DUMARS, DAVIDSON HOLD ALL THE CARDS

Don’t be fooled. Everyone in this “Pistons Fire Another Coach” story is pretty smart.

George Irvine is smart. He saw his boss get canned last year, did an “aw shucks, I’m not really interested in the job” thing, then took over and parlayed it into the biggest payday of his career. Sure, Irvine got fired Thursday — something he had to know was coming — but he could get close to
$1.8 million for doing nothing next year.

“I disagree with the decision,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I’ve lost respect for them.”

Why not? They’re paying him.

Smart.

Joe Dumars is smart. He could see the Pistons, with 32 victories and 50 losses, were going nowhere with Irvine. But Dumars knew this season, his first as team president, was a sinking ship. Grant Hill was gone. No big-time free agents signed. Why not let Irvine steer for a while? No sense in saddling a new, high-profile coach with a crew that could only make him look bad.

Bill Davidson, the Pistons’ owner, is smart. He hates throwing good money after bad. He hired Dumars, whom he trusts, to clean house of expensive weight. Bye bye, Christian Laettner, Loy Vaught, Terry Mills, Lindsey Hunter. When Dumars took over, this team was as overspent as a 1997 dot.com launch party.

Now it’s as lean as tofu.

And it’s not going to throw $5 million a year at a coach.

Meanwhile, in East Lansing …

Tom Izzo is smart. He knows the deal. He knows the NBA is full of sullen, ego-driven millionaires who wouldn’t rah-rah if Toni Braxton were cheerleading. He knows the Pistons wouldn’t even offer him what Atlanta did last year. The only people talking $5 million-a-year deals are reporters with itchy typing fingers. Last I looked, reporters don’t pay salaries.

Izzo also knows that Michigan State is a great situation right now. He can get long-term security, excellent money. Sure, it’s heartbreaking to spend four years recruiting a Zach Randolph only to have him go pro after one season.

It’s also heartbreaking to ask an NBA star to play hard and have him tell you,
“Talk to my agent.”

Chris Webber? He’s smart, too. He knows the old expression, “You’re never a hero in your hometown.” He isn’t coming to Detroit as a free agent, no way, even though he may dangle the Pistons as a negotiating tool. Webber wants high exposure, high profile, big endorsements. Besides Hill (the image is unique), who was the last Piston to get that — even when the team was winning?

So there’s a lot of players on this board. Smart players.

And some of them are playing possum.

Then you have a few men at their mercy. Bill Laimbeer, for one. Bill, the former Piston, is smart. Always has been. But he’s lobbying for this coaching job so hard, there are scratch marks on the Palace front door.

I’m afraid Bill is wasting his time. He can get every reporter in town to sing his praises. He’s not the right guy for the job. And he’s not going to get it. Wrong personality. Wrong fit.

Then there’s Jerry Stackhouse. Another smart guy. The ship may have been sinking, but Stack kept shooting. He had a career year, contending for the scoring title with superstars Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson.

But Stackhouse is at the Pistons’ mercy, too.

And don’t be surprised if he’s out of here, too.

Life in Auburn Hills …

Come on. Be smart along with everyone else. Webber is the only franchise player out there this summer. If the Pistons can’t get into that party, their only other ticket is a trade. And the only things they have that other teams want are:

1) A potential lottery pick.

2) Stackhouse.

The Pistons could trade Stackhouse to a winning team that can’t have everything, a team that needs to unload good but expensive players. The Pistons, thanks to their money weeding, can now absorb a superstar’s salary.

That makes them rare.

And Stackhouse expendable.

As for a new coach? “We need to open the doors to all candidates,” Dumars said.

But only at the right price. The Pistons would like to get what Orlando got last year: Doc Rivers, a smart, likable new-to-the-business coach whose limited resume kept him from demanding big money.

Problem is, Doc Rivers is taken. So a lot of potential new coaches will phone, fax, fly in, do lunch.

Which one will get the job? Good question. But whoever it is had better know this: The Pistons have fired three coaches in three years. They are willing to lose anyone on the roster and have.

And for all the posturing and predicting by players, ex-coaches, analysts and reporters, the only people who count in this decision-making are the only people who have counted all along: Davidson and Dumars.

Only a dummy hasn’t figured that out by now.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.

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