respect and appreciate Maurice Cheeks and thank him for his efforts; we just require a different approach.”
After the season, the Pistons will re-evaluate the coaching position, as the candidates could include former Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, Houston assistant Kelvin Sampson, or even Nate McMillan, who was a candidate this past summer before becoming the lead assistant in Indiana.
“This was a difficult decision for the organization to make but we needed to make a change,” Pistons president Joe Dumars said in a statement. “We have great respect for Maurice and appreciate his hard work.”
League executives believe Dumars wanted to give Cheeks more time, taking into account the team is just a half-game out of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Dumars had never fired a coach midseason.
It was thought the upside to hiring Cheeks, 57, was his ability to relate to today’s players and willingness to cultivate young point guards, which outweighed his flaws as a tactician.
In the end, the NBA’s fourth-youngest team needed more direction from an X’s and O’s standpoint. Gores believed the talent accumulated over the summer — including Josh Smith and point guard Brandon Jennings — made the Pistons good enough to make the playoffs, especially in a down Eastern Conference.
A couple players said weeks ago that Cheeks would be better for a veteran team that already has things in place, not one trying to find itself.
The task of molding a frontcourt featuring a budding star in Andre Drummond, a big man now out of place in Greg Monroe and an enigmatic player arriving to Detroit to play out of position in Smith — along with a point guard Cheeks had to teach about playing the position in Jennings — wasn’t the easiest under the most ideal circumstances.
Cheeks also had a few squabbles with players, notably benching Smith twice, including calling for a practice on the day after a back-to-back when Smith stayed back in his hometown Atlanta.
His latest spat involved reserve guard Will Bynum, as the two had words last Wednesday in Orlando after a three-minute stretch in the second quarter, and Bynum hadn’t played in the two games since.
In recent days, Cheeks began to step out of his usual form, calling for better perimeter defense and wanting more desire and toughness from his players, three of his hallmarks during a solid career as a point guard.
The decision-makers were more concerned, according to sources, about a mentality of losing that started to affect a young team.
The talent assembled certainly has its flaws, with the lack of outside shooting and a dynamic but ill-fitting frontline, but Cheeks had a few critical errors after a 10-10 start raised expectations internally.
Winning at Miami and Indiana made many feel like the team was on the way up, but the Pistons had their share of puzzling losses and lethargic efforts — particularly after Christmas — that had ownership feeling it could no longer keep going with the status quo.
After winning in Boston in comeback fashion, the Pistons lost eight of their next nine games from Dec. 20 and Jan. 8, then lost five of six from Jan. 17-26.
In their Jan. 24 loss to New Orleans, the Pelicans scored with 1.9 seconds left to take a 103-101 lead, neither the Pistons players nor Cheeks called timeout to set up a potential game-tying play.
It’s common sense among teams to take possession at halfcourt in such matters, but the Pistons players apparently didn’t get word from Cheeks about calling one if the Pelicans scored — nor did the young team possess the wherewithal to call one themselves, instead resorting to a halfcourt heave that predictably wasn’t close to the rim.
“I tried to call a timeout,” Cheeks said afterward. “That timeout is on me.”
It seemed to be a microcosm of the season. The Pistons had a 16-point lead and looked dominant for the better part of 40 minutes but looked petrified down the stretch, paralyzed, unable to make critical and simple basketball decisions.
Some nights it looked as if the Pistons weren’t competing, with two inexcusable losses to the lowly Magic in Orlando, along with blowouts at home to a then-struggling Memphis team and losing by 30 to Minnesota in early December.
How much of that was on Cheeks or players going through the motions remains to be seen, but it’s clear where ownership was pointing the finger.
Whether it was opposing teams figuring out the Pistons’ personnel better than Cheeks knew his own players or some other factor remains to be seen. But ownership felt it couldn’t ignore the growing number of fourth-quarter collapses, making Cheeks’ firing the fifth-shortest tenure for a first-year head coach in NBA history.
Cheeks has been an NBA head coach for the Trail Blazers, 76ers and Pistons. His record in nine seasons is 305-315. As an NBA point guard from 1978-93, Cheeks played in four All-Star Games and five times was named to the NBA All-Defensive Team.