The Flip Saunders era of Deeee-troit Bas-ket-ball! officially ended at approximately 11:50 EST last evening. This season, Saunders’ second, ended in the Eastern Conference finals just like last year did in more ways than just in games won and lost. Last season ended with in-fighting among teammates. Then, Ben Wallace was named as the locker room cancer and jettisoned to Chicago. This season it was Chauncey Billups. No, it was Rasheed Wallace. No, it was Richard Hamilton. No, it was that known bad guy, Chris Webber.
It was Flip Saunders.
Saunders has a reputation as being a low-key head coach; not the pissed off, about to have an aneurism lookin’ type of head coach Larry Brown was. Oddly, that’s one of the reasons Joe Dumars brought him into the Pistons fold. After being verbally pistol-whipped by Brown for two years, Detroit appeared psychically beaten by the time Game 7 against the San Antonio Spurs rolled around. Dumars also felt that, through Brown, the Pistons realized exactly how much personal commitment it took and would take in the future to win future championships. To lighten the reins, Joe D. smartly – or so he thought – brought in Flip.
And boy did the team flip on Saunders.
By the end of the sixth game of last season’s Eastern Conference finals which Detroit lost to Miami, Wallace, Ben, that is, was pissed off because token plays weren’t run for him (shhhhh! it was his contract year). Chauncey was grumbling because there were too many gimmick defenses and not enough, straight up grill-to-grill defensive play. Sheed felt Saunders didn’t stick up for him enough in the face of biased referees.
Though Saunders freed the Pistons offensively, in 2005-06 they only averaged three and-a-half more points – 96.8 – than they did the year before under Brown (93.3). But with a 64-win year, Detroit coasted into the playoffs. Once there, it appeared Detroit felt like the privileged 12 and other teams in the East were supposed to roll over and play beta dogs in their presence.
Milwaukee complied, and Detroit rolled them, 4-1. It wasn’t until Cleveland was up 3-2 with a close out game at home before the Pistons woke up. Forty-eight game minutes later, it was Miami’s turn. Once again, neutral was the gear of choice for the defending Eastern Conference champs. Miami, finding the car rolled easily, was nice enough to push the Pistons back home for the summer; the 4-2 East final wasn’t really that close.
So, who was expendable, production and contract-wise? The bell tolled for Big Ben and he was dutifully painted as a malcontent – how dare he ask for the ball?! We’ll see if he thinks he can get away with that type of behavior in Chi-town on Scott Skiles’ watch! And all the real problems with the Pistons were swept into a corner.
There’s no doubt that Joe Dumars saw the pile last season. There’s no doubt he trusted it to be cleared away and for the team to play this year with a purpose they lacked last season. Unfortunately, someone forgot to get out the dust pan and by the end of this season all that dirt from the prior Detroit campaign found its way scattered in front of some of the same lockers it was cleared from last time.
But 2006-07 it turned out to be a redux. The Pistons allegedly put more emphasis on being ready for the playoffs instead of winning “meaningless regular season games. But the Eastern Conference finals was, well, horrific. How the Pistons won games one and two by exactly the same 79-76 score in exactly the same ugly manner, no one will ever know. How they lost the next four games, everyone knows. In Game 3 they were outplayed. In Game 4 they were out-coached and out athleticed. In Game 5 – out-LeBroned.
In Game 6 they just quit.
Detroit played on half, the first. At halftime, Cavs coach Mike Brown made sure his team put all the other “outs” from the previous three wins into the second half, which Cleveland won by 16 points. While the Cavaliers did their thing, Chauncey pouted,Webber yelled then sat stunned, Rip shook his head, and Rasheed got bumped one too many times by Anderson Varajeo and got tossed before he committed hari-kari right there in front of Bill Russell and the Quicken faithful. And the 98-82 score didn’t even look that close.
And now, again, the dust.
The difference between last season and this is that the dust pile will end up right in front of the head coach’s door. When Detroit arrives home from Cleveland, the players will head home for the night. They’ll meet in Auburn Hills at The Palace tomorrow.
Flip Saunders will walk toward his office and see the dust pile laying in wait. At first he give the pile that, tilt your head, furrowed brow, confused dog look. Almost simultaneously the realization will come that he’s seen that pile before; it will appear just like the one in front of his door on his last day at the Target Center in Minneapolis. He might even glimpse upon the singular smell of the Tar-shay; every locker room-coaches’ office area smells unique. He’ll blink and be back in the present. With that pile. In Auburn Hills. In The Palace. with the Detroit Pistons.
The exit interviews with players will be brief; so too will be his with Dumars. The disappointment will be palpable. And if the press is waiting, Dumars will say Detroit will begin to look toward next season immediately, begin working toward bringing the city of Detroit a championship. Flip will not betray what he already knows. He won’t say he saw the dust pile, he won’t say what that means.
But Flip Saunders will know his time in De Trois is – all over but the cryin’.