Detroit Pistons’ paths for coaching search: Stick with finalists or hire fired winner?

Detroit Free Press

The NBA’s coaching landscape has changed significantly since the Detroit Pistons began their search five weeks ago.

The Milwaukee Bucks, just two seasons after winning a championship, parted with Mike Budenholzer.

Nick Nurse, four years after bringing home a title in 2019, was dismissed by the Toronto Raptors.

The Philadelphia 76ers fired Doc Rivers on Tuesday, after an embarrassing Game 7 loss to the Boston Celtics.

And perhaps most shockingly, Monty Williams is no longer leading the Phoenix Suns, one season after being named NBA Coach of the Year.

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Job security has always been a luxury for coaches, but this offseason has been particularly brutal. It’s a byproduct of the NBA’s parity and more teams than usual falling well short of expectations.

For the Pistons, it adds more intrigue to a coach search in its final stages. Milwaukee Bucks assistant Charles Lee, New Orleans Pelicans assistant Jarron Collins and former UConn men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie are the three finalists and met with Tom Gores in Los Angeles last week.

We’ll likely get more clarity on where things stand this week, as the Pistons have been waiting for the NBA draft lottery and most of the playoff dust to settle first. But with a rich cast of experienced coaches now available, they have two paths to pick from – select one of their three finalists, or consider the rest of the field?

Of the available coaches, Williams might be the most appealing for Detroit. A source said the Pistons and Williams’ camp will likely make contact this week, though it’s too early to say if it will lead to an interview. It’s unclear if Williams is immediately willing to coach again, following his surprise exit from Phoenix last Saturday night. There has been speculation he could take time off.

Williams was hired to turn around the Suns in 2019; he was a culture-changer who revitalized their offense and quickly helped them make the leap from rebuilder to contender. Phoenix went 34-39 in Williams’ COVID-shortened inaugural season, winning all eight seeding games in the Orlando bubble to come oh-so-close to the playoffs.

That fall, Phoenix traded for Chris Paul and subsequently made a leap – 51 wins and an NBA Finals appearance in 2020-21, an NBA- (and franchise-) best 64 wins in 2021-22 and 45 wins this past season as the team battled injuries. His read-and-react offense, which requires quick ball movement and rewards smart decision-making, could bring life to a Pistons team that has languished on offense and defense.

Williams was an associate coach with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015-16 while current Pistons general manager Troy Weaver was an assistant GM there. Detroit is in a similar spot as Phoenix four years ago – having several up-and-coming young players, cap space to make a big trade and a desire to compete following years of dormancy.

On paper, Williams is a logical fit.

Thus far, the Pistons have been comfortable moving forward with unproven candidates. Lee and Collins are both longtime assistants – Lee was on Budenholzer’s staff for nine years dating back to their shared time with the Atlanta Hawks, and Collins spent several seasons under Steve Kerr with the Golden State Warriors before joining Willie Green in New Orleans two years ago.

Ollie has a unique background, leading UConn to a national title in 2014 before being dismissed in 2018 due to NCAA rules violations. He later successfully sued for wrongful termination. He spent the last two years with Overtime Elite, but has never held a coaching position in the NBA. Of the three candidates, he has the strongest connection to Weaver.

Other rebuilding teams have had good results plucking a top assistant away from a successful franchise. Detroit could be next, though there’s still time for them to pivot to what they’ve preferred over the last decade – a more proven coach with prior playoff success. Their last two hires, Dwane Casey in 2018 and Stan Van Gundy in 2014, both had that résumé.

But Detroit is a rebuilding team competing with contending teams in the coach market. The Bucks, Sixers and Suns all had championship aspirations and possess MVP-level talent capable of making deep runs next year, while the Raptors appear to be at a crossroads with established players.

If Williams decides to take a job this offseason, he could choose from coaching Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee or Joel Embiid in Philadelphia; it will be years before the Pistons could hope to have a player at that level.

The Pistons can sell a different vision, though – stability. They’re not quite in win-now mode, though they have a recent No. 1 overall pick (Cade Cunningham), three recent All-Rookie second-team selections (Jalen Duren, Jaden Ivey and Isaiah Stewart), cap space and a direction. They can point to Casey, who completed the initial five-year deal he signed in 2018, as an example of how they treat their coaches compared to the field.

Whether it’s a rookie coach or retread, the Pistons believe they’re well-positioned to land their preferred option. But with several other teams now in the hunt, they will need to pick a direction soon.

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.

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