Sources: Pistons turn to Kuester
Sources close to the process told ESPN.com that the job will instead go to Kuester after the sides quickly reached an agreement in principal Tuesday, with the deal on course to be formally announced Wednesday.
Johnson, an ESPN NBA analyst, confirmed in a "SportsCenter" interview Tuesday afternoon that he and the Pistons have broken off contract talks after more than two days of negotiations.
The Pistons' pursuit of Johnson ended, sources said, because Detroit -- having paid both Flip Saunders and recently fired Michael Curry last season and still owing an estimated $5 million to Curry over the next two seasons -- was prepared to extend only a two-year offer to Johnson with a team option for a third season.
It's believed that Johnson wanted no less than the security of a four-year contract, given where the retooling Pistons stand in the Eastern Conference hierarchy after a 39-43 season and the fact that Detroit is looking for its sixth coach in team president Joe Dumars' 10 seasons running the front office. When that gap couldn't be bridged, sources said, no formal offer was made to Johnson.
"I looked at it, I was interested in it, but I was only interested in it if we could agree on a vision for the team going forward," Johnson said in the "SportsCenter" interview.
Dumars told the Detroit News: "Where we are right now as a team is kind of like where we were at the start of the Rick Carlisle era. And a $4 [million] to $5 million [per year] coach is not what we need right now. We didn't have one of those until we were close to contending for a championship when we got Larry [Brown]."
TNT analyst Doug Collins withdrew from consideration last week after sources told ESPN.com that he was formally offered the Detroit job. Boston Celtics associate head coach Tom Thibodeau is the only other known candidate, but sources say Dumars was always planning to move quickly to Kuester if no deal with Johnson could be reached.
It's believed that Kuester's offensive expertise and his history with the Pistons after working in Detroit as an assistant under Brown appeal greatly to Dumars. That's despite that fact that Kuester -- who traveled to Detroit on Tuesday to meet face-to-face with Dumars -- has never been a head coach in the NBA.
Johnson had been widely regarded as the leading candidate for the position since Collins withdrew from consideration last Wednesday to stay with TNT, with Dumars announcing after Curry's firing a week ago that he wanted to "move forward with a more experienced coach" and that he wanted to have his new coach in place before the Pistons begin summer-league play in Las Vegas later this week.
Dumars and Johnson had a four-hour meeting Sunday at Johnson's home in the Houston area, but the Pistons ultimately did not want to guarantee any salary beyond the next two years. Because Johnson still has two years and an estimated $8 million remaining from his contract with the Dallas Mavericks, Detroit would have largely shared financial obligations with the Mavericks in that scenario, after negotiations between the Pistons and Mavericks to divide the $4 million Johnson is owed in each of those seasons.
The widely held belief in NBA coaching circles is that Johnson feels he can be especially selective about the next job he takes because of the money he still has coming from Dallas. Johnson did say on multiple occasions during the season -- his first working in television -- that he would be more proactive in seeking jobs after completing a second season with ESPN.
When he turned down a midseason offer to coach the Memphis Grizzlies, Johnson said that he was "enjoying my time at ESPN and with my family" but also that he was intent on returning to coaching "at the right time and in the right situation." Sources say he was far more intrigued by this opening, given Detroit's standing as one of the league's signature franchises, but Johnson was also apparently intent on holding out for a four-year deal with the Pistons in the midst of what Dumars openly describes as a "transition" period.
Johnson, 44, posted a 194-70 record in three-plus seasons with the Mavericks, taking Dallas to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history in 2006, earning NBA Coach of the Year honors that season and following that up with a 67-15 record in the 2006-07 season. But his tenure in Dallas began to unravel with a first-round loss to the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors (and former Dallas coach Don Nelson) in the 2007 playoffs, followed by a tension-filled final season in 2007-08 that ended with another first-round elimination against the New Orleans Hornets despite the midseason acquisition of Jason Kidd.
Dumars' comfort level with Kuester and his desire to inject Detroit's offense with some new ideas after reaching verbal agreements to sign Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva appear to have trumped his earlier call for more experience. Johnson's defense-first mindset is another factor, sources said, that prompted Dumars to tell the Detroit News on Friday that hiring Johnson was "not a given" in spite of Johnson's presumed status as an overwhelming favorite.
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com.
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