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May 9, 2009

Chuck Daly passes away

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bradford Doolittle @ 6:51 pm

When I think of Chuck Daly, I think of the coach that forever changed how defense is perceived in the NBA. There has long been a myth that NBA teams don’t play defense. To a certain extent, it still exists. However no one did more to change that misperception than Daly’s rugged championship teams in Detroit.

The evolution of that team is fascinating to recall. Daly took over after Isiah Thomas’ rookie season. His early Pistons teams were good — they won at least 46 games in each of his first three seasons at the helm. And they were fun, playing a frenetic pace that highlighted Thomas’ open-court flambouyance, Vinnie Johnson’s microwave jump shot and Kelly Tripuka’s hair. Some of the pieces of Detroit’s eventual championship teams were in place, such as Thomas, Johnson and Bill Laimbeer. Still, the gap between the Pistons and the Celtics/76ers/Bucks triumvirate atop the Eastern Conference was wide.

The Pistons were knocked out in the first round of the 1986 playoffs. That team had won 46 games and finished 15th in the league in defensive efficiency. Slowly, though, Daly had begun the process of redefining his team’s style and roster. Ex-Bullets enforcer Rick Mahorn had been acquired and the team brought in an unheralded rookie guard from little McNeese State: Joe Dumars.

Daly began emphasizing more defensive effort and slowed the pace a bit with that ’85-86 team, but it was the 1986 offseason when the Bad Boys were finally born. Tripuka was dealt to the Jazz for Adrian Dantley, giving Daly a low-post, foul-drawing machine to anchor his half-court offense. Even more importantly, the Pistons drafted John Salley and Dennis Rodman, infusing the Pistons’ second unit with energy and a defensive menance such as the franchise had never seen.

Meanwhile, Dumars had matured into the perfect backcourt complement to Thomas. Laimbeer had established himself as an elite rebounder, bruising defender and dangerous jump shooter. With a defense now built around Dumars, Mahorn, Salley, Laimbeer and Rodman, the pace continued to slow and the defensive efficiency continued to rise. The Pistons finished in the top three in NBA defensive efficiency each season from 1988 through 1990 and won the Eastern Conference all three seasons. They won NBA championships in the latter two campaigns.

That Daly succeeded by coaching such a wildly different collections of talents and personalities was really a testament to his strengths as a coach and a leader. Daly succeeded coaching in the Ivy League, in the NBA with a bunch of gazelles and at the same level with a glorified S.W.A.T team. He coached the original Dream Team, arguably the greatest collection of basketball talent ever assembled on a single squad, to a dominating Gold Medal finish in the ’92 Olympics.

His best Detroit teams weren’t exactly beloved, at least outside the state of Michigan. Despite the trucculent personality of the Bad Boys, you cannot find anyone that knew Daly that didn’t admire him.

“I never understood how a great man and nice guy coached the Bad Boys,” Charles Barkley told the AP on Saturday.

As for myself, I was a Bulls fan in the Bad Boys days and cannot recall a team I despised more than those Pistons. As such, I wasn’t exactly a Daly fan and it wasn’t until the last few years, when I read testimonials about what a good man and influential coach Daly was, that my opinion changed. I never met him, but I wish I would have gotten the chance to sit down and talk hoops with Chuck Daly. Believe me, there was a time I could have never imagined writing that.

Daly led the Pistons to the most successful nine-year run in franchise history and the ’88-89 Pistons, the first of the back-to-back title teams, was the best Detroit squad in NBA history. The Pistons were a losing team before Daly arrived on the scene. They won nine straight years. Then, the year after he left, they had a losing record and lost 62 games the season after that.

As much as any of the great NBA championship teams, the Pistons were a product of the work, knowledge and scheming of their coach. And while that product was ultimately branded as the Bad Boys, Chuck Daly was one of the good guys. He will be missed and it is fitting that the NBA has dedicated this year’s playoff season to Daly.

Of the various quotes about Daly that I’ve read, my favorite is this one, from the ceremony in which Detroit retired No. 2 in honor of its former coach. It was uttered by Rick Mahorn, he of the brutal fouls and menacing smile. He said simply, “Without you, there wouldn’t be us.”

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