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."
BRIGHT LIGHTS, DIM PROSPECTS
Brown's Knicks, meanwhile, are the anti-Pistons, with an ever-changing lineup, an unpredictable rotation and shortsighted players who would never offer to cut into their own minutes, a la McDyess. Unless New York improves dramatically, this season's story line is destined to be: Larry is not happy coaching the players who were assembled by general manager Isiah Thomas.
Through the first month, though, there has been no civil war. Last Friday, after Thomas returned from a scouting trip to the Maui Invitational, he and Brown greeted each other with a hug at the Knicks' training site in Tarrytown, N.Y. Thomas has had only nice things to say about Brown, whom he signed in July to a five-year, $50 million deal. "If you have the chance to hire Larry Brown," says Thomas, "you hire Larry Brown. I would've never become the kind of player I was [in Detroit] if Chuck Daly didn't come along. Larry can be the same kind of coach for these players."
But Brown has already tossed off a number of the mix isn't right here remarks. Last week he told SI that he talked to Thomas about going after a "defensive ball handling guard who could help maximize what we want to do." (Among those who would fit that bill are the Cavaliers' Eric Snow and the Nuggets' Earl Watson.) And, predictably, there have been skirmishes centering on point guard, the position on which Brown most deeply fixates. After Robinson made several costly turnovers down the stretch in a 108-95 loss to the Charlotte Bobcats on Nov. 23, Brown said of the 5'9" rookie, with some disdain, "At this point he's not a point guard, he's a highlight film."
Brown's candor is admirable in this age of player-coddling, but he sometimes goes too far. The "highlight film" line, for example, carries with it the implications that Robinson is a fundamentally unsound player more concerned with appearing on SportsCenter than winning. "I would hope that I say great things about Nate, too," Brown said last Friday, "but you have to be straight and honest with your players."
Then Brown, as is his wont, reassessed. He hearkened back to his days with the Indiana Pacers in the mid-90s. "[Point guard] Mark Jackson used to tell me, 'Coach, you have to throw us a bone once in a while,'" Brown said. "And that made me think, 'You know, he's absolutely right.' There have been times I've scratched my head and wished I would've done or said something differently. But I'm convinced that the people who love you the most are the ones who have been the most difficult for you to deal with at times. Look at father-son relationships. If you have a really strong relationship with your father, there were a lot of days when things weren't right. As long as at the end we know we care about each other, the results are going to be pretty good."
From a basketball standpoint, Brown has been accurate in his assessment of his players, including Marbury, who fancies himself an Allen Iverson combo guard. Marbury might be right, but at best he's AI Lite. "Allen is unlike any player who has ever played the game," said Brown, "and for anyone to compare any player to him is ridiculous. Stephon is unique, but not like Allen. I used to hear guys complain, 'Oh, Iverson shoots all the time,' but, hey, it's not easy to get up 40 shots, all of them potential scoring shots."
Of course, in the tempestuous history of Brown and Iverson there are numerous instances of Brown carping about all those shots. And it was Brown's comments about Iverson's practice habits that prompted AI's memorable soliloquy after the 2002 postseason in which he spat out the word practice as if describing a case of lumbago. Sure enough, however, Iverson now recalls his Brown period wistfully. Before Saturday's game AI cornered Robinson and asked, "How's it going with Larry?"
"Well, it's tough some days," Robinson admitted. "He stays on me."
"That's what he does," said Iverson, "but just stick with it. He'll make you better."
And seconds before tip-off Iverson trotted over to the New York bench to give Brown a quick hug. After the game he would call Brown "the best coach in the world." With Brown and his players, life's an ongoing country song Our Love Is No Mystery, Now That You're History.
The Knicks' squabbles suggest a similar pattern. Though Marbury, seemingly as joyless a soul as has ever bounced a ball in the Garden, has suggested that distributing the ball is stifling his creativity, he professes his undying loyalty to Brown. "I love playing for Coach," Marbury says. "It's the best thing that ever happened to me in basketball." And Robinson, who leaves timeout huddles early to exhort the crowd (that's real popular with Brown), dealt tactfully with being called a highlight film. "Coach just wants me to get better," he says--though not before adding that playing for Brown sometimes makes him feel "like Atlas. You have the whole world on your shoulders."
That burden lightened last Saturday, when Robinson, Brown and the Knicks had their first truly magic moments of the season. For much of the second half Brown had Marbury, Crawford and Robinson on the floor together--three whipping boys for the price of one!--and they played with cohesion and passion. In overtime Robinson took a Marbury pass and launched a rainbow from the right corner that caught nothing but net and gave the Knicks a 105-102 win.
The Knicks, Robinson in particular, celebrated as if they had won the championship. Brown smiled for a moment, then walked off, thoughts of the challenges ahead already consuming him. One of the biggest will take place on Friday at Detroit, where he will find plenty of love before the game but, in all likelihood, none during it.
Read Jack McCallum's five-step plan for a Knicks makeover at SI.com/NBA.
Where do the Pistons stand in the NBA Power Rankings? Find out Friday at SI.com/NBA.
Playing for Brown, Robinson says, sometimes makes him "feel like Atlas. You have the whole world on your shoulders."
"Not one player has said to me, 'This is the way we used to do it,'" Saunders says. "They're letting me coach the team."
Photograph by John Biever
TAKEOFF - Free to push the pace in the open floor, Billups and the Pistons have gotten off to the league's fastest start.
PETER READ MILLER
LISA BLUMENFELD/GETTY IMAGES
UP TO SCRATCH - Three days after being dismissed as "a highlight film" by his coach, Robinson (4) delivered a game-winning shot.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
HARD CORE - Saunders (far left) inherited the game's most rock-solid starting lineup--and the title expectations that come with it.