The Detroit Pistons took a p.r. hit last week for firing Rick Carlisle, who won 50 games in each of the last two seasons with a franchise that had averaged 34 in the previous three and who took his team to the 2003 Eastern Conference finals. The fallout would have been worse if the decision hadn't been made by respected general manager Joe Dumars, and if he wasn't replacing Carlisle with Larry Brown, the NBA's Obi-Wan Kenobi. Last week Brown agreed to a five-year, $25 million deal with Detroit.
In the NBA if you can get Brown, you drop your coach faster than first-period trig—even if he's a former coach of the year like Carlisle. As of Monday seven teams were in the market for a coach, even after Brown joined Detroit and Paul Silas signed with Cleveland. But the most extraordinary aspect of this coaching churn is that an overtraveled 62-year-old remains the one to whom everyone turns. Brown's announcement that he was quitting the 76ers after six seasons (the longest he's stayed with any of his six NBA teams) triggered Pavlovian salivation around the league. Had Brown not become available, Carlisle would positively not have been fired. Why do so many teams see Brown in their future? Three reasons.
?Though the NBA is a players' league, execs cling to the idea that players can be taught, and Brown is rightly considered the ultimate teacher. Phil Jackson is a psychologist who gets guys to buy into his system; Brown teaches skills. Even Allen Iverson listened and learned...sort of.
?Brown is the league's best bench coach—drawing up plays on the fly, managing the clock, exploiting matchups—in the final two minutes. Rivals who grumble that he hasn't won a championship (his lone trip to the Finals was in 2001, when Philly lost in five to the Lakers) concede that they hate to see him with clipboard in hand.
?Though he's a bit of a tortured soul on the sideline, a man who needs his own greatness reaffirmed, Brown generally gets along with those around him. Had another coach been in the Sixers' cauldron for the last six years, there would've been much less harmony. By contrast, insiders say Carlisle antagonized players (by dishing out uneven playing time), upper management (by not giving youngsters such as Tayshaun Prince and Mehmet Okur sufficient opportunity) and employees (by rude put-downs).
Still, Detroit is less happy to be rid of Carlisle than it is rapturous to have Brown. The challenge is formidable, though, for this master fixer-upper is now being asked to save a franchise that to a large extent has already been saved.