Sometimes, it’s what’s not in the picture that tells the story. Here was Doug Collins, a hard-working, passionate coach, making an announcement about his return to the Pistons — with a restructured contract no less. Sounds good, right? Sounds like a happy occasion?

But the owner of the Pistons, Bill Davidson, wasn’t there. He left the building a few minutes before the informal press conference began. And Pistons president Tom Wilson, who negotiated the deal, wasn’t there, either. He was on vacation in Hawaii. It was Collins, a press release and a microphone.

Sound a little thin? There’s a reason for that. This deal, which has dragged on for weeks, was not all hearts and flowers. Collins got what he wanted — which was more money — and the Pistons got what they wanted — which was Collins back for next season.

But the truth is, the coach and the team are actually less married than they were before this arrangement. And even though Collins said Monday, “I’m very excited to be coming back,” the deal, in the long run, is more about Grant Hill’s happiness than Collins’.

And how it unfolded is a lesson in NBA politics.

Now, it’s true, a weary Collins told the Pistons at the end of the season that he wasn’t sure he wanted to coach again. He was tired, he said. Burned out. And Pistons management, hearing this, did say if he chose to come back, they would sweeten the money pot — especially since lesser coaches were now making three times as much as Collins.

But it was not something the Pistons would have necessarily done had Collins not sighed about the pressures of the job, while letting it be known the financial end was bothering him. Hey, it’s hard to blame him. He’s watching guys like Larry Brown grab $5 million a year from Philadelphia, and Brown’s last team didn’t even make the playoffs.

The difference is, Collins had a contract. It called for three more years, at $1.5 million a year. The Pistons were under no obligation to do anything.

So when the coach started dropping hints that he might come back if more money was involved, well, let’s just say that didn’t sit real well with the people who sign the checks.

A contract is a contract, sort of

Nonetheless, those people are smart. They knew that having Collins back, even if they had to pay him more, was better than bringing in a brand new guy at some inflated price, and having to wait two years to see whether his system worked. Besides, Collins did take this team from 28 victories to 54 victories in two seasons, remember? A lot of teams would love a guy with that track record.

So when Collins got back from a rest-and-think-life-over trip to Arizona, he and the Pistons started talking. And what they agreed to was this: Take the money and the commitment that remained on the current contract, which was three years, $4.5 million, and roll it into one year, but allow for the fact that the money was coming now instead of later.

Hence the “new” deal: one year, at around $3.5 million.

This way, Collins got what he wanted — more money now — but the Pistons also relieved themselves of an obligation to him for more than one season. They now hold the option on his contract. If they want him back after next season, he has to come back or else sit out.

And if they don’t want him back, he’s free to go elsewhere.

“Did I ever go to them and say, ‘Give me more money or I’m not coaching? Absolutely not,’ ” Collins said. “Absolutely not.”

And he’s right. Technically. But he did have them painted into a corner. And even though I think Collins is a terrific coach who celebrates the “love of the game” and bristles at the word “renegotiate” — well, sorry, but that is what happened here. A renegotiation.

Still, the money is small potatoes compared to Grant Hill. And even though he was nowhere near these negotiations, trust me, he was the biggest factor.

The future of the franchise

Hill will be a free agent after the 1998-99 season. Joe Dumars, his close confidant, will be gone by then, and who knows who else will be left on the roster. The Pistons know their future — both on the court and in the merchandise shops — rests largely with No. 33.

They also know that Collins — while being dedicated to his job the way a mother hen is dedicated to her chicks — can nonetheless wear on a player. His critics say he can’t last more than three years in one place without exploding. And while Hill has publicly defended Collins, there is some concern that two more years under his intense coaching might drive Hill batty.

Under the new deal, the Pistons can go to Hill after this coming season, get his input, and decide their best move in the coaching department. If he wants someone new, they can say good-bye to Collins and get him someone new. After all, their biggest concern is making Hill want to come back to Detroit. And in today’s NBA, it is never too early to start thinking about that.

Even Collins said Monday that “Grant Hill will be the deciding factor as to where the Pistons are going, not who the coach is.”

On that, he and management are in total agreement.

As for the rest? Well, I called Tom Wilson in Hawaii, and after I told him about Collins’ press conference — and he said, “He had a press conference?”
— he did state for the record, “It’s true, the deal gives us flexibility, but we hope it will be Year 1 of a long relationship with Doug.

“If the money helped him decide to come back, then we’re glad.”

So it goes with contracts. Everybody smiles at the end. And then the clock starts ticking.

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