For Michigan fans, the news came out of nowhere on Friday: John Beilein had interviewed with the Pistons. After the Wolverines made the championship game in March, everything seemed to be in place for Beilein and his returning players to make another run at the Final Four.
Hold on before making those plans for Minneapolis.
Beilein, 65, is the winningest coach in Michigan history and has three years remaining on his contract. He’s beloved in Ann Arbor but the idea of his transition from coaching in college to coaching in the NBA isn’t as far-fetched as some would think.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Monday that the Pistons are “interested in further conversations with former Toronto coach Dwane Casey and Michigan coach John Beilein on Pistons head coaching job.”
Although Beilein has established a comfort level in his 11 seasons at Michigan, the allure and challenge of seeing if it can work in the NBA could entice him to leave.
“I think it’s a real possibility. It would be great for both if it happens,” ESPN analyst Dan Dakich told The Detroit News. “For the Pistons, they get a guy who’s comfortable coaching anybody. They get a guy who has put a team together of young guys.
“John is one of the best at making the right pieces fit.”
Beilein is renowned for his play-calling and design and making disparate pieces fit in his offensive schemes, which accentuate guard play and using big men — such as the Pistons’ Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin — on the perimeter more.
One theory about Beilein’s overtures to the Pistons is that he’s looking for negotiating leverage for a contract extension with Michigan. His current deal is for $3.4 million per year until 2021 and after his recent success, Beilein could seek a much more lucrative contract.
“(If money is the issue) Michigan needs to pay him and his staff — there’s no doubt about that,” Stu Douglass, who played for Beilein from 2008-12, told The News. “I don’t see him even wanting to coach NBA players but I guess a lot can change with one person in the six years since I last played for him.”
Money might not be the only issue. Beilein could be considering the Pistons and the NBA for the challenge of trying to succeed at the highest level. There’s even a notion that Beilein might be nearing the end of his coaching career and might be looking to satisfy the curiosity of what the NBA could be for him.
“When I first heard (of Beilein’s interest), I went through the scenarios in my head,” Tim McCormick, a former NBA player and current ESPN analyst, told The News. “That was a thought that popped into my mind. All coaches (want to see if) they can coach at the highest level. He’s a wonderful offensive coach.
“He can make the adjustment.”
Besides Beilein and Casey, the Pistons have been linked to other coaches, such as Heat assistant Juwan Howard, former Bucks coach Jason Kidd, TNT analyst Kenny Smith and many others.
They seem to be narrowing their list, with Beilein and Casey as the frontrunners, which makes the Michigan faithful more nervous. The Pistons have taken their time with the process of finding a coach, but they seem to be on the right track for finding the right fit for them.
“They’ve done a good job of doing their due diligence. They’re not intimidated by (a timeline). They’re taking their time and they’re clearly being thoughtful,” McCormick said. “The reason it’s a well-thought-out process is (every candidate) has a different story to tell. The learning curve is immense, with different ideas.”
College to pro
The track record for coaches making the jump from college to the NBA is sketchy. Although there are huge success stories like the Celtics’ Brad Stevens (Butler) and the Thunder’s Billy Donovan (Florida), there are others who haven’t had that success.
Some examples include Lon Kruger, P.J. Carlesimo and Leonard Hamilton, as well as Rick Pitino. In Beilein’s meticulous nature, he’s probably considered all of those previous forebears, but also sees his own shortcomings — and how he can overcome them.
The allure for Beilein could be testing his coaching chops against the best.
“Brad Stevens told me the biggest thrill is when you’re up by one point and LeBron James has the ball,” Dakich said. “How are you going to stop him? Stevens just said, ‘It’s just a cool thing to do.’”
There’s no questioning Beilein’s preparedness with X’s and O’s. He’s regarded as one of the best in the business — college or pro. His offensive sets are innovative and coaches at all levels marvel at some of the ingenuity and precise execution that Beilein demands from his players.
“The way he runs offense is a plus, because he keeps the floor spread and likes to have shooters around them,” Benji Burke, whose son, Trey, was the national player of the year under Beilein in 2013, told The News. “He would be a pro coach like (the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich): If you don’t want to run what he runs, you’re not going to play. You’ve got to want to play, get open shots and you’re going to work.”
That Beilein would have as much of an interest in the Pistons as he’s shown is something of a shock to Michigan fans, but staying in state and moving to the NBA would be an odd transition.
“It would be a good fit, but it’s hard to see him leave Michigan. (Beilein) is comfortable and he’s growing — and he gets better every year,” Burke said. “The program is in a strong position, and it’s odd to think he would leave when he knows how short careers in the NBA can be.”
An 82-game season in the NBA could be daunting for Beilein, but it’s a balance to the recruiting grind that college coaches go through for an entire season, with the travel. If Beilein is committed to teaching and player development, he could find a foothold with NBA players who could be standoffish for a coach they don’t readily like or accept.
Dakich said because Beilein doesn’t have an ego, he could adapt well to Pistons players such as Drummond and Griffin — and find his own niche. Dakich’s son, Andrew, played for Beilein at Michigan and in talking to Andrew and other members of the program, Dakich thinks Beilein could make the transition.
“A lot of coaches have ego … ego has to come from players,” Dakich said. “They all said the same thing: (Beilein) can get frustrated but he doesn’t make it about himself — that makes him a fit for the NBA.”