He wears long pants, his socks are dark, his shoes have heels and he’s not even allowed on the court. He doesn’t shoot. He doesn’t dribble. He doesn’t rebound, post-up or block a single shot. He doesn’t even have a number. Yet Flip Saunders – of everyone in the Pistons’ organization – is the one on the hot seat?
Well, Sports Illustrated thinks so. ESPN thinks so. Stephen A. Smith, the NBA analyst, said Wednesday that if the Pistons didn’t make the NBA Finals this season, Saunders was gone, no doubt about it.
Yet Saunders, who dabbles as an amateur magician, doesn’t believe there’s a rabbit in that hat.
“No,” he says flatly when asked if his job is in the line.
Then why all the noise?
“Expectations,” he says. “Expectations. We haven’t won a championship. So that is what drives you.”
We are talking in his office at the Pistons’ practice facility in Auburn Hills. Saunders, the head coach now in his third season, is sitting behind his desk, but he doesn’t sit still. He is constantly shifting, throwing his arms behind his head, wedging his feet against the desk, squirming in his chair like a man trying to find a comfortable position.
And I suppose, in many ways, he still is. Remember, Saunders, 52, followed a volcano, Larry Brown, who took the Pistons to two NBA Finals and one championship in two years. Unfortunately, life under Brown was like life on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Under Saunders, things have been more peaceful. But also less successful. No championships. No NBA Finals. Just two conference finals, both defeats, the last of which ended with four straight losses to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
How much of this is on the coach? And how much can the man in the suit really do with a team full of veterans – some of whom feel they know better?
At one point in our conversation – when I ask for a demonstration of his magician’s abilities – Flip reaches into the drawer and takes out a playing card, which he deftly makes disappear and reappear in his other hand. He’s very good. I can’t help wondering whether he wishes he could make people’s doubts disappear the same way.
A tale of two champions
Flip Saunders did win a championship as a head coach. Two, to be precise. Both were in the CBA, in the early 1990s, with the La Crosse Catbirds. Some may consider that a minor-league accomplishment, but Saunders, understandably, recalls it nostalgically.
“You have a bond when you win a championship,” he says. “You can’t explain it. It’s just there. For some reason, the guys on those teams, we either keep in contact, or when we get together, we talk about those times.
“And I think that as a coach at this level, you’d like to have that bond, too.”
It is something Saunders does not share with Rasheed Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince. They have rings. He does not. When Saunders first arrived here, skeptics wondered whether this would be a crossable chasm, or would the players always be “the guys who did it” and Flip “the guy who wants to.”
Those same skeptics are now asking a different question: Is Flip even capable of getting those former champions to do it again? The window is closing. The swagger the Pistons once flaunted is gone. Many experts are picking the Boston Celtics – who didn’t even make the playoffs last spring – to pass the Pistons this season, even though Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen have yet to play a real game together. Saunders has had the job longer than his four predecessors – Alvin Gentry, George Irvine, Rick Carlisle and Brown – none of whom lasted more than two full seasons. Which means he’s in scrutinized waters.
Meanwhile, the sting of Detroit’s sudden exit to the Cavs last year won’t go away.
“Could you have done anything to have stopped that defeat?” I ask Saunders.
“You mean as far as talking to the players?” he says.
“There were talks. There were individual talks. There were team talks. Maybe the talks didn’t work.
“We started playing a little more not to lose instead of playing to win. And with this team, whenever we lose our aggressiveness, and we are not in attack mode, we’re not nearly as good.”
Ruling with an iron fist?
Did you know Saunders did magic? He has been studying it for years. He has a book of coin magic in his office. He visits magic shops on the road. He mostly does his tricks at parties or for friends, but he takes it seriously and, based on a few moves he pulls off in the office – including making car keys disappear – he’s quite skilled at sleight of hand.
But no amount of misdirection will help Saunders this season. There are two things he has to do. The first is to play the younger Pistons – the rookies and the reserves – to preserve the veterans’ bodies for the playoffs. The second is to get up into the faces of anybody – starting five included – who isn’t performing up to snuff.
Last May, when certain starters went dry and committed uncharacteristic turnovers, some felt Saunders was too light. He trusted them too much, shook them up too little.
That won’t happen again this season – or Saunders may indeed be gone. He seems to have clearly been told that the players are the horses, but he has gotta shake the reins.
