The Pistons are not just a coach away

Detroit Bad Boys

The Detroit Pistons were the worst team in the NBA. They have promising young players, a top-5 pick in the NBA Draft, and an exciting young star-in-the-making named Cade Cunningham. What they need is a new coach who makes sound rotation decisions and has a shorter leash for these young players. More developmental prospects than contributors, they need to be allowed to learn and grow, but there also needs to be potential consequences that inject a competitive spark into a team that looked disinterested down the stretch of the season.

It’s late spring in 2023, if you recall, and both fans and analysts alike agreed that it was time to upgrade over Dwane Casey.

Well, it’s now the summer of 2024, and I feel a sense of de ja vu.

Monty Williams is a solid to very good NBA Head Coach. Let’s just start there, because Dwane Casey was as well. Williams has nearly 10 seasons of experience that indicate as much. Last season in Detroit was the only year of his career where the wheels completely fell off the car. Casey also had years of experience as a solid to very good NBA Head Coach, including one strong year in Detroit with a healthy and dominant Blake Griffin.

Casey had the rug pulled out from under him, joining a team hoping to contend for the playoffs only to shepherd that same team through a painful rebuild. Those Casey-led teams were bad. Very bad. In his final year, the Pistons finished with the worst record in the NBA.

That same very bad team elected to hire Monty Williams as Casey’s replacement. That same very bad team chose to add an injury-prone backup point guard, a washed-up three-point specialist, and a draft pick who made it his job to ensure the safety of all players underneath the basket when he attempted a jump shot.

Can you have de ja vu of your own de ja vu?

The Pistons chose to wish upon every star in the sky that Cade Cunningham could single-handedly lift a too-young, too-injured, too scoring-deficient team to a play-in spot. In doing so, they took the worst roster in the NBA and ran it back nearly as-is.

None of this is to excuse the coaching decisions Williams made last season. He did not coach well. Period. But he was also given a roster so bad that Mike Muscala was nothing short of a game-changer. The same Muscala who played only six minutes per game after he left Detroit. And so, I ask you to answer the following question honestly: can you name a coach who could have led this roster to a win total you would have found acceptable before the season began? Name a coach who could have pushed this team into contention for the play-in. Shoot, name a coach who could have won 25 games with this roster.

If Chris Quinn, the fan darling of last year’s coaching search, won eight more games with this team this season, would anything be different? That’s 22 wins in a season where the front office and ownership expected the team to take a step. Troy Weaver is still fired and fans would be demanding Quinn’s job. Just like many did of Dwane Casey. And just like many are doing now with Monty Williams.

I’m not certain that Erik Spoelstra, one of the best coaches in NBA history, could have guided this team to 30 wins. The Pistons set a record for the total number of players to suit up in team uniform in a season, was that just for fun?

Many of Monty Williams’ curious coaching decisions could plausibly be explained by the “throw it at the wall and see what sticks” method of problem-solving. Killian Hayes was a big guard who would be a great fit with Cade if he could shoot the ball. Williams gave him one last shot to prove himself in a contract year. Hayes failed. Marvin Bagley was playing OK-ish basketball as the backup center, but the team defense was horrible. Well, James Wiseman was in a contract year and at least blocks a few shots so let’s see what he can offer. Wiseman failed.

Up and down the roster, this goes.

Jaden Ivey as a sixth man until he proves he can play defense? Failed. Jalen Duren as the anchor of a switching defense? Failed. Cunningham playing increasingly off the ball? Failed, because there was nobody on the roster worth giving the ball to. Ausar Thompson as a corner cutter? Failed. Isaiah Stewart as the starting four-man? Failed. Can Chimezie Metu stick? No. Can Isaiah Livers be the three-and-D wing the team needs? No. Joe Harris as the solution to the floor spacing issues? Not happening. Let’s try Kevin Knox in the starting lineup to win some games. Success… actually. But only because it eventually ended a record-setting losing streak.

There was no rotation that would have won enough games to meet even the most modest of expectations this past season. And if no coach could have fixed this mess, what reason do we have to want Williams canned? Again, we know Williams is a solid NBA Head Coach. We know players respect him and he seems like he’s a grade-A person. Of course, none of this is unique. I’ve mentioned that the same can be said of Casey. The same can be said of many head coaching candidates.

But if Williams wasn’t the problem last season, and he wasn’t, the only reason to move on would be if Trajan Langdon believes Williams doesn’t fit with his vision for the team’s future.

In the NBA coaching landscape, the true negatives are just as rare as the unbelievable positives. Erik Spoelstra and Greg Popovich may be the only game-changing coaches of the past two decades. On the other end of the spectrum lies Jim Boylen and old friend John Kuester. Generationally great or generationally bad coaches are about once-in-a-decade hires. On the spectrum between the few greats and bads exists a whole swath of “pretty good” to “good enough.” That’s where Monty Williams lives. That’s where Dwane Casey was. That’s the space that almost every Pistons coach since Larry Brown occupied. And most importantly, that’s where whoever you want the team to hire to replace Williams will likely be.

So, if you want to shuffle deck chairs, then hope for deck chair shuffling. Just don’t forget we’re on the Titanic. The only way to get this ship floating again is to patch those gaping holes in the hull — to fix the roster.

It’s not the coach, it’s the team. This has always been the case, and the coaches have been easily identifiable and visible scapegoats.

Fixing the team is Trajan Langdon’s job. And if he sees fit to shuffle those deck chairs then so be it. I won’t be cheering either way. Because the coach will be reassessed when this roster is playoff-caliber regardless of what Langdon decides to do now.

Last season was not Monty Williams’ fault. If Langdon agrees, he has no reason to fire Williams now. Hopefully, with better player development, drafting, and roster construction, there will never be a reason to fire Williams. Give him a real roster and we’ll see a real competitive team.

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