Commentary

Dumars deserves props for thinking outside the box

Originally Published: June 3, 2008
By Stephen A. Smith | ESPN.com

Flip SaundersD.Lippitt/EinsteinPhoto/NBAE/Getty ImagesThree straight trips to the Eastern Conference finals wasn't enough for Flip to keep his job.
Joe Dumars must be on something!

That was the word circulating through the NBA's grapevine yesterday among those lacking insight into what's been taking place with the Detroit Pistons over the past year. These folks, stunned by Dumars' announcement that he was dismissing Flip Saunders as his head coach, were equally flabbergasted over news that assistant Michael Curry -- who has zero experience as a head coach -- would replace a man who had just finished guiding the Pistons to a third consecutive Eastern Conference finals appearance.

Whatever Dumars is on, here's all I have to say: We should all want some of it.

Kudos to Dumars for veering away from conventional thinking and avoiding the trap of bringing in the same old retreads we respect and admire … despite their inability to get the job done. In elevating Curry to head coach -- a move that's expected to be announced any day now -- Dumars has sent a clear message to everyone within the Pistons' organization that everyone's expendable, and more importantly, that the franchise he assembled this millennium is expected to achieve much more than simply reaching six consecutive conference finals, and securing just one NBA title.

Curry is the right man for the job at the right time because he's hungry for the opportunity. He's been groomed for this position. He's a former Piston. He's hard-nosed.

"And guess what, he can flat-out coach," one Pistons player told me during the Eastern Conference finals. "He knows what he's doing. He commands the respect of the players not only because he knows what he's doing, but also because he's not scared to get in anyone's face."

"He'll hold people accountable," Dumars said recently, when discussing Curry's head coaching potential. "Every team needs that, but especially one competing for a championship."

Case closed.

Understand, the end for Saunders may have officially come Tuesday, but his days have been numbered since Game 5 of last season's conference finals, when he allowed LeBron James to erupt for 29 of Cleveland's final 30 points.

In that game, Saunders never double-teamed James, wearing his veterans down in the process. The tactic failed so badly that Rasheed Wallace, irate after the loss to the Cavaliers, erupted with a profanity-laced tirade in the locker room, vehemently lamenting Saunders' refusal to place faith in younger players on the squad.

After the Pistons lost that series in the ensuing Game 6, Wallace pulled a reporter to the side and begged for the return of none other than Larry Brown, who all the players profoundly respected and wanted to play for. They understood Brown's return was impossible because Pistons owner Bill Davidson wasn't about to forgive Brown for his reported pursuit of the Cleveland Cavaliers head coaching job while still a member of the Pistons' payroll. Still, that didn't diminish the team's ache for the Hall of Fame coach.

Most of the Detroit players liked Saunders as a person. Despite quiet rumblings about his penchant for calling just three plays, they still respected his knowledge of X's and O's, along with a Pistons coaching record of 176-70.

What the players couldn't respect was his unwillingness -- despite the prodding of Dumars and several veterans -- to trust younger players such as Jason Maxiell and Amir Johnson because of the toll that it was visibly taking on Wallace, Antonio McDyess and others.

Plus, Saunders wasn't Larry Brown.

"We still love LB," one player said, requesting anonymity. "LB was something special. He knew his stuff but also knew us to a tee.

"I remember one game [Pistons guard Chauncey Billups] put up like 28 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. He was one assist away from a triple-double, and ecstatic. Then LB walks up to him and says, 'You don't have a clue how to play point guard for me, do you?' [Billups] just bowed his head like a lost puppy.

"Then there's the time he calls us into a huddle like there's some emergency or something during the 2004 Finals against the Lakers. We're here thinking it's something drastic. And then he says, 'You know … I love you guys.' We all cracked up laughing and were relaxed the rest of the series.

"LB just knew how to touch us. Affect us. You don't teach that, man. You either have that relationship with the players or you don't. We respect Flip, but he doesn't have that. Curry does. And he will."

Dumars was in no playing mood Monday. The Pistons president of basketball operations made it clear he believes his team is a championship contender. He believes they've underachieved. And he believes a primary cause is the need for, as he put it, a "new voice, a new direction and new leadership."

Considering his relationship with Curry, as well as Curry's relationship with the players assembled, it's not hard to understand why Dumars elected to go in this direction.

Dumars has tradable commodities in Billups, Hamilton and Wallace, who'll be in the last year of his contract next season. But most of all, he has veterans looking for a coach to respect, one who can relate to their trials and tribulations, so he can demand something so much more than they were ever able to give Saunders.

Dumars knows this. The players know this. Curry knows this. And after the pain subsides, if Saunders is honest with himself, he'll acknowledge he knows this, too.

What the rest of us think doesn't matter.

Another NBA Finals series is here, and the Pistons are not in it. What else do we need to know, exactly?

Stephen A. Smith is a columnist for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.

Stephen A. Smith | email

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Stephen A. Smith is a featured columnist for ESPNNewYork.com, a co-host on First Take" and a regular on "SportsCenter."