Why did the Pistons fire Maurice Cheeks as head coach after just 50 games on the job? Because Detroit has been totally underwhelming after massive expectations followed a massive free agency spending spree.
But why has Detroit been totally underwhelming? Cheeks is some part of that. But the problems go way deeper than the head coach. Like, to the guy who hired the head coach a few months: longtime general manager Joe Dumars.
Let's quickly run through how the Pistons went from the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals to here.
* Dumars blew up the team after that Eastern Conference Finals loss by firing Flip Saunders and trading Chauncey Billups' longer-term contract for the expiring one belonging to Allen Iverson with an eye on turning the team over to Rodney Stuckey. The team immediately lost its identity, and Saunders' replacement Michael Curry lasted one year.
* Dumars used all that cap space on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, decisions that proved disastrous. He hired John Kuester to replace Curry; Kuester lasted two years. To clear up roster spots, he traded a young Arron Afflalo, another fringe player (Walter Sharpe) and cash to Denver for a future second-round pick. That pick became Vernon Macklin, who has 135 NBA minutes and has been out of the league for two years. Afflalo nearly made the All-Star team this season.
* Dumars replaced Kuester with Lawrence Frank, who also lasted two seasons. Dumars made some good draft picks (Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond) but continued to strike out otherwise as the Pistons stuck around the lottery.
* To free up cap space for a free agent splash in 2013, Dumars traded Gordon and a future first for Corey Maggette. Gordon's fat contract ran through 2013-14, while Maggette's expired in 2013. Allowing Dumars to sign Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings. (The latter came in a sign-and-trade for a recent Dumars lottery pick, Brandon Knight.) Smith and Jennings have been a pretty poor fit with Monroe, Drummond and each other. Hence, the 21-29 record.
From Detroit Bad Boys
From Detroit Bad Boys
Outsiders were pretty torn on the Pistons' chances this season. Vegas put the over-under for wins at 40.5; the Pistons are on pace for 34. Smith and Jennings are known as inefficient scorers, Drummond is not much of a shot creator and Smith is at his best at the power forward spot, which puts Monroe and Drummond in question. Asking Cheeks to sort all of that comes with the territory of being an NBA head coach, sure. But asking him to have figured it out before February? Firing him before the All-Star break? That's expecting too much.
What's most notable is that Pistons have shown signs of life. After a horrifying holiday season, which included a six-game losing streak, Detroit is 7-7. They challenged the Heat in Miami this week, and are coming off of back-to-back wins over the Nets and Nuggets at home. Coaches usually get hired after blowout losses. The Pistons dropped a game in Orlando on Wednesday, but that was on the second night of a back-to-back and they recovered well this weekend. Cheeks has governed some atrocious outings this season, which makes it all the more curious as to why this happened now.
Current Pistons owner Tom Gores didn't hire Dumars, and though the GM is a Detroit legend, his hourglass must be running low on sand. This may very well by the death throes of a long tenure for Dumars, a last gasp at saving his own job. In the very best light the firing shows that Dumars made the wrong hiring choice; at worst it shows a man in crisis thrashing for answers. Neither one is a particularly good sign for Dumars' future.