Can Flip flip the script?
Regular readers of my Hang Time column know I've generally been an admirer of former Wolves coach Flip Saunders, easily the best bench jockey in the history of that franchise (against woeful competition) and someone who was unfairly scapegoated last season. Even so, I don't think Saunders taking over as the new coach of the Detroit Pistons yesterday will be a beneficial fit for either side.
A story in yesterday's Detroit Free Press was pegged on Flip's fabled adaptability, something he always emphasized with pride. But the most compelling evidence of that trait is a decade old, a remnant from his old days in the minor league CBA, when he'd constantly be losing his best players to the NBA and have to adjust on the fly. By contrast, amid nine years of revolving personnel in Minnesota, Saunders had a consistent, signature style. And it's not one that will wear well in Motown.
With the Wolves, Flip's teams were built first and foremost on a voluminous playbook and crisp, constant passing that generated high-percentage, mid-range shots in the half-court offense. Scouts really admired Flip because figuring out all the permutations of his set plays was such a challenge (and obviously right up their alley).
But there are a lot of things Flip doesn't emphasize. He'll play one-on-one, star-oriented basketball only if he unearths and chooses to exploit a glaring mismatch. His teams in Minnesota were consistently abysmal at penetrating to the hoop, drawing fouls, or otherwise scoring in the paint. Teams with a physical, bruising style, such as Utah under Jerry Sloan and many of the clus in the Eastern Conference, often were able to impose their will on Saunders' teams.
Although Flip is like almost every coach (including Dwane Casey, the man who replaced him in Minnesota) in claiming that defense is his abiding priority, it simply wasn't borne out by the character of his teams. The best defensive ballclub during his tenure here crystallized by default, when injuries to Wally Szczerbiak and Michael Olowokandi created ample minutes for Trenton Hassell and Ervin Johnson. Coaches who truly emphasize defense are maniacs about it, willing to bench or trade people who don't play it effectively. Greg Popovich is such a coach. Larry Brown, Flip's predecessor in Detroit, is another. Flip isn't, and a suspicious jury is still out on whether or not Casey will be.
One school of thought is that the offensively gifted coach and the defensively tenacious players will shore each other up. But the depth of defensive tenacity deployed by squads like the Pistons and the Spurs only occurs if you have a pack mentality, like a dogs pulling a sled. That requires a musher, an unyielding taskmaster, at the controls, and I repeat, that's not Flip. The Pistons will probably be among the league's top half-dozen defenses under Saunders, but it is hard to see how either he goads them or they collectively discipline themselves to the elite level of the past two seasons.
It's revealing that when Casey was announced as coach here, he stated that the Wolves needed above all to tighten up their defense. About a week later, knowing that he'd spent many hours breaking down film on his new club, I asked Casey if there had been any pleasant surprises in what he'd seen. He replied that the potential for defensive improvement among the leftover personnel was greater than he first thought; that the team seemed to defend the paint and the perimeter much more aggressively later in the season. That, of course, is when Kevin McHale had taken over for Saunders.
As for the personnel in Detroit, the key relationship will be Flip and Chauncey Billups. As a former point guard, Flip is more judgmental about that position than any other. During Billups' tenure in Minnesota, one got the impression, rarely overtly, but often covertly, that Flip felt Billups didn't read the floor and move the ball as well as the system required (which was true); that he looked for his own shot a little too often (generally true); and that, ironically, he wasn't a staunch enough defender (hard to believe, but true back then). Saunders and the rest of the Wolves coaching staff weren't particularly aggrieved when Joe Dumars and the Pistons snapped up Billups in free agency, and matching what they believed to be an unrealistically high number was never seriously entertained in Minnesota's front office. Gambling on Terrell Brandon returning from injury, or signing a point guard on the cheap (which turned out to be Troy Hudson) were both seen as shrewder options than inking Billups to a sizable long-term deal. I heartily agreed with their cynical assessment.
Three years later, Billups not only has the last laugh, he has some leverage in the locker room that could help make or break Saunders. Under Brown, Billups was tutored into becoming a better-than-average defender. He also transformed himself into one of the game's more renowned clutch shooters, meaning he doesn't have to pass the fucking ball if he doesn't feel like it. He owns one more ring and two more trips to the finals than Flip possesses. Two years ago, Flip came to a very productive compromise with Sam Cassell on the operation of the offense, ceding as much as he seized with respect to running the show, in part because Cassell's court vision and deadly midrange jumper fit Flip's system so well. Billups's package of skills is less simpatico, but Flip needs to make at least as many concessions, and hope Chauncey remains the genuinely nice guy he was in Minnesota and not nurse a grudge.
Then there's Rasheed Wallace, who respected the impulsively combative Larry Brown enough to tone down his antics, but may get itchy and test the congenitally non-combative Saunders at some point during the season. And as for the conundrum of Darko, even with Kevin McHale on board, how many big men besides Kevin Garnett flourished in Minnesota?
This sounds more negative toward Saunders than I intend it to be, simply to put forth my argument. The guy is a fantastic coach in terms of organization, X's-and-O's, creating a comfortable but focused atmosphere, and, yes, in making adjustments without whining. He's also great with owners, general managers, and the media, which played no small part in him getting this job. As ESPN.com's Marc Stein rightly points out in this column, the easy route for Flip to take was through Milwaukee, which has a promising young nucleus and little pressure to win immediately. Saunders should be given credit for challenging himself. But Detroit Pistons basketball has seen two periods in the past 20 years when hardcore, blue-collar defense and a combative, take-no-prisoners style have produced taut, exciting, late-round playoff losses and some glorious championships. Both the fans and the players won't be patient with any signs of slippage from that standard, a level Flip achieved just once in his nine years in Minnesota.
I sincerely hope Flip proves me and the other naysayers wrong; that his adaptability includes the ability to get in players' faces and demand that they defend for him the way they did for Brown. At the very least, he has earned the opportunity now before him: To succeed, or fail, with a bona fide championship contender.