Wondering If Flip's Firing Was a Matter of Convenience

A Daily Babble Production

In firing former Pistons coach Flip Saunders yesterday, Joe Dumars did indeed guarantee that his entire roster will be in play this off-season and that the embattled coach wasn't being put forth as a scapegoat.

But that won't make it any less surprising in my book if this team actually undergoes a major player personnel overhaul in the summer to come.

This isn't to suggest that Dumars is intentionally or unfairly making a scapegoat out of Saunders but simply that the firing is symptomatic of what often seems to be a widepsread approach in pro sports:  make the most convenient change possible.

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Saunders hasn't established himself as a great coach by any means.  He has a long history of failing in the playoffs with successful regular season teams, and his track record on the road in the playoffs is laughable.

That said, he has also spent the last three years presiding over the only team in basketball to reach the conference finals in each of those seasons.  While Saunders' Piston defenses have never been at the level Detroit played under Larry Brown, the Pistons remained in the top seven in defensive efficiency in each year of Saunders' tenure.  In addition, they also jumped from 17th in offensive efficiency in Brown's final season to fourth in Flip's first year and sixth in each of the next two.  The man has a .597 career regular season winning percentage, and he won more than 70 percent of his games while on the sideline for the Pistons.  Not exactly Sidney Lowe territory either.

Undoubtedly, Saunders' failings in his search for the ultimate prize played a big role in Dumars' decision.  But of equal consideration may have been how difficult it is to envision this team being broken up.

The currently constructed Pistons' window of opportunity may be smaller than it once was, but it's still there.  The Pistons have four extremely solid starters, and all are between the ages of 27 and 33.  Three have made multiple All-Star appearances, and the fourth (and youngest) has made the NBA's All-Defensive Second Team four times already.  None of the spots filled by Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince is begging for an upgrade.

The fifth starter, 33-year-old Antonio McDyess, was solid all year (8.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game), and he saved some of his best work for the Eastern Conference Finals, in which he averaged 11.3 points and 9.0 boards per game on 56.3 percent shooting from the field and 82.4 percent shooting from the line.  It would be a surprise if Detroit didn't make a concerted effort to retain him through free agency this summer.  [UPDATE: Scratch that last sentence.  As Who and Roy Hobbs point out, McDyess has already re-upped.  You're killin' me, HoopsHype!]

Further, the Pistons have two youngsters who are quickly developing into two of the league's best reserve threats in Rodney Stuckey and Jason Maxiell.   Arron Afflalo and Amir Johnson have both shown promise and are both under contract for a couple of years to come.

That takes care of nine roster spots, including the top seven for sure.  Most acquisitions beyond that point for the Pistons this summer are going to be largely cosmetic.  There aren't many particularly glaring holes that absolutely must be addressed among those top seven.  This is a team that plays cohesively together and routinely finishes on the top ends of the rankings on both sides of the ball.  The Pistons are a very good basketball team, and without a certain need to address, it's very difficult to see Dumars breaking this group up while they still have at least another couple of years to play at a very high level.

The problem is that for the last three years, against three different teams, these very good Pistons simply haven't been good enough to make it out of the Eastern Conference.

The team is still a very good one.  It showed the ability under Larry Brown to get to (and in one case win) the Finals in 2004 and 2005, and the belief in Detroit seems to be that this team is still good enough.  But after three years of frustration at the same level, and with it clear that the window has at least started to close, the Pistons couldn't go into next year without some sort of change.  As often tends to be the case, it's a far simpler task to get rid of the coach than it is to effectively move the players -- especially when the organization believes that those players may still be able to get the job done.  Even if the coach hasn't done anything particularly terribly, he becomes the one to go.  Because he makes less money than the players, and because he is the one who can simply be removed at the drop of a hat.

For my part, I'm not sure whether or not Flip Saunders needed to go in Detroit.  I'm personally no fan of his -- for the reasons mentioned at the beginning of this piece along with the fact that he doesn't seem from this outside observer's perspective to be a dynamic coaching personality or motivator, I could do without him coaching my team -- but as Matt Watson elucidates in another excellent post over at Detroit Bad Boys, Flip did plenty right in Motown as well.

And so the curiosity here remains about if Flip Saunders would have been either way fired out of convenience, whether he earned it or not.

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