Obviously this is absolute, unadulterated conjecture, but I've always wondered what may have happened if Joe D had not fired Rick Carlisle and hired Larry Brown. The move was obviously a success, because Detroit achieved its objective: they won a title with Larry Brown. But in going in that direction, did they make their own Faustian bargain and sell the team's soul? And is the team's current turmoil related to that one move, almost a decade past?
A look back is appropriate.
Joe D had pulled off one of the NBA's toughest moves: he'd hired an untested assistant, given him his first head coaching job and ended up with a gem. In fact, Carlisle has to be on the short list when the best coaches of the last decade are discussed. And when the best coaches currently working in the NBA are discussed, Carlisle has to be one of those guys talked about, along with Popovich, Rivers, Van Gundy and Thibodeau. Kudos to Joe, for recognizing something special in Carlisle and giving him his first shot as the head guy in charge. Finding that untested young coach might be the hardest thing a GM has to do. It is always easier to pull a candidate out of the retread pool.
But he fired his find in order to take a short cut, a more direct route to a title, because he had a chance to bring in a better - at that point - more experienced coach, Larry Brown. Again, you can't argue with what happened: Detroit won its title, as they had hoped. But they also lost a good young coach who was just starting to learn his craft. And Carlisle ultimately moved from being a young guy with talent to being one of the best, no qualifications needed.
What makes things kind of tricky is that everyone knew that Larry Brown was not going to be around for the long haul. Everyone - Bill Davidson, Joe Dumars, Larry Brown, the players - understood Brown's nomadic history and knew that he was going to leave sooner, rather than later.
So they get rid of a very good young coach who is just starting to learn the ropes, they bring in the hired gun who everyone knows will only be a short-term boss, they achieve their goal of winning the title, and then, to no one's surprise, two years later, they are back on the market looking for another coach.
i won't get into the relative merits of Flip Saunders and Michael Curry and John Kuester and Larry Frank, but I think most reasonable minds would agree that none of them is as good a coach as Rick Carlisle.
The funny thing about good coaches is that teams that have them, usually keep them for a long time. (Larry Brown is the exception that proves the rule.) Popovich at San Antonio since the mid-90's. Doc Rivers at Boston since 2004. Van Gundy at Orlando since '07 after he was stabbed in the back by Pat Riley in Miami. Sloan for all those years in Utah. Jackson in his Chicago and LA stints. Tom Thibodeau is new to the head coaching gig, but even Chicago, with its curious management history will probably keep him around for a long time.
Good coaches don't stay on the open market too long. Sometimes things happen, and one of those guys is out there, available, and when that happens, that coach is not going to be available for long. And he is pretty much able to name his price. He's like the pretty girl at the dance: teams line up to get a chance to make their pitch.
Obviously, Joe has encountered a bit of difficulty trying to fill Larry Brown's shoes. Four coaches in the seven years post-L.B. says it all.
But what may have happened if Joe had left well enough alone? If he had allowed Carlisle to continue to learn and grow as a coach, as his team learned and grew. Would Detroit have won the title in '04? Would they have won a second title? Might they have won more than two? Would it have taken another 3-4 years to win that first one?
The one question I always think about is this one: would the franchise have been better off, long term, by keeping Carlisle in place and letting him enjoy a Jerry Sloan/Popovich-style run in Detroit?
Obviously, again, this is nothing but conjecture, but I do have an opinion.
In my humble opinion, the team did sell its soul to the devil when they hired Brown. For the long term health of the franchise, they would have been better off keeping Carlisle and allowing him to grow along with his players. Remember, Carlisle's Pistons had just beaten Brown's Sixers that post-season, and in that head-to-head matchup, I thought Carlisle out-coached Brown. While one can argue that Brown was a more accomplished coach, a better coach at that point in their careers - experience does matter - I thought Carlisle showed, in that matchup, that he had what it took to be a championship-level coach. Now whether it was going to take one year or 3 years to get there, who knows, but I took his success against Brown to be a sign that he was knocking on that door. And that it was only a matter of time before he kicked the door in.
I also see the team's current turmoil as a remnant of the coaching carousel that has happened since Brown left. None of the replacements has been the right guy. While I won't get into particulars, it is obvious that Saunders, Curry and Kuester were not the right guys. In fact, Saunders may have helped to run off the best player on their title team. If Carlisle had still been coaching the team when Ben's contract talks happened, would things have turned out as they did? Or, as I've always thought, were the failed contract negotiations an easy way for him to leave a situation he'd grown to intensely dislike, as Saunders was moving away from the team's defense-first approach?
There are many other "what ifs..." that one can imagine, if Carlisle had stayed and if Brown and Saunders, et al, had never been a part of Detroit Pistons' history. Anything one can imagine is sheer guess-work, but sometimes it is fun to indulge in guess-work. And, as I watched Dallas in town the other night, beating Portland, with Carlisle employing a bunch of interesting little moves to get the most out of his odd collection of players, I couldn't help but imagine what the Pistons would be like today, if Carlisle had never left Detroit.