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Odd as it might seem for a team to fire its coach following two straight wins over opponents with a better record than their own, the Pistons' dismissal of Maurice Cheeks was not a decision made at a breaking point.
For months Detroit has played out its season through various states of underwhelming. The triangulated arrangement of Josh Smith, Andre Drummond, and Greg Monroe has not worked. The Pistons have consistently been the worst fourth-quarter team in the league, and for the season have been outscored by a horrific 12.4 points per 100 possessions in the final frame. The team's playoff hopes have been challenged despite both their offseason splurge and the historic weakness of their Eastern Conference competition.
Exceptionally little has gone right for the Pistons this season, leaving Cheeks with little job security. He is not solely to blame for all that Detroit has become; it was by the hand of team president Joe Dumars, after all, that Smith was signed to a four-year, $54 million contract to play out of position, that Brandon Jennings was acquired via trade to helm an unstable roster, and that this weird composite of ill-fitting players came to be. Yet from the moment it did Cheeks appeared to be in over his head, if only because this group of players demands a creativity and command that he hadn't shown previously.
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There just isn't a rousing defense to be made for a coach whose team has faltered from consistent miscommunication, strategic misplays and a dicey rotation. All that can be said on Cheeks' behalf is that running this particular team was an uphill effort to begin with. Playing Smith on the wing -- as was all but mandated by his signing -- with Drummond and Monroe eating up space in the lane plays to the former's worst offensive tendencies. Jennings is still tough to trust as a lead ball handler and even tougher to trust as a defender, neither of which bodes well for a team already in disarray. Detroit is also inexperienced in all the wrong places, making it all the more difficult to sort out the roster's redundancies.
Still, there were just too many problems well in Cheeks' control (the fourth-quarter collapses, the reluctance to stagger the minutes of the three bigs, the defensive scheme issues, etc.) for him to get out of this season unscathed. It is worth considering, though, if there's much value at all in making a change at this stage in the season. Pistons assistant coach John Loyer has been tabbed for interim coaching duties, though to what degree can he really coordinate a scattered team some 50 games into the season? How much room is there for a former Cheeks assistant to establish a new order? And worse yet: With the trade deadline just 11 days away, how will Detroit go about making important, potentially roster-defining decisions without knowledge of its head coaching situation beyond the immediate?
None of the above factors much justifies keeping Cheeks in his former post, though they do challenge the utility of his dismissal. It's by that caveat that this swift, uncompromising decision seems especially desperate -- as though the line of excuses and expendable coaches might have finally run out for Dumars. It's now been six seasons since Detroit last had a winning record, and during that time Dumars has fired five coaches: Cheeks, Lawrence Frank, John Kuester, Michael Curry, and Flip Saunders. His roster has run through several different iterations, this being only the latest of many disappointments. The list of flop moves has already been chiseled on Dumars' management epitaph, with the names of Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva, Allen Iverson, Darko Milicic, and now Josh Smith well-worn by justifiably angry Pistons fans.
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It's now been years of waiting for Dumars to take ownership of his mistakes, and years of his operating with apparent impunity within the Pistons organization. There is a hint of change, though, in the trickling reports that have characterized Cheeks' firing as a decision made on the ownership level. Tom Gores is apparently none too pleased with the Pistons' 21-29 start and ninth-place standing, as would make sense after his team made its latest flashy, expensive additions this summer.
On some level, Gores is right to be frustrated; Detroit needn't be this bad. There's room amid all the aforementioned concerns for a better, more consistent Pistons team, so long as the mismatched players involved had the right coach to guide them. Cheeks wasn't that coach, but the same could be said of so many others who would have struggled to make this confounding roster work. We can talk at length about what Cheeks should or shouldn't have done during his short tenure, but at some point Pistons coaches need to be spared the jigsaw treatment. Dumars has put one after another in a jam only to outstay them, and to what end?