Pistons’ Firing of Maurice Cheeks: Abrupt and Tough

Michael Laurila
February 12, 2014

maurice cheeks
maurice cheeks

The Detroit Pistons announced on Sunday that head coach Maurice Cheeks had been fired — just 50 games into this season. Cheeks, who had previously coached in the NBA with the Portland Trail Blazers from 2001-2005 and Philadelphia 76ers from 2005-2008, was in his inaugural season at Detroit.

In a statement released by the team, Pistons President Joe Dumars said, “This was a difficult decision for the organization to make, but we needed to make a change.” Coincidentally, the firing came after the Pistons had won four of six games and seemed to be on a winning track, albeit in a very top-heavy, weak Eastern Conference. Despite the season being a little more than half over, Detroit’s 22-29 record currently sits tied for eighth place in the conference and borders on a playoff spot. That wasn’t enough for Cheeks to stay, though.

Dumars referenced the need to make a change, and this further explains the sudden firing. It wasn’t strictly based on results, but how Cheeks was managing the team and its players. Starting in January, Cheeks seemed to lose a handle on the Pistons’ locker room, most notably when he benched Josh Smith.

Smith, an All-Star forward, signed a four-year $54 million contract this offseason with Detroit, and was expected to be a cornerstone for the young but talented Pistons. While the Smith benching and the forward’s ensuing response was just one incident, it sent a strong message to the front office that Cheeks might not have been the right guy for the job — a message that was reaffirmed this weekend.

Yes, Cheeks is the first coach to get fired this season, but he will assuredly not be the only one. For example, a year ago there were a record-setting 11 head coaches fired by the end of the year, some of whom even led their teams to the playoffs. It’s not just in the NBA, either. In the last two years, a combined 15 NFL head coaches were also fired. These statistics speak for themselves and begs the question — why is it so difficult for a professional head coach to keep his job?

To start, every franchise wants to win — a simple fact of sports. The owners, who are at the top of the food chain, pay millions of dollars for some of the best athletes in the world to win a championship. When that doesn’t happen, the coach becomes the scapegoat. Whether or not Cheeks was the cause of any strife in the Pistons’ locker room wasn’t the issue; it was that owner Tom Gores wasn’t happy with the way his team was playing and wanted to see a change.

When the Pistons signed Smith and traded for 24-year-old Brandon Jennings this offseason, the management was making a clear statement that they were trying to win now. Though Detroit has a younger, talented roster with the likes of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond — who both have star potential — Gores believed that the team should be winning, even despite the young core. The fact that Cheeks took over one of the worst teams in the NBA a year earlier wasn’t relevant: This was his team, and the front office (or at least Gores) wasn’t happy with the product.

Ever since Detroit won the NBA Championship in 2004, they have let go of six coaches. On average, each coach was there for 1.5 years. It’s difficult to think that any coach’s performance, no matter who they are, could be judged by less than two seasons as the head of a team. But the NBA is that kind of league, and that’s the kind of pressure put on these coaches.

Just look at what occurred last season between the Denver Nuggets and George Carl. In eight years, Carl led the Nuggets to eight-consecutive playoff appearances. He was one of the most successful coaches in the NBA during the 2000s, yet was still fired following the Nuggets’ first-round loss. It was because he failed to win a championship. Making the postseason isn’t enough anymore; it’s championship or bust.

Cheeks didn’t live up to the expectations that Gores, who’s only in his third season as the Pistons’ owner, had for the team. Gores wants to win — evidently, a potential eighth-place seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs doesn’t cut it — and thinks that Detroit’s current roster has what it takes. This win-now mentality is an ideology that encompasses every sport, and not just the NBA. If you don’t win, they’ll find someone who will. While it may not be fair (the Pistons’ 21-29 record really isn’t that bad considering where the team was last year), Cheeks is just another victim in the ever-changing coaching grind

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