The Detroit Pistons are considering several candidates to replace John Kuester as coach, including Milwaukee Bucks assistant Kelvin Sampson, former Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Woodson, Minnesota Timberwolves assistant Bill Laimbeer and television analyst Mark Jackson, league sources said.
In addition to those names, Sam Amick of Sports Illustrated recently suggested a couple of others:
As reported by ESPN.com, former Atlanta coach Mike Woodson is expected to receive consideration for the likely vacancy. Two other possible candidates are Mark Jackson and [Hornets assistant Mike] Malone, as well as usual suspects like [Mavs assistant Dwane] Casey and [Celtics assistant Lawrence] Frank.
Joe Dumars is no stranger to a good ol' fashioned coaching search -- he's fired seven coaches in his 11 years on the job. His last two, Michael Curry and Kuester, entered the job with no previous NBA head coaching experience and failed miserably, but I doubt that will persuade Dumars from rolling the dice on a rookie again if he feels the fit is right.
Consider the NBA Finals: Dumars gave Rick Carlisle his first head coaching gig, and he responded with two 50-win seasons from 2001-03 before clearly going on to bigger and better endeavors. On the other bench sits 40-year-old Erik Spoelstra, who before getting lucky with "The Decision" last summer also managed to lead the Heat to winning records in his first two seasons. Elsewhere in the NBA, Tom Thibodeau led the Bulls to the best record in the NBA in his first season, while Monty Williams and Larry Drew led the Hornets and Hawks, respectively, to the playoffs.
The point is, first-year head coaches can succeed, so don't rule out Sampson, Laimbeer or Jackson. (Well, go ahead and rule out Jackson. It's one thing not to have previous NBA head coaching experience, and it's another not to have any coaching experience on any level. Jackson will get an interview, sure, but I have an extremely hard time seeing Dumars and Tom Gores pulling the trigger at such a pivotal moment in the team's history.)
Should fans be nervous about Sampson's history of NCAA infractions? I don't think so. Shortly after Sampson was forced out of Indiana in 2008, he re-surfaced in San Antonio, observing the Spurs at the invitation of his friend Gregg Popovich. Henry Abbott from TrueHoop wrote at the time:
I can hear you thinking something like: but wait, the Spurs are the choirboys of the NBA! They are pristine and pure! They always dominate those "good guy" lists. Why would they be hanging around with a coach who is shrouded in ethical questions?
And here's where you realize that things the NCAA abhors, like lots of phone calls to players, are simply no big deal in the NBA. (Get this: in the NBA, I've heard they even pay players.)
I know, I know we agree to the rules in advance and we are supposed to follow them. But I just can't see NBA people being really upset at having a guy around who was aggressively trying to get the best players. In the college game, that may be a crime. In the NBA, it's a speeding ticket, and it surprises me none to see Sampson joining his friend in San Antonio.
There may be a lot of reasons not to hire Sampson for an NBA job, but text messaging isn't one of them. (Random fact: Sampson spent the 1979-80 season on Jud Heathcote's staff at Michigan State, just a couple of years before Tom Gores enrolled in East Lansing. Doubt that will be a facture, but it certainly can't hurt.)
Besides, if Popovich, the NBA's premier coach in the NBA's most stable organization, gives someone a stamp of approval, the Pistons would be silly not to consider him ... which brings us to Pop's top assistant for the past four years, Mike Budenholzer. By all accounts Budenholzer is considered Popovich's heir apparent, but considering he's already interviewed for the Warriors job, he seems to be growing restless waiting for Pop to retire.
Budenholzer has spent the past 15 years on San Antonio's bench, which is reason enough for him to move to the forefront of my own personal wish list. (This two-year-old plea from Tom Ziller for Budenholzer to be hired by the Kings only cemented matters.) The Pistons are in serious need of rebuilding not only the roster but also their culture -- and there's not a better franchise than the Spurs after which I'd like to see the Pistons model themselves.
(Quick note: as much as I like Laimbeer, I'm not convinced he's seasoned enough. Pistons fans have this image of Laimbeer as a kick-ass disciplinarian, which led to multiple titles in the WNBA but may or may not be effective in the NBA. And besides, if Kuester's reign taught us anything, managing a locker room apparently involves a lot of ego massaging and handholding, which don't seem to be Lamb's strengths. Don't get me wrong, I'll be thrilled if he's given a chance, but more so for nostalgia's sake than actual confidence he'll succeed.)
If the Pistons are to catch lightning in a bottle by hiring The Next Great Head Coach, do you think it'll be a retread like Mike Woodson or Lawrence Frank? It's possible, I suppose. Jerry Sloan had three forgettable years in Chicago before becoming an icon in Utah, and four years ago Doc Rivers looked like a bum on the verge of losing his job in Boston. But some team out there is eventually going to find the next Tom Thibodeau (or Rick Carlisle, or Gregg Popovich, or Phil Jackson), and it may as well be the Pistons.