Saunders never earned Pistons' respect
Aretha Franklin sang about it, Rodney Dangerfield joked about it, Bill Russell still commands and embodies it.
And when it came down to a question of whether Flip Saunders should be retained or fired as head coach of the Detroit Pistons, respect -- or lack thereof -- was one of the determining factors. As Chris Webber revealed earlier this postseason when he said Detroit's players simply don't listen to Saunders, the absence of respect for his authority was an underlying problem that never went away during Saunders' three-year tenure.
Pistons president Joe Dumars wouldn't exactly come out and say it quite so bluntly in a telephone interview Tuesday with ESPN.com shortly after he informed Saunders of his firing.
But if you read between the lines of what Dumars said, it's clear there was a feeling in the front office that Saunders never won over the hearts and minds of the crusty, combustible veterans who failed to thrive under him as well as they did under his predecessor, Larry Brown.
"We need new leadership, a new voice, a new direction," Dumars said. "It was not an easy job for Flip to come in and fill, especially coming off two trips to the Finals. It wasn't going to be an easy job for anybody."
The decision to fire Saunders ultimately rested in the hands of owner Bill Davidson, the 84-year-old auto industry magnate who made his fortune selling windshields and car windows to Michigan's automobile manufacturers.
Davidson did not attend many games this season, but he was right there in his usual front row seat, right next to the Pistons' bench, for a firsthand look at his club's collapse in the fourth quarter of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals as Detroit was eliminated a round shy of the NBA Finals for the third consecutive season.
What was striking about the Pistons' Game 6 meltdown was how timid they looked, how they allowed the Celtics to emasculate them on their own floor without much of a semblance of a fight. You could see Rasheed Wallace's heart wasn't into it even before the opening tip. He was unusually lethargic and brief leading his usual pregame dance routine and he failed to motion to the crowd to amp up the volume, acts that had become so routine they were part of the Sheed ritual at The Palace.[+] EnlargeJesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesFlip Saunders couldn't always get the attention of his players and that led to his downfall in Detroit.
Was it Saunders' fault that Wallace mentally mailed it in that night?
Was it Saunders' fault that Wallace strolled into the arena noticeably late (at 7:10 p.m. for an 8:30 p.m. tip-off) on the night of the biggest game of the season?
No, and no.
But Friday was a night when someone needed to get into Wallace's head and compel him to focus his anger on the task at hand, and Saunders wasn't able to do it.
Probably the only coach who could have done it was Larry Brown, whose divorce from the Pistons was so ugly that Davidson publicly called Brown out as a "bad, bad man." But Brown bleeds Carolina blue, just as Wallace does, and Brown was the coach who got the most out of Wallace before burning his bridges on the way out of town. (The former coach burned bridges to the extent that he's conspicuously absent from a photographic timeline montage of the proudest moments in the franchise's 50-year history that adorns the hallway wall outside the Pistons' locker room.)
Saunders may have fired his last, best motivational bullet in the visiting locker room in Philadelphia during halftime of Game 4 of the Pistons' first-round series. With his team trailing 2-1 in the series and down by 10 points at intermission, Saunders asked aloud why Antonio McDyess, who had flown back to Detroit the previous night to have surgery on his broken nose, then had flown back to Philly that morning, was the only one playing with a sense of urgency.
The Pistons came out and played for Saunders that night, and they sustained that high level until midway through the series against Boston. But when it came time for them to raise their game, they didn't.
"I'm not here saying it's just Flip. Everybody's in play. Everybody's accountable," said a visibly irritated Dumars at the news conference to announce the firing.
Dumars lamented last summer that he was tired of falling short against hungrier teams. The dynamic took hold first against Miami, then Cleveland and again this season. You could see the Celtics mature as a unit over the course of the playoffs as clearly as you could see the Pistons revert to the disinterested, unmotivated form that doomed them at the end of every season during the Saunders era.
The Pistons never really got better under Saunders, they pretty much stayed the same. Saunders couldn't bring out the best in them, in part because he never earned the same respect in that locker room as his predecessor.
As Dumars said, it would have been a tough job for anybody to step into.
And the next guy who takes the job (Michael Curry is the clear front-runner, and ESPN colleague Stephen A. Smith is reporting that Curry will be hired) is going to have it tough, too. The roster is aging, the window of opportunity is closing, and merely making it to the conference finals next season isn't going to be good enough.
Mr. Davidson expects a title, and Flip Saunders is walking the unemployment line this afternoon because he didn't deliver one. If he had commanded a little more respect or if the players in Pistons uniforms had shown him more that wouldn't be the case.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.
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