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Bob Wojnowski: Tom Gores admits Monty Williams mistake, wipes out another Pistons regime

Bob Wojnowski, The Detroit News on

Published in Basketball

DETROIT — Monty Williams should have stuck with his first instinct last June when he turned down the Detroit Pistons' coaching job. Owner Tom Gores cranked up the offer until Williams accepted, and like many paid arrangements, it failed.

It failed ingloriously and somewhat predictably. Williams doesn’t deserve all the blame, far from it. But he had to go, just as GM Troy Weaver had to go, dismissed last month.

Williams was fired Wednesday only one season into a six-year, $78 million contract, and only one week before the NBA draft. The timing is sloppy, but it’s a positive that Gores is willing to admit mistakes and pay for them. The problem is, he can’t stop committing them, and has shown no clue he can fix them.

Gores will eat approximately $65 million of the guaranteed contract, literally putting his money where his mouth is. Incredibly, the buyout is as unprecedented as the original deal, which is why some around the league thought Williams would get another shot.

New president of basketball operations Trajan Langdon, hired three weeks ago from the New Orleans Pelicans, deserved a clean slate after a 14-68 season. But the Pistons now have an opening just as most NBA jobs are being filled, and it’s unclear if Langdon pushed for Gores to make the move. The billionaire businessman has discovered a painful truth in 13 years here, churning through six coaches while producing a pitiful 370-654 record — you can’t buy success in the basketball world.

As bad as the Pistons were, Williams showed no indication he could make them better. At times, he looked like a guy regretting a decision made for the wrong reasons. The season featured an incomprehensible 28-game losing streak, bizarre lineup configurations and not a hint of actual improvement.

So Gores wiped out another regime, and it was actually the logical option because the record is indefensible and the progress is negligible. Of course, it doesn’t automatically alter the direction of a once-storied franchise, not until Gores finds a president/GM/coach combination with basketball chops and a shared vision.

Langdon, who spent five seasons as the Pelicans’ GM, now gets to bring in his own coach, although he’ll have to scramble. Ridiculously, we haven’t heard from him yet, with a press conference possible later this week. Langdon reportedly has hired his next-in-command, Michael Blackstone, who worked with him in New Orleans. Assistant coach and shooting guru Fred Vinson is coming too, revealed before Williams was even fired.

Langdon, 48, indeed might be a respected, inspired hire, but the convoluted process doesn’t inspire much confidence the Pistons will get it right. Under Gores, the transitions always get absurdly tangled, going back to Joe Dumars’ departure and Stan Van Gundy’s firing. For a man comfortable making billion-dollar decisions, Gores struggles with basketball moves. He has invested plenty of money but not enough time in the NBA business and perhaps leans too heavily on advice from various factions. Vice chairman Arn Tellem is yet another voice with outsized influence.

The new coach doesn’t have to be a big name with a big price, as we’ve learned. He could be someone who has worked with Langdon, such as James Borrego, 46, an assistant with the Pelicans. Assistant Sean Sweeney, 40, is a sharp defensive mind with the Mavericks and worked under Dwane Casey in Detroit.

There’s no proven template, which is why NBA coaches are hired to be fired. (Preferably not after one season). I’d look at top candidates from winning organizations such as the Miami Heat, where assistant Chris Quinn, 40, is due for a shot after 10 years under the acclaimed Erik Spoelstra.

Gores’ best attribute as an owner is his money and willingness to spend it. But the buy-sell cycle produces headlines, not victories. He’s selling again — no, not the team; sorry to get your hopes up. He’s selling off the plan hatched four years ago when Weaver was hired, and then Casey was fired, and then Williams was hired in shocking fashion.

 

The Pistons were 74-244 in Weaver’s tenure, his winning percentage (.233) only slightly better than Williams’ one season (.171). The Pistons have precisely one winning season under Gores, who took over in 2011, only two years removed from the franchise’s six-year run of Eastern Conference finals appearances.

Cade Cunningham needs help, obviously, and the Pistons have the fifth pick in what’s considered a weak draft. Every option must be considered, every trade possibility explored, even entertaining offers for Cunningham. The No. 1 overall pick in 2021 represents the Pistons’ very brief high (they won the lottery!) and the unrelenting lows, missing nearly a full season with a shin injury and hampered by an endless shuffle of teammates.

Doubling down on mistakes

That’s Weaver’s fault for piecing together a muddled roster, then doubling down on mistakes. It’s Williams’ fault for appearing disinterested, which shouldn’t surprise us. He told everyone at his introductory press conference he didn’t want to coach immediately after getting fired in Phoenix, and it took the historically huge contract to change his mind.

“That’s something people don’t talk about,” Williams said last June. “They always say it wasn’t the money. I always laugh at them. I think that’s disrespectful. When somebody’s that generous to pay me that kind of money, that should be applauded, and it should be talked about.”

Oh, it was talked about all right. Williams wasn’t Weaver’s first choice, but Gores wanted to make a splash, and sure enough, everyone got soaked. There was no continuity between the front office and coach, no compatibility on the floor. Williams spent the first 30-plus games forcing former first-rounder Killian Hayes to prove he couldn’t play in the NBA. Hayes, Weaver’s initial draft pick in 2020, No. 7 overall, obliged and eventually was waived.

That experiment came at the expense of minutes for Jaden Ivey, the No. 5 overall pick in 2022. After Hayes’ departure, Ivey’s playing time increased and he finished with palatable numbers — 15.4 ppg, 42.2 field-goal percentage. The idea was to see if Ivey and Cunningham could share similar positions, and we still don’t know. It was supposed to be the plan all year, to figure out if the Pistons had any real pieces, and Williams didn’t come close to following it.

Weaver littered the roster with all sorts of quasi-tryouts, and Williams juggled the rotation as if picking names from a hat. Big men Jalen Duren and Isaiah Stewart looked about the same at the end of the season as they did at the beginning, projects in need of refining.

To a team with few shooters — 26th in the league in 3-point shooting — Weaver added Ausar Thompson with the No. 5 pick. He’s a competitive defender but a poor shooter. The Pistons finished 28th in turnovers, spotlighting the issue with Cunningham. For a guy with star potential, he has nagging flaws. When forced to do more, or do it all, he looks brilliant at times (22.7 ppg, 7.5 assists per game) and uncertain at times (ninth in the league in turnovers, 35.5% on 3s).

Hopefully, the new coach can shape Cunningham’s game and align with the front office’s vision, whatever it is. Hopefully, nobody assumes the firing of Williams and Weaver fixes everything. Hopefully, eventually, Tom Gores learns something from his mistakes.

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©2024 The Detroit News. Visit detroitnews.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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