In theory, it sounds fascinating. The Pistons are exploring all options, and with an inflexible roster of mismatched pieces, they could use a great coach with a renowned tactical mind.
In reality, it doesn’t make sense, not for John Beilein, not for the Pistons. There’s nothing wrong with a little innovative thinking, but as the Pistons continue the Longest Coaching Search in Modern History, they look aimless, more interested in making news than making a hire.
It’s hard to imagine Beilein jumping from certainty and security into something so shaky, which is why it still looks like a longshot. Would he really take a job not knowing who his immediate boss is? The Pistons don’t have a top front-office executive or GM yet, with recently hired adviser Ed Stefanski leading the search.
I have no idea — neither do the Pistons, apparently — why they haven’t already hired Dwane Casey. He’s the reigning NBA coach of the year, fired after seven seasons and five playoff appearances in Toronto. Maybe Casey, owed $6.5 million for one more year by the Raptors, is waiting for a better opportunity.
And maybe the Pistons are growing desperate, as this drags on. It makes you wonder if they expected Stan Van Gundy to accept their terms and return, and have been scrambling ever since, interviewing TV broadcasters, assistants and former players. ESPN reported the Pistons have asked three candidates — Casey, Beilein and Spurs assistant Ime Udoka — to have further talks, although Beilein already has met with owner Tom Gores. Udoka, 40, may be emerging as the wild card.
I understand why Beilein would be intrigued by the NBA, even though he’s leading a Michigan basketball renaissance, is beloved in Ann Arbor, has piled up recruits, and is one of the 10 highest-paid coaches in college basketball. He’s 65 and has won at every level, from NAIA to Division II to Division I, and perhaps he’d like to see if his offensive system — spacing the floor with shooters of all types and sizes — would translate to the pros. A similar style has worked for top NBA teams, and if Beilein capped his career with success at the highest level, he’d be cemented as a basketball icon.
I understand why the Pistons, who can’t make many changes to their contract-bloated roster, might crave an offensive mastermind as coach. But there’s simply too much risk here, for both sides. Beilein would risk smudging his legacy, at a time when he’s wildly respected. This can’t be just about leverage either. Coming off a Big Ten tournament title and national championship game appearance, while considered by many the cleanest coach in a messy sport, Beilein has all the leverage he needs.
Yes, he’s due a raise from his $3.37 million salary (third in the Big Ten behind Tom Izzo and Ohio State’s Chris Holtmann), and his assistants deserve raises. Athletic director Warde Manuel acknowledged it while Michigan was at the Final Four, and a contract extension beyond 2020-21 is in the works. Manuel can’t let money be a factor, and I think he knows that. Most NBA coaches don’t make appreciably more than Beilein does now, but Michigan needs to up the ante, especially for his promising young assistants.
The Pistons would be taking a significant gamble hiring a guy with no NBA experience to lead a group that can’t be the easiest to coach and mesh. Blake Griffin is approaching 30, and can you picture Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson enduring Beilein’s famously precise practices and fundamental drills?
And here’s another thing the Pistons’ top guys — Gores, Arn Tellem, Stefanski — should realize: They’d tick off a chunk of their fan base if they swiped Beilein from Michigan. They’re certainly entitled to hire the best coach they can, but for a franchise desperate to be embraced again, it could be a disaster.
Again, there’s no harm in talking and exchanging ideas. For all the consternation over the length of the search, the Pistons haven’t yet hit a time crunch. Toronto hasn’t named a coach either, so the Pistons don’t have to worry about losing Casey to the only other opening at the moment.
Beilein is a tremendous teacher and evolver, and you can see why he’d investigate the NBA. He has nothing to lose — this actually raises his profile — as long as he doesn’t let it drag out. The fact that it’s Beilein, not Izzo, being pursued is notable, although Izzo is never completely off the NBA’s radar.
Since arriving 11 years ago, Beilein has taken Michigan basketball to heights few envisioned, after years of turmoil and inadequate facilities. Everything has been upgraded, and the Wolverines have played in eight NCAA Tournaments and two national title games.
Manuel has said he wants Beilein as long as the coach wants to stay. Beilein has said he loves it and plans to finish his career here. Because he’s discreet and gentlemanly and doesn’t even have an agent, I doubt this is a negotiating ploy, although every successful coach has an ego. With the proliferation of wide-open offenses and 3-point shooting in the NBA, led by Golden State, Beilein’s system might work – in the right situation. Do the Pistons, with their dearth of shooters and playmakers, look remotely like the right situation?
Beilein is renowned for developing young, raw talent into pros, molding six first-round picks. But it’s different teaching 19-year-olds than 25-year-old millionaires. And Beilein would have to replace one grueling aspect of the college job — recruiting — with the grind of a long NBA season.
Beilein is an offbeat kind of coach, not a yeller but not a pushover, demanding in his own ways. Who knows if he’d be able to handle the egos and personalities on an NBA roster. It’s not impossible, and the success of the Celtics’ Brad Stevens after leaving Butler five years ago has altered perceptions of college coaches.
Still, there are few fits seemingly as perfect as Beilein and Michigan, and no logical reason to break it up. Last month at the Big Ten’s spring meetings, Manuel and Beilein said contract talks were under way, and both said “stay tuned.”
“I don’t want John Beilein to coach anywhere else,” Manuel said. “He understands my feelings toward that.”
The feeling always has been considered mutual. In many ways, Beilein rescued Michigan basketball. Trying to rescue the Pistons would be much tougher, and not worth the risk for either side.