Consider the guy who works his entire life to become a head coach in the pros and is finally hired. He thinks he has a team. Then he sees it decimated by injury. The team is put up for sale. Finally, grief enters the picture.
Welcome to the Detroit Pistons, John Kuester, an outstandingly good guy hired to take over a team that is betwixt and between.
Which is probably the worst place to be when it comes to the NBA.
The Pistons have holdovers from a long-passed era of excellence, yet are retooling the roster for the future. Injuries have cost Detroit players 109 games. Then add on the fact that the Pistons are for sale in a difficult economy in a city hard-hit by the auto industry's problems.
"It's been very challenging," Kuester said before Detroit's morning shootaround at Quicken Loans Arena. "Very challenging."
Especially when personal loss is added to the list. Kuester recently had to deal with the death of his father, John, and missed about a week of time to be with the family at the funeral.
"He was a great man," Kuester said. "I was blessed he was around for 89 years."
The one thing Kuester learned from his father, a salesman for Russell Stover Candies his entire life?
"Value your job," Kuester said. "Value the work that you do."
These were good traits to pass on, because the work Kuester has ahead of him is complex and significant. The Pistons are a team residing in the NBA's particular version of the netherworld -- that middle ground that is so very difficult to escape.
Really bad teams can gut their roster and add free agents (see Knicks, New York).
Teams in the middle that have little salary cap space find themselves running on a treadmill.
The Pistons used a lot of money in the offseason to sign Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, two non-All Stars being paid like All-Stars. The result: a 21-40 record, a 13-game losing streak (its first double-digit streak like that since 1993-94) and a recent loss to those Knicks.
Gordon is averaging 14.0 points and 28.3 minutes per game; Villanueva, 12.2 points and 24.9 minutes. Combined they signed contracts worth just less than $94 million. Detroit's 2009 offseason is a gigantic caution flag to many NBA teams: A good player does not become great because he's paid like a great player.
Tayshaun Prince, a holdover from the previous era, got into an argument with Kuester on the bench in January, and Rip Hamilton, another holdover, has not seemed thrilled with Detroit since it traded Chauncey Billups.
There even has been speculation -- emphasis on speculation -- that Kuester might not get a second year, which means Detroit would have its fourth coach in four years. That fact alone makes his firing highly unlikely, especially when Joe Dumars said Kuester would get the time Michael Curry (one season) did not.
The Pistons appear to have a very shaky mix, with guys who prefer to play on the perimeter yet don't shoot well. Detroit ranks 29th in a 30-team league in shooting (44 percent) and scoring (92.7). But the Pistons are now bound to those deals for the next four season. In an offseason when many teams are clearing cap space to sign a player from the most vaunted free agent class perhaps ever, the Pistons are committed to $51 million worth of salaries. Which means the avenues for improvement is through trade or the draft.
Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni, who is suffering through the pain of losing as his team shoots for next year, referred to the Pistons when he said "we don't want to get stuck in mediocrity."
"Hopefully we can continue to improve as the season goes on and work on the aspects of understanding that, hey, listen, each game is going to be a challenge," Kuester said. "We have to go out there and play the best that we can."
"You feel bad for the struggles that he has to go through at this time trying to figure some things out," said Cavs coach Mike Brown. "Especially you feel bad when you know that injuries have a lot to do with where they're sitting right now. They just couldn't get any rhythm the entire year."
Kuester points out that when the Pistons had their entire roster, they were 7-4. The problem is the entire roster has been present for only those 11 games, and two of the guys they rely on are not getting younger. Ankle and hamstring injuries sidelined Hamilton for 26 games in October, November and December. Back problems sidelined Prince for 26 games in November and December. Gordon sprained an ankle, Villanueva had a nasal fracture and back spasms. Ben Wallace has been the Pistons most reliable player, and he's sidelined with a knee injury.
Kuester called it life in the NBA.
"You go in with the expectation that your team is going to stay healthy," he said. "What you're dealing with is a group that doesn't have a large margin for error. If we stay healthy we got a chance. Unfortunately we didn't stay healthy."