One of them — Kevin Garnett or Flip Saunders — was going to win, and one of them was going to lose. With their teams squared off in the NBA’s Eastern Conference championship round, Saunders’ Detroit Pistons vs. Garnett’s Boston Celtics, it was certain that one of them, finally, was going to have a chance to participate in the NBA Finals.
One of them, finally, was going to have his best shot yet, deep into his respectively long career (coach or player), at winning his sport’s most coveted title.
And one of them, inevitably, was not.
Only a few NBA insiders, though, ever imagined that gap between prize and penalty might prove so vast. When Garnett’s team eliminated Saunders’ in Game 6 of the best-of-seven series, the longtime Timberwolves All-Star took one more giant step toward redemption, validation and one of the biggest, juiciest nyah-nyahs in recent sports memory back at the franchise that traded him.
Saunders, meanwhile, lost — the series and, four days later, his job.
Funny, but across their 10 seasons together in Minnesota, one thing Garnett never was to Saunders was a “coach killer,” that breed of incorrigible, contentious NBA superstar who is most dangerous to his own bench boss (Hint: Think Detroit’s Rasheed Wallace). Yet here they face each other for one playoff series, a mere six games, and Saunders winds up getting fired.
Saunders down but definitely not out
For Saunders, the landing should be soft. For the second time in barely three years, he gets fired with a season left on his guaranteed contract, worth a reported $5.4 million this time, and his name immediately bobbed up as a candidate for vacancies in Chicago and Phoenix. The first time, it was the Wolves cutting Saunders loose with a 25-26 mark in February 2005 from a team that clearly wasn’t going to return to the conference finals. Now it is Detroit, dumping him precisely because the Pistons returned to — and stopped at — the conference finals too often.
Detroit, after winning an NBA title in 2004 and going back to the Finals the next season, was eliminated in the penultimate round by Miami in 2006, Cleveland in 2007 and Boston this spring. Its veteran core — guards Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton, forwards Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace — stayed intact with the exception of fading center Ben Wallace’s departure via free agency two summers ago. Saunders coached the Pistons to three division titles and a 176-70 record, the best winning percentage (.715) in team history. And got a pink slip, demonstrating the chasm in expectations between his first NBA employer and his second.
“I knew coming in what the expectations were,” Saunders told the Detroit News after his dismissal. “It’s a funny thing. You go through all the ebbs and flows of an 82-game schedule, and then you go through a 10-day span in a playoff series where a couple of your guys don’t play well and that’s basically what you are judged on.”
Actually, that’s not quite it. Saunders had another terrific regular season, his best yet in Detroit. He took seriously team President Joe Dumars’ instructions to develop the young players on their bench, and got major contributions from Rodney Stuckey and Jason Maxiell, key pieces moving forward. He got a raw deal in the sense that NBA coaches always get a raw deal relative to the players, who are more culpable but held less accountable.
What Saunders was judged on, though, was his club’s three identical finishes, the lack of progress toward another championship and the nagging sense that his Pistons, when it counted most, somehow found ways not to win. Two years ago, they squandered home-court advantage against the Heat. Last year, they did that again, almost standing idly by while Cleveland’s LeBron James singlehandedly beat them in the double overtime of Game 5. This time, the Pistons were up 70-60 with 10:29 left in the fourth quarter, at home, and let the Celtics wriggle free.
“That last 10 minutes played out, and I looked at it and said, ‘This is the last three years right here,’ ” Dumars told reporters Tuesday. “We got a lead, we’re good enough, we’re right there . . . we didn’t get it done.”
Timing a key factor in Saunders’ dismissal
Besides, this also was about timing. With this Detroit group’s “window” as a contender closing, with Dumars unwilling — because of the above concerns and a feeling that the head coach was being tuned out by his players — to give Saunders a contract extension, and with Saunders thus facing 2008-09 as a lame duck, the boss opted to whack him now rather than later. Coaches working the final year of their contracts are blood in the water to most NBA locker rooms, a sure sign of weakness, especially when bullheaded, underachieving ‘Sheed is around. That last season of every deal might as well be called their severance year.
There are some in Minnesota, inside and outside the walls of Target Center, who are taking some satisfaction in Saunders’ failure to win a title, post-Wolves. That same lobsters-in-a-bucket ill will might rear its head now for Garnett, since he bears some responsibility for what went on, good or bad, during his 12 lavishly paid seasons here.
Me, I prefer the quick payoff and the storybook ending, a modern athlete whose unusual loyalty to a mediocre franchise in a midsize market was rewarded with a trade out of town.
Less than 12 months later, surrounded by the sort of help he never consistently got from Wolves Vice President Kevin McHale, Garnett is on the brink of one of the stunning success stories in NBA history, from 24 victories before he arrived in Boston to 66 and the home-court edge for a championship. Pull that off and he’ll be revered right alongside Bill Russell, his new No. 5 — RIP, No. 21 — hoisted in time to the Celtics’ rafters.
A part of Saunders is going with him, starting Thursday night. Unfortunately, a bloodied part.