“When you first come in, especially when you have a veteran team, you give them opportunities,” he says, by way of defense. “You gotta remember, we started my first season like 15-2. So it wasn’t where I felt I had to come in and change things and say, Well, this is my team and we’re changing everything about how you play and what you do.’
“I think now, we have some younger guys, and the other guys are definitely more aware of whom I am, what I am, what my expectations are.”
So he’s going to be louder. He’s going to be more abrupt. He’s going to tell the players if they’re not delivering.
And I know what you’re thinking.
Flip vs. ‘Sheed?
Saunders doesn’t even wait to be asked the question.
“In all my years of coaching, the relationship that’s probably been the most misconstrued is mine and Rasheed’s,” he says.
Here is how it’s construed: Rasheed listens when he wants to listen. Rasheed walks away from Saunders’ huddles halfway through. Rasheed leans by himself against the scorer’s table. Rasheed, no matter what Saunders says, is going to blow his stack and get ejected whenever he feels like it.
In short, it’s Rasheed’s world, and Flip is being allowed to live in it.
That’s how it’s construed. Now here is Saunders’ interpretation:
“You have to understand who Rasheed is. There is respect there. I respect him. Most of the time, Rasheed does things out of frustration because he cares about winning.
“I know to let him vent his frustration. Frustration with me or what we’re doing or whatever.
“I’ll give you an example. Two years ago we were in the playoffs, and he was getting close to his allowed technical fouls for the year, so I came out and I said, Hey, if you get frustrated, come at me, just scream at me, not the refs.’ So I think we were in Cleveland, and he got really upset with a ref, and he came running over to me and starts screaming – screaming at me.
“Well, the next day in the media, they write that ‘Sheed and I were having a fight. We weren’t fighting at all. But that’s how it came out.”
As for Wallace’s legendary leaving the huddle and standing far away?
“When I’m done talking, I’m done,” Saunders says. “And so Rasheed will go and that’s his way to maybe relax and get away. Everyone is a little different. Some players sit and drink water. Some guys put their heads in a towel. ‘Sheed is the type of player who likes to talk to people, likes to talk to Rick Mahorn, likes to joke around. Maybe that’s his release.
“Now people will say, Well, there’s Rasheed, he’s disrespecting the team by leaving the huddle.’ But in reality, we’ve already done everything we’re gonna do in the huddle.”
The price of fame
Saunders has some pretty stock answers when you ask about the Pistons, but he warms when you talk about those CBA years. There, with players getting paid next to nothing, living in motels, everyone grasping for the dream of making it to the big show – there, apparently, Saunders felt less scrutiny and more significance.
“The players were always motivated – because they wanted to get to the NBA,” he says. “And if they weren’t driven, you could get rid of them, because there were no guaranteed contracts.”
Do you miss that, I ask?
“I miss how you felt you were really having a direct impact on a player. What I mean is, here’s a guy that’s busting his butt and making $300 a week, $11 a day per diem, and all he wants to do is get a chance to get to the NBA. And all of a sudden you can walk into his room and say, You’re getting called up’- you feel you have had a direct impact affecting him in a very positive way.”
You look at Saunders and you understand why he misses that. Since he arrived in Detroit in the summer 2005, people have acted as if he’s the one who needs to be lifted to the players’ level.
It’s a tough spot. He has won a lot of games. He has gone to the conference finals twice. A lot of coaches would kill for that. But, as he says, expectations, expectations.
When Saunders does his magic tricks, the most popular one, he says, is the “torn and restore newspaper” in which he rips a newspaper to pieces, then somehow magically puts it back together. It would be nice if he could rip up the pages of “hot seat” warnings and restore them with a championship headline. But the truth is, he can encourage, sub or yell all he wants. Players still win or lose the games. For his next trick, Saunders will need a volunteer. Fifteen of them, to be exact.
Opening night: The Heat is on!
What: Pistons open 50th season in Michigan.
Matchup: Pistons vs. Miami Heat.
When: 8 tonight.
Where: American Airlines Arena, Miami.
TV/radio: TNT; WDFN-AM (1130).
Line: Pistons by 4.
More: Preview of the opener, Page 4C.
THE FLIP FILE
Who: Phil (Flip) Saunders, 52, Pistons coach since July 21, 2005.
Pistons log: 64-18 in 2005-06 and 53-29 in 2006-07. Total: 117-47 (.713). Lost in Eastern Conference finals each season.NBA log: 528-373 in 12 seasons (.586), 37-44 in playoffs (.457).
Noteworthy: Coached two CBA champions.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). www.freep.com/mitch.