Brown upshot: Most get what they want
The union of Larry Brown and the Detroit Pistons has been officially dissolved at last.
Which naturally leads us to assess, one by one, what happens next for the many players in this drama.
Brown maintained to the very end that he didn't want to coach anywhere else and immediately gains a lot from the separation. He'll ignore the ambiguity about whether this was a buyout or a firing and continue to proclaim that, no matter what you call it, he was forced out by the Pistons when he was perfectly willing to stay.
That perception, if you're willing to buy into it, is important to Brown. He believed that a firing would enable him to emerge from this saga as a sympathetic figure, which didn't seem possible back in May, when Brown was hit with the deepest criticism he has ever received in the wake of his negotiations with the Cleveland Cavaliers going public.
The Pistons abandoned their attempts to keep Brown out of coaching next season, which sets up the 64-year-old to get even more of what he wanted in this buyout/firing. He is free now to pursue that dream job with his hometown Knicks.
All that's missing for Brown is the warm sendoff, until you remember that he never gets one. Teams that hire Larry Brown know they can count on significant improvement on the court ... and a messy parting when it's all over.
History will show that Brown's two years in Detroit, in spite of all the drama, were his most successful as an NBA coach. The Pistons fired Rick Carlisle without warning because they believed Brown would bring them a championship within three seasons. Brown almost went 2-for-2, which suggests that he'll eventually be remembered warmly in Motown.
In the interim, perhaps it makes sense in the upside-down Larry Universe that the scene of his greatest NBA successes is also where the split was probably the messiest.
The Pistons' president of basketball operations and the club's longtime owner are under fire again. It's reminiscent of where they were some two years ago, when they unexpectedly dumped the up-and-coming Rick Carlisle to hire Brown.
The key word there, though, is unexpectedly.
Firing Carlisle and replacing him with a wanderer who had never won an NBA championship to that point was a big-time surprise. The Pistons initially struggled to justify that move.
As such, it was a much more controversial decision than this one.
Brown indeed helped the Pistons return to championship glory after a dry decade and a half, but his departure has been expected for some time after all the uncertainty about his future. Chaos has been a constant with this team, which wasn't what Dumars and Davidson were expecting after their title-winning breakthrough in 2004. You can't be terribly surprised to hear Brown isn't coming back.
Team sources insist that, as far back as the fall, the prevailing sentiment throughout the organization held that this season would be Larry's last in Detroit. Only Detroit's dramatic comeback from 3-2 down to Miami in the Eastern Conference finals and two more recoveries in the NBA Finals against San Antonio (from holes of 2-0 and 3-2) to force a Game 7 raised the possibility of a reconciliation between Brown and his bosses.
In the end, though, the bosses were apparently unconvinced that Brown could coach another full season or that he really wanted to stay. And Brown has been coaching too long to keep at it without the full backing of his bosses. A split now is what both sides really want.
The risk, of course, is greater for the Pistons. Brown will move on with an NBA ring on his résumé at last and a guarantee of millions, from either Detroit or the next team that hires him. The team he leaves behind needs a replacement capable of keeping this group at a championship level.
Not that you should count on hearing any panic from Dumars or Davidson. They went through a tougher PR sell after the Carlisle firing. They've got the track record that demands your benefit of the doubt.
This time, you are moved to remember that they were right last time.
The guys Brown said he loved in that famed Finals timeout -- the children, in effect -- will undoubtedly be billed in some precincts as the real losers in this divorce.
Not in this cyberspace.
The Pistons, more than any team in the league, need a chip on their shoulder to fully flex. They like to feel slighted by the masses. They want to be dissed.
And now they'll have a new mantra.
Finding fuel last season from even the slightest suggestion that their 2004 destruction of the Lakers was a fluke, Detroit will be driven next season by those who contend that they can't win it all without Larry's coaching genius.
Not surprisingly, these guys don't want to hear that it was Brown who made them champions. They want to make Brown regret this early exit.
Larry was an undeniably huge factor in Detroit's return to the elite, but don't forget that Brown himself said during the San Antonio series that it was the arrival of Rasheed Wallace at the '04 trade deadline -- orchestrated by the aforementioned Dumars, you'll recall -- that really made Detroit a title contender.
