Flip Saunders has a brand new coaching staff this season
AUBURN HILLS -- Flip Saunders has a chance, a good chance, to accomplish something no Pistons coach has been able to do since Chuck Daly left.
Last three full seasons on the job.
"What's that been, like 12 years?" Saunders asked.
Try 15. Daly left after the 1992 season. The Pistons have employed eight coaches since, none has completed three full seasons.
"Is that right?" said Saunders, who will ring in year three of his four-year deal when camp opens Oct. 1.
"I think most coaches consider every year as a lame-duck year (laughing). We've had great success here. We have won as much or more than anybody the last two years, we just haven't gone out and won the big one. And until we do that our approach, our focus, isn't going to change.
"I don't look at it any differently. I don't think you can ever be in a situation where you can look over your shoulder. If you did, you could never coach."
Until about a month ago, nobody could have blamed Saunders for at least sneaking a peek over his shoulder.
He was roundly vilified after the Pistons flamed out in the playoffs for the second straight season. Not only was he taking heat from fans and media, he was also taking heat from some of his players.
Ben Wallace took public potshots at Saunders after the Pistons were knocked out of the playoffs by Miami in 2006, and he took some more shots after he signed with Chicago a month later.
Last season, Rasheed Wallace openly challenged Saunders during the pivotal loss in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against Cleveland. He exhorted his teammates to disregard the coach's instructions late in the game, which ultimately led to disastrous defensive breakdowns and a fatal loss.
On top of that, Saunders was asked, for the second straight season, to revamp his coaching staff. After his first season, Sidney Lowe (North Carolina State) and Don Zierden (Minnesota Lynx of the WNBA) left to take head coaching jobs. After last season, Pistons president Joe Dumars did not renew the contracts of assistants Ron Harper and Kevin Wilson. He replaced those two by hiring former Pistons forward Michael Curry.
The loss of Wilson (he's now the dean of admissions at Bethany College in West Virginia) was especially tough for Saunders. Wilson has been with him essentially all of his life. He's been like a big brother.
"I miss Wilsy and Sid and those guys, sure," said Saunders, who even offered to pay Wilson's $100,000 annual salary out of his own pocket. "You miss people. When I was in Minnesota, I had the same staff for 10 years. But what this does do, having to teach coaches again, it's helped stimulate me. I am a firm believer that things happen for a reason."
Saunders does seem rejuvenated. There is a bounce in his step and a self-assuredness that belies the public storm he has endured since the end of the season.
"It might sound crazy," he said, "but I am more excited right now going into a season than I have ever been -- even more than my first two years here. I can't even explain why. Maybe it's the combination of the young players we have coming in and everybody talking about how the conference has gotten so much better. But I kind of feel like, 'We're still here. Come on, we're standing here. Come get us.' "
It could be, too, that Saunders has been fortified by the steadfast support of Dumars and owner Bill Davidson.
"We have reiterated this to Flip all summer," Dumars said. "He has our full support. There is no second-guessing for us about supporting him."
Saunders has also reached out to Rasheed Wallace, who has lost 25 pounds since last season and has been a daily participant in the Pistons' offseason workouts. The two are on the same page again.
"They have spent some good time together," said Dumars, who vowed to be an active arbitrator in the Wallace-Saunders relationship. "Flip reached out to 'Sheed and spoke at his camp (at the Joe Dumars Fieldhouse in July). They spoke again at Chauncey's (Billups) golf outing. Sheed's been in working out the last two weeks. He and Flip have been great. I am seeing a level of respect and cooperation between them this summer that I haven't seen the last two years. That is imperative for us to move forward."
Saunders isn't expecting a completely smooth ride with Wallace; just mutual respect.
"Are 'Sheed and I going to have confrontations? Yes," he said. "We can get that out of the way right now. I can't be afraid of confrontation because there are things I want done and things I will demand. 'Sheed can be great and sometimes 'Sheed can snap. That's who he is. There's going to be confrontation. But anytime we've had a confrontation, the next day it's like nothing happened."
The one exception, of course, was Wallace's blow up in Game 5. Saunders and Dumars both have made it clear to Wallace that he had overstepped the bounds of professionalism and such behavior will not be tolerated.
"We have talked," Saunders said. "He understands that I respect him and I expect the same type of respect."
Saunders has spent the past couple of months rewriting, page by page, his voluminous playbook. This is a task he would have delegated to an assistant in past years. But suddenly he feels like a first-year teacher preparing his initial set of lesson plans.
"It has forced me to become more detail oriented," he said. "I think this is going to be a big help for me."
He and Dumars have mapped out a plan to hopefully incorporate veteran sixth man Antonio McDyess into the starting lineup alongside Wallace. The plan includes increased roles for young players like Jason Maxiell and Amir Johnson, as well as for rookies Rodney Stuckey and Arron Afflalo.
"I think everybody has been invigorated by the infusion of all these young guys," Saunders said. "I know I have."
There have been times the past two years when Saunders seemed like the loneliest guy in Detroit. It seemed he was on an island, surrounded by Dumars and the front office on one side and the players on the other.
Now, with camp less than two weeks off, it seems sturdy bridges have been constructed on both sides and all parties are united.
"I like it here, I really do," Saunders said. "I love the city and I love the people I deal with.
"When you feel people are loyal, the way the fans have been and the way Mr. D. has been and you get beat, you feel like you let people down. That's the emotional part. But, like I said, we're still here and we're still together and we've still got a job to do. I am looking forward to it."