AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Pistons coach John Kuester leaned back against the padded table, his eyes locked on the scoreboard, his face twisted into a grimace. For 45 minutes Wednesday, the Pistons had hung in with Denver, only to be flattened by a barrage of 12 points in three minutes from Chauncey Billups late in the fourth quarter. The Pistons hung in despite playing most of the game without starting point guard Rodney Stuckey, who left in the first quarter after bruising his shoulder in a collision with Carmelo Anthony. They played without Rip Hamilton, too, but that's another story.
Hamilton stayed home with the flu, or so the Pistons would have you believe. Truth is, you would be hard-pressed to find many in the organization who could offer up that excuse without a smirk. More likely, Hamilton's absence had more to do with his recent benching, a coach's decision that has turned a man once woven into the fabric of the Pistons' organization into little more than a practice player.
Kuester didn't want this. How could he? Kuester, remember, was a member of Larry Brown's staff in 2004, when Hamilton averaged 21.5 points during title-winning Detroit's postseason run. When the Pistons hired Kuester in '09, he was practically giddy about the chance to coach Hamilton, one of the few holdovers from his time as an assistant.
Kuester wanted Hamilton to succeed in his system. Badly. But Hamilton didn't. It just wasn't working. Offensively, the coach watched as the ball stuck to Hamilton's hands in the half court. He looked on as Hamilton's production dipped to 13.2 points per game this season -- his lowest output since his rookie year -- and his shooting percentage languished in the low 40s for a second year in a row.
It would be easy to overlook Hamilton's slide if the team were winning. But Detroit started the season 0-5 and has been sliding ever since. It wasn't until Hamilton started racking up DNP-CD's -- which coincided with negotiations to trade him to New Jersey in the Carmelo Anthony deal -- that the team started to pick it up. Coincidence? Maybe. But the Pistons are 5-4 since Hamilton was benched Jan. 12, with wins over Dallas, Orlando and Phoenix.
Kuester knew his decision to sit Hamilton would draw criticism, and it has. Tayshaun Prince called the benching "buffoonery." Local media have questioned how the team can afford to keep a player making $12.5 million on the bench. At various times during games, a "We want Rip" chant will spread through the crowd. Even Hamilton's former teammates have risen to his defense.
"My thing is, I feel like he's Pistons royalty," said Billups, a Piston from 2002-08. "The things he's done don't warrant the inactivity. I feel like he's one of the greats. His jersey is probably going to go up in the rafters. And none of the other guys whose jerseys are up there would have to go through this. It's just disrespectful."
Could this conflict have been handled differently? Well, yeah. Communication is the key to resolving any dispute and there hasn't been much between Hamilton and Kuester. When Kuester sought a meeting with Hamilton last weekend, he sent head of security Jerry Hendon to ask him. Offended that Kuester wouldn't come himself, Hamilton declined and the two have barely spoken since. When asked on Wednesday if there had been any further communication between him and Hamilton, Kuester was succinct: "Nothing's changed."
Kuester should have pulled Hamilton aside after a practice or a shootaround -- head coaches can do that, you know -- and hashed things out. Because the reality is neither man is at fault. Kuester is a good coach. Hamilton is a good player. They both want to win; they just have different ideas on how to do it.
"I think John's a great guy and I think Rip's a great guy," Nuggets coach George Karl said. "There are times good people somehow don't figure out how to communicate with one another. My wish is that they would figure it out. I don't know why they're not figuring it out. Kue seems like he's found a rotation he has more of a comfort zone with -- without Rip. That's hard to take for a player as good as Rip.
"I think Rip still wants to play. Somewhere along the way, I hope they can figure it out and make it a win-win for both of them."
Reconciliation is a nice thought, but the Pistons and Hamilton are beyond that. The team has committed to making a playoff push behind Stuckey, Prince, rising rookie Greg Monroe and a resurgent Tracy McGrady. They thought they had a deal for Hamilton earlier this month, but New Jersey's sudden decision to pull out of the Anthony sweepstakes scuttled it. League sources say the Pistons have made it known Hamilton is available, with little more than an expiring contract and draft picks required as compensation.
Of course, all the talk in the world won't punch Hamilton's ticket out of town. Any number of contenders would love to add the 32-year-old Hamilton to their bench, but not if it means eating the last two years and up to $25 million on Hamilton's contract (the final year isn't fully guaranteed). And a buyout isn't happening, not with the Pistons reportedly in the middle of an exclusive 30-day negotiating window with billionaire Tom Gores to sell the team.
For now, Hamilton will remain in limbo. Sources close to the situation say the Pistons have no idea if Hamilton will be with the team on its two-game road trip through Miami and New York. But even if Hamilton does rejoin the Pistons, Kuester has given no indication when -- or if -- he will be back in the rotation. It may take an injury, like the one Stuckey sustained Wednesday. Or it may not happen at all.