It is difficult to predict how Larry Brown will be greeted when he's introduced on Friday night at The Palace of Auburn Hills, his first appearance there since his messy divorce from the team he took to two straight NBA Finals. The Palace loyalists, after all, have been known to hurl an epithet or two, not to mention the occasional cold beverage. But the only response the first-year New York Knicks coach cares about is the one he will get from his former Pistons players, and there is little doubt they'll gather him to their metaphorical bosom.
"I love Larry," says Chauncey Billups, the Detroit point guard who was sometimes driven to distraction by Brown's incessant demands. "I'll have a hug for him. I think most everybody else will too."
There would be nothing artificial about such a show of affection, even though most of the Pistons are glad that the 65-year-old Brown is plying his trade in the Big Apple. Now at his eighth NBA stop, Brown has long been his players' memorable breakup, the ex they look back on and say, with a heavy sigh, "I really learned a lot from him, and it was so very special." Then they remember that every day with Brown was a German opera, and they count their blessings and go on.
Certainly the Pistons have gone on. At week's end they held the NBA's best record (10-2) and, under Flip Saunders, showed an offensive freedom that had been missing the last two seasons, a title and a runner-up finish notwithstanding. In New York, meanwhile, Brown is spoon-feeding a callow team (six players are 22 or younger) of mismatched and largely overpriced parts. He has two centers ( Eddy Curry and Jerome James) who don't rebound well or block shots; three-point guards ( Stephon Marbury, Jamal Crawford and Nate Robinson) who lack passing instincts; and four veterans (forwards Antonio Davis, Malik Rose and Maurice Taylor, and guard Penny Hardaway) whose best days are behind them, even though they'll bank a collective $44.6 million this season. After a 107-94 loss to the Miami Heat on Monday, the Knicks stood at 4-9, the third worst record in the Eastern Conference.
But--and there's always a but when Brown is involved--remember this: The 65-year-old human road map has always made a franchise better, delivering each of his new teams to the postseason by his second year. And as good as the Pistons have been, it's unlikely they'll be much better than they were under Brown. Saunders simply must not only get the Pistons into the Finals, but (that word again) he must also do it against stiffer intraconference competition and within a Central Division that could yield five playoff teams.
Still, Friday night's game provides an early look at two franchises in radically different places, both of them colored by Brown.
END OF THE SLOWDOWN
Saunders's Pistons are nothing if not stable. They have an ironclad starting lineup ( Billups and Rip Hamilton at guard, Ben Wallace at center, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince at forward); a set bench rotation (forward Antonio McDyess, followed by swingman Maurice Evans, followed by point guard Carlos Arroyo, followed by--drum roll, please-- Darko Milicic, a 7-foot bench ornament under Brown); and a swagger and toughness born from protracted postseason wars. Plus, they have learned well Brown's lessons on selflessness. Before a game at Phoenix in early November, McDyess approached Saunders and said, "If [the Suns] go small, and you want to use Tayshaun at the four, don't worry about playing me."
Yet Saunders is tasked with doing more than rewinding the tape of the last two seasons. Even as Brown was leading Detroit deep into June, his detractors felt that a) he kept too short a leash on a talented offensive team, and b) his seven-man rotation cost the mainstays their legs late in games. Those are not the reasons that Brown took a buyout estimated at $7 million with three years and $18 million left on his contract; that happened because owner Bill Davidson and general manager Joe Dumars were angry that Brown had courted other job offers, the Knicks' coaching position and an executive role with the Cleveland Cavaliers. But his hard-and-fast ways did make it easier to get rid of Brown and hire Saunders, the 10-year Minnesota Timberwolves' coach who is known for helping players find their inner scorer.
Billups, in fact, has already elevated Saunders to "offensive genius." It generally takes at least one serious run at a ring to earn the genius label--and Saunders has a career playoff record of 17-30--but offense is his calling card. At week's end the Pistons were scoring 99.3 points per game, 6.0 more than last season, while surrendering 91.7, an increase of 2.2. "Flip put in his system from Day One," says Billups, "and the reason he did was the feedback from people around here that our offense was too predictable."
And might Billups be one of those people? "Let's just say people," says Billups.
Saunders's playbook is twice as thick as Brown's, with more counters and counters off the counters. He is known for getting his team quality shots; the Timberwolves routinely finished among the leaders in field goal percentage. More obviously, Saunders has replaced the flashing red light under which the Pistons' attack operated with a yellow one. Detroit looks to fast-break off turnovers and long rebounds and even after makes. "Our running philosophy," says Billups, "is somewhere between the Phoenix Suns' and what we were last year. So far it feels comfortable."
Coaching a championship-caliber team feels comfortable to Saunders, too. His blue-collar pedigree--a skilled carpenter, he literally built the home locker room when he was named coach of the Rapid City ( S.D.) Thrillers in the CBA in 1988)--and his unassuming demeanor suggest an aw-shucks guy who'd be thrilled to inherit such talent. But that's hardly the case. Saunders is utterly confident about his abilities and an unflinching decision-maker. He is not exactly shivering in Brown's shadow. "I'm not intimidated by what anyone has done in the past," says Saunders. "Not one player has said to me, 'This is the way we used to do it.' They've had a lot of success, but they're letting me coach the team."