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Interim Pistons coach Loyer faces tough task

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — John Loyer didn’t see it coming. Neither did the players.

The Detroit Pistons are in the midst of a colossally disappointing season, but no one expected Mo Cheeks to be fired 50 games into his first season as head coach, especially after two blowout victories over the weekend.

Loyer, who was also an assistant under Cheeks with the Portland Trail Blazers and Philadelphia 76ers, now finds himself in charge — albeit with a very short leash — as the interim replacement for the remainder of the season. He was disappointed and surprised that his close friend was cut loose on Sunday under orders of increasingly impatient owner Tom Gores, who expected a vast improvement and a trip to the playoffs after a busy offseason.

In the short run, Loyer doesn’t plan to rework the lineup or rotation significantly.

“I’ve been in this situation before, and I’ve seen it done properly and I’ve seen it done not very good,” he said. “I told our guys it’s going to be a gradual process. Playing hard supersedes anything we could possibly change, so we have to start there. There are things we have to tweak on both sides of the ball, and we’ll gradually do that.”

The veteran leader in the locker room, guard Chauncey Billups, is happy to see Loyer get a shot as a head coach. However, they might just have to lend their throats — literally — to make it a success.

“He is always very prepared, always very energetic,” Billups said of Loyer. “A lot of times I don’t know what we’re going to do in the second half because he loses his voice in the first half. I think we’re going to have to help him coach in the second half.”

What might be most puzzling is why Cheeks was hired in the first place. His prior head coaching stops yielded mediocre results, but Gores and team president Joe Dumars decided his reputation as a players’ coach was the right fit.

Predecessor Lawrence Frank was a master of X’s and O’s but didn’t connect with the players because of his micromanaging style. The other finalist along with Cheeks, ex-Portland coach Nate McMillan, was more similar to Frank.

Cheeks not only struggled to figure out how to make his jumbo frontcourt of Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith mesh, but he failed to keep the team from becoming unglued under pressure. The Pistons (21-29) blew seven games in which they led entering the fourth quarter.

Worse yet, he wasn’t even good at his supposed strength — player relations. He had run-ins with Smith, Drummond and backup point guard Will Bynum and alienated them, most notably Monroe, at varying times with his substitution patterns and crunch-time lineups.

Naturally, it wasn’t all his fault.

“We weren’t doing our job either,” point guard Brandon Jennings said. “That’s why we’re in the position we are now. With the talent we have, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be in the playoffs.”

Unless the team enjoys a major turnaround after the All-Star break, makes the postseason and perhaps pulls a first-round upset, the franchise will be searching for Loyer’s replacement this offseason. McMillan, Lionel Hollins, George Karl or Stan Van Gundy would bring a level of accomplishment that Cheeks didn’t achieve as a head coach.

Dumars is also a goner if the players he imported don’t play more cohesively. Smith, who received a four-year, $54 million free agent contract, is a power forward masquerading as a small forward. He puts up numbers but shoots far too often from the outside.

Jennings, acquired from the Milwaukee Bucks to be the floor leader, remains a work in progress. Too often, he can’t find the proper balance between being a streak shooter and a facilitator. His internal struggle comes to fore when trying to close out games.

Dumars’ controversial decision to draft unheralded shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope instead of University of Michigan point guard Trey Burke also backfired thus far, with Burke winning Rookie of the Month honors for the Utah Jazz and Caldwell-Pope playing himself out of the starting lineup.

With a budding superstar in Drummond, the situation is far from hopeless, but there are obvious deficiencies. The guards allow too much dribble penetration, while Drummond and Monroe are both subpar one-on-one defenders. That is why the Pistons rank 29th out of 30 teams in defensive field-goal percentage. They also can’t shoot 3-pointers and free throws, ranking last percentage-wise in both those categories.

Those are issues Loyer must resolve in a hurry, or the next major upheaval for the franchise is just a few months away.

Up to the minute news and reports from the news wire of The Sports Xchange.

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