Wallace isn't going anywhere. Neither are Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups or Rip Hamilton. Tayshaun Prince is working on a contract extension, and Antonio McDyess showed in the Finals that his legs still have some life.
You still have to like the Pistons' core, no matter who's coaching.
Saunders can only hope that replacing Brown is as sure a thing as it seems. He passed up a lucrative offer to take over the rebuilding Milwaukee Bucks, which looks increasingly attractive given the potential for rapid improvement. The Bucks have answered a 30-win season and Saunders' snub with a spending spree to surround No. 1 overall pick Andrew Bogut with two quality scorers (Michael Redd and Bobby Simmons) and a quality backup (Dan Gadzuric).
Going to Milwaukee would certainly have been easier for Flip than following Larry in Motown.
And getting the job, frankly, is the easy part. Whatever you think of Brown and his wanderlust issues, there's no disputing his X-and-O acumen. Saunders would be replacing one of the best coaches of all-time.
He'd also be taking a job where success and failure is judged in the NBA Finals and not before. That's after a long run in Minnesota where Saunders' Timberwolves were playoff underdogs almost every year and first-round exits were easily rationalized.
He'd be taking over a far hungrier group than the 2004-05 Pistons, who as defending champs struggled with intensity issues for much of the regular season. He'd also be bringing in a reputation for offensive innovation, which the dethroned champs can certainly use. If Saunders makes them a bit more versatile offensively, with no discernible drop-off defensively, who's to say Flip's Pistons wouldn't be more dangerous?
Darko's summer-league performance in Las Vegas was so-so at best, but this news has to be a serious boost. Under Brown, he knew he'd never play. Maybe not even next season.
That will undoubtedly change under Saunders. Or whoever takes over.
Yet that means this news also puts serious pressure on Milicic for the first time in his NBA career, since Brown's forthcoming departure means his crutch will also be gone. If Darko plays next season, even in a limited role, there will be no excuse. He'll have to start showing some tangible progress.
Or a better attitude, at the very least.
The Pistons aren't demanding that Darko catch up to Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade or even Chris Bosh in one season. They understand that two years of hopelessness under Brown clearly did more than dent the kid's confidence.
That said, Detroit could use a sign that Milicic wants to be in the NBA. His lack of aggression was an issue in every game in Vegas, and that can only be explained away for so long.
The Cavs were a late (but huge) catalyst in this drama. Their talks with Brown about a front-office job, which reportedly began late in the regular season -- before the Pistons were aware of them -- eventually spilled out during the playoffs and spiraled into what probably ranks as the biggest firestorm of Brown's career.
The not-so-secret negotiations will never be forgotten in Detroit.
The Cavs, though, have moved on. When they hired Danny Ferry away from San Antonio to be their new general manager, with Ferry insisting on (and receiving) full personnel control to leave a good job in Spurs' front office, Cleveland ceased to be a viable option for Brown.
Unless he's willing to work as a consultant under Ferry, which is difficult to picture.
Larry Brown will be the next coach of the Knicks.
The only unknown is exactly when that will happen.
Now that he's free contractually to pursue other jobs, Larry has the ability to sign with New York in time to start the 2005-06 season. He also has the option of taking some extra time to get healthy or even sit out a full season if he chooses, in which case Herb Williams would continue as Knicks coach until Brown is ready.
Either way, know this:
The Knicks, especially Isiah Thomas, are ready for this to happen as soon as Larry is willing and able. They need Brown desperately.
The Knicks are a lot like their big-market cousins in Hollywood. With payroll problems that preclude major roster upgrades, spending big to bring in a Hall of Fame coach is the biggest free-agent move Isiah can make to satiate his impatient fans.
That's what the Lakers did with Phil Jackson. Knowing the splashiest player move they could make is a mid-major trade with Washington to gamble on Kwame Brown, L.A. threw a $10 million annual salary at Phil to lure him back.
To keep hope alive in Knicks Nation, and preserve his own job, Isiah has to do the same with Larry.
You suspect it won't take much convincing to get Larry aboard, either.
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