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First-time coaches can succeed – just not ones as meek as John Kuester

John Kuester failed to establish a culture, failed to inspire and failed to communicate. In the end, he simply failed.

The Pistons walked all over him, and finally, Joe Dumars sent him walking. After two years and a 57-107 record under Kuester (the worst winning percentage by a Detroit coach with two full years on the job besides Don Chaney), the Pistons fired him yesterday.

Hiring Kuester was a bad idea that Karen Davidson’s tight purse strings made reasonable. The Pistons couldn’t afford Avery Johnson, and they didn’t offer him enough money to pull Doug Collins out of retirement, like the 76ers did.

Even if Kuester’s downfall was predictable when Detroit hired him – and if you read my post from the day he was introduced, it was –  Dumars had to hire someone. With his limited budget and a shallow coaching pool, taking a chance on Kuester wasn’t the worst idea. Maybe he’d learn to be more assertive, at least enough to the point that his immense basketball knowledge would shine.

Instead, the Pistons magnified Kuester’s shortcomings. A deep and semi-talented roster requires a strong leader to demand players accept roles. Highly paid players on multi-year contracts could use a master motivator to inspire them. Proud veterans need a forthright coach to treat them with respect.

Kuester couldn’t meet any of those responsibilities, and that’s why he’s out. Being a successful NBA coach is a lot more about managing people than devising gameplans.

Kuester can likely land on his feet as assistant coach, a job where he can draw up plays to hand to an actual leader. David Aldridge of NBA.com says Kuester has a 99 percent chance of joining Mike Brown’s Lakers staff. That’s good news for Kuester, who appears to be a class act and has shown he can work effectively as an assistant.

But the Pistons need a head coach, not another assistant sitting in the head chair. That should be the lesson Dumars takes from the last two years, not the need to hire a candidate with head-coaching experience.

Let me repeat that: the Pistons should be comfortable hiring another first-time coach.

The lesson of John Kuester

Every coach Joe Dumars has hired should have taught him a lesson about what works and what doesn’t work in NBA coaching. No magical formula exists, but lessons do.

Rick Carlisle, who held a 12-15 playoff record in Detroit, taught Dumars a first-time coach can’t necessarily navigate a contending team deep into the playoffs.

Larry Brown, who flirted with the Cavaliers during the 2005 playoffs, taught Dumars a big-time coach brings an ego that must be coddled.

Flip Saunders, who let Rasheed Wallace and others walk all over him, taught Dumars a coach must have a strong personality to handle star players.

Michael Curry, who mangled schemes on the court and bungled relationships off it, taught Dumars not to hire Michael Curry. (Seriously, Curry was so lost, the lesson can’t really extend beyond that. I can’t imagine any candidate this year will resemble Curry at all.)

Kuester should teach Dumars not to hire someone with such a weak personality and poor communication skills. That might fly for a knowledgeable assistant, but it doesn’t work for a head coach.

Otherwise, go to town. Research and interview candidates. Plenty of good, but not great, names are available. Don’t let some silly criterion like previous head-coaching experience eliminate otherwise quality coaches.

Of course, head-coaching experience should count as a positive. But it shouldn’t be a deal breaker. Carlisle was a first-time coach when Dumars hired him, and that worked out extremely well.

There’s potential to find a great coach in the bunch of available targets. Going a complete 180 from Kuester will surely tempt Detroit, but maybe just a 170 will do.

Don’t let Kuester beat you twice by running too far from him.

Moving on

When the Pistons hired Kuester, Dumars said, “He might have the most job security in the whole NBA right now.” Two years later, Kuester is out. Even in the NBA, where coaches are hired to be fired, that’s not much job security.

Kuester couldn’t hack it, and even though that was abundantly clear in February, the Pistons couldn’t fire him until the sale was completed.

Mercifully, after nearly two months of will they?/won’t they?, of course they did. This was an obvious decision that had to be made.

The next coaching decision – hiring one – won’t be as obvious, but it will be more important.

Hopefully, the guy won’t get fired for at least three years. Around here, that’d be a success.

9 Comments

  • Jun 6, 20118:31 am
    by Scott

    Reply

    Does anyone know much about this guy Kelvin Sampson?? I know he was an assistant in Milwaukee, but I’m a little leary about him being our head coach.

    • Jun 6, 20118:54 am
      by Patrick Hayes

      Reply

      Sampson is also a former assistant with the Spurs and he was a successful head coach at Oklahoma and Indiana in the NCAA, although he left both of those programs, particularly Indiana, with program-hurting recruiting violations.

  • Jun 6, 20119:34 am
    by the Devastator

    Reply

    What about Laimbeer? I think we should be the ones that give him his first shot. He led the Shock to 2 championships so we know his Xs and Os are good. We know he has a strong personality. We also know he values defense.

    I think we should be the ones…

  • Jun 6, 201110:09 am
    by Mel

    Reply

    I agree get Laimbeer. He at least deserves a chance. The guy left a winning team became an assistant and helped improve there big men. If he was Mini’s coach maybe improves team as a whole.

  • Jun 6, 201111:25 am
    by Laser

    Reply

    i know it’s like the difference between getting stabbed to drowning, but curry > kuester. kuester actually got worse his second year, possibly much worse.

    • Jun 6, 201112:03 pm
      by gordbrown

      Reply

      I agree with Laser. Although part of this might be that Kuester could only play the rotations that were available in his first year and in the second year when he had choices he made such poor ones that he lost the team, which resulted both in turmoil and those games when the effort was mailed in. But certainly the results with the talent available and significantly better health should  have been much better.
       

  • Jun 6, 201112:29 pm
    by sop

    Reply

    This is a great article. So much of coaching has to do with leading and developing respect, which is why I think Woodson is our best option.

  • [...] • Dan Feldman of Piston Powered brings the heat in this analysis of John Kuester’s time in Detroit. [...]

  • Jun 6, 20118:31 pm
    by C-Foe

    Reply

    This was a bad situation for Joe Dumars and the Pistons organization because either decision sends a bad message.  If Joe didn’t fire Kuester then would that affect his ability to get free agents to sign in Detroit?  If there is a chance to sign a big name, would Kuester’s reputation prevent that?  By firing Kuester, it sends a message to potential coaches that the players have more influence than the coach in Detroit.  The fans have heard about Kuester’s “communication issues” but others only remember the “player boycott.”  How do you get a coach to apply for the job when he might lose that job because favorite Player X doesn’t respect him because he isn’t happy or thriving in his system?  Whomever they hire, I think they are going to have to give him no less than 3 years to try and establish that “culture” that Dan mentioned in his article or the organization will really lose credibility.

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