WHO’S THE BOSS? NO ONE IN PISTONS’ SITCOM

When NBA players start treating their coach like a substitute math teacher, it’s time to say good-bye. Ron Rothstein was liked by few, tolerated by most, and flat-out ignored by others. It is no surprise he is fired this morning. I keep waiting for an eraser to hit him in the back of his head.

Bye, Ron. Enjoy the money. Find an island and try to bring down your blood pressure.

Too bad the Pistons — a team that, incredibly, was the defending NBA champion just two springs ago — cannot likewise vacation from their Big Question. It haunts them. It hovers over them. It was there when they drummed Chuck Daly out of town last summer, it was there when Jack McCloskey caught his flight to Minnesota, and it was there Monday, when Rothstein was tossed over the side of the boat, amidst those same tired cliches of “moving forward” and “positive direction.”

The question is: Who’s in charge?

I don’t just mean who’s got the power. I mean who’s got the vision? In most successful franchises, there is one guiding force who stays in his chair even when the cast changes. It can be an owner, a GM, a personnel director. Boston, for years, had Red Auerbach. The 49ers had Eddie DeBartolo and Bill Walsh. Edmonton had Glen Sather.

People like this are in charge of the big picture, they provide stability, so that no single piece — be it star player, draft choice, or even coach — can topple the whole board.

They make good years great and keep transition years to a minimum.

Who is doing that for the Pistons? Mad scramble never subsided

The answer, this year, has been “Hold on, we’re checking.” Since the Knicks knocked them out of the playoffs last May, the Pistons have been like a hockey team caught in a line change, some jumping over the boards, some jumping back in, so much confusion you could bump into your own man.

New coach? New GM? New president? New players?

“It’s been a feeling-out process,” said Tom Wilson.

Yeah. Like Silly Putty.

For those of you who missed the skit, here’s a brief synopsis: The old coach (Daly) was let go by the old GM (McCloskey) who then hired a new coach
(Rothstein) and then quit.

Meanwhile, the new president (Wilson) had to hire a new GM (Billy McKinney) to replace the old GM (McCloskey) who had hired the new coach
(Rothstein). Only the new GM (McKinney) and the new president (Wilson) discovered the new coach (Rothstein) maybe wasn’t the best guy for the job. Especially when the old player (Dennis Rodman) who missed the old coach (Daly) took it out on the new coach (Rothstein) by making his life miserable.

Stop me at any point.

“There were communication problems,” said Wilson. “We thought maybe if we started winning, they would fix themselves. But then we did start winning. And

they still were there.”

Bye, bye, Ron.

Hello, lottery.

Somebody should have pulled the plug

Now, understand. There is no shame in having a down year. All teams go through it. But good teams see these years coming, and have a plan for how to minimize them. McCloskey really left a bomb in the closet when he hired Rothstein and skipped out of town, and someone should have stopped the show right there. Said, “Hold it. The GM isn’t here to nurture his coach? Forget it. We’re starting over.”

Instead, people inherited one another, and that rarely works. The Pistons finished with fewer wins than the Orlando Magic. Rothstein, meanwhile, set an unofficial NBA record for alienating players — including Isiah Thomas, which is the kiss of death around here. Isiah was quick to tell the press “Don’t blame me” if Rothstein got fired. He shouldn’t be so humble. The fact is, Isiah, who swings more weight than anyone with owner Bill Davidson, is the only stable power source in this franchise.

Unfortunately, he’s a player.

And the Pistons need more than that. They need front office leadership to direct them for the next decade, the way Daly and McCloskey did in the ’80s. Listen. This is not bad clay to work with. With all the soap-opera problems, the Pistons still won 40 games this year. They have a stockpile of talent — a couple of perennial All-Stars, several younger lights, the league’s No. 1 rebounder/trade bait/head-shaver — not to mention, a drool-worthy two lottery picks.

But is there a plan?

How can there be? There’s no coach!

Until Rothstein was canned, Wilson and McKinney could always say, “Gee, we inherited this guy. Blame McCloskey.” Not anymore. From this point on, the Jack and Chuck ghosts are out of the Palace, and what happens with the Pistons will be on the heads of the president and the GM. McKinney is gaining more power, and admits “my job is different now than when I first got here.” If he is the vision man, well, let’s see what he’s got. Personally, I wish Davidson would let his will be known more often.

But for better or for worse, someone needs to take the wheel of this ship, to look beyond short-term, and into the future. Otherwise, all we have is a class being taught by a substitute.

And he’d better duck.

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