The Detroit Pistons have hired Maurice Cheeks as their new head coach. He has beaten out other potential candidates such as Brian Shaw and Nate McMillian to try his hand at restoring the Pistons to their familiar place near the top of the Eastern Conference.
Cheeks will replace Lawrence Frank, who spent two strange years at the helm, starting absolutely miserably before settling into mediocrity. Frank’s tenure was actually an improvement from his predecessor, the sad reign of John Kuester best remembered for a number of players in open revolt against him. Before that it was Michael Curry trying to integrate a declining Allen Iverson into Detroit’s starting lineup, which enraged loyalists to the Chauncey Billups era (including Richard Hamilton, who was all too candid about his anger over the Billups for Iverson trade). The end result was the bastard child of smallball, a walk it up the court bore that began the lingering death rattle of the great Pistons of the mid 2000s, or as I call them, the Somewhat Bad Boys Pistons. Billups, Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, both Ben and Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess…all gone. In their place a collection of raw young talent, mediocre veterans, and Corey Maggette.
Cheeks will be leaving the comparative paradise of Head Assistant in Oklahoma City to a franchise that has of late been something of a Bermuda Triangle for coaches. But Cheeks, a heady defensive player as well as a coach of no small accomplishment, might be the absolute perfect fit for the young Pistons. His teams have always played above their pay grade for him, including a raw Philadelphia team full of young talent, mediocre veterans and Andre Miller (patterns begin to emerge) that gave the heavily favored Detroit Pistons (when they were the types to be heavily favored) all they could handle in the first round of the playoffs. His experience as a point guard playing with the great Julius Erving has supposedly given him the gravitas to push Russell Westbrook into the force of nature he has become. Now his task will be to mold bigger men, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, into a big man tandem that could within a a few years become one of the most feared in the league, combining the deft scoring touch of Monroe and the ferocity of a high flying Drummond.
It could be saccharine and cliche to admit this, but my favorite Mo Cheeks moment will always be the way he saved Natalie Gilbert when she forgot the words to the National Anthem during the start of a playoff game. Watching Cheeks sing along with her is just a beautiful thing, especially as his mere presence emboldens her again, and her voice swells and roars to the finale. By then the Portland crowd had joined in the sing along too, of course. That kind of effortless kindness and grace obviously won’t win a single basketball game, but his is a gentle strength, the kind of strength that believes in the youngsters (whether a hard to figure out young Andre Iguodala or a little girl singing in front of thousands of strangers) and helps push them to be who they are meant to be. The Pistons, talented but insecure and rudderless, are the perfect team for a guy like Mo Cheeks.