Even had he led the Pistons to back-to-back NBA championships, Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown believes the team would have replaced him after the 2004-05 season.
"My thing, I think I was gone, win or lose," Brown told 97.1 The Ticket's Restore The Floor podcast. "There was no way I thought I was coming back. I thought they already hired somebody (else)."
In his first season on the job, Brown had led the Pistons to their third NBA title in franchise history. But his second season was marred by two absences due to a pair of separate hip procedures and public speculation that Brown, who jumped between teams during his decorated career on the sidelines, was already eyeing the head coaching job with the Knicks.
Brown believes the Pistons and then-GM Joe Dumars had decided to fire him midway through 2004-05 season, only for Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups to save his job.
The team had struggled without Brown under his assistant Gar Heard, and Brown admits that "the games I missed impacted us not having the home court (advantage in the NBA Finals), because I didn’t realize Gar Heard and Rip didn’t get along when" they had overlapped a few years prior with the Wizards.
"I think that hurt Rip and hurt Gar a little bit when Gar took over," Brown said. "But to be honest with you, I think I was fired in the middle of the year without knowing it and I think Rip and Chauncey went in and got them to keep me. But there was no way I was coming back based on the way they felt. They didn’t think I needed to get the hip surgery and I think that affected the way they thought about me coming back.
Brown, 64 at the time, also said that owner Bill Davidson had "asked me to come back for my last year, but not coach, and I told Mr. D that would be the worst thing for any head coach to come in and have me sitting there."
"So people might not want to say it, but I know I was gone in the middle of the year because they never felt I needed another hip surgery," said Brown.
Brown would wind up leading the Pistons back to the NBA Finals, where they lost in seven games to the Spurs. A month later, the Pistons bought out the final three years of his contract. A week after that, Brown became head coach of the Knicks. The Pistons would replace him with Flip Saunders, who led Detroit to the Eastern Conference Finals each of the next three seasons but never further than that.
If Brown's stint in Detroit ended awkwardly, it also began with controversy. Shortly after the Pistons hired him, they chose Darko Milicic second overall in the 2003 draft over future Hall of Famers Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, who went in the next three picks. Anthony has since said that Brown and the Pistons "promised" they were drafting him No. 2 and "that sh*t still sits with me to this day."
Brown said that when the Pistons hired him, "they told me we were going to draft Carmelo." When they later asked for his opinion, Brown told director of scouting George David and director of player personnel Scott Perry that he thought Anthony was "a phenomenal player" and that he also "loved Dwyane Wade" and had heard great things about Bosh.
"They were all convinced, 'Hey, those guys are good, but we really like Carmelo,'" said Brown. "But Carmelo never got to come in (for a workout), and he even wanted to come in and work out against Darko. Darko worked out for me twice and he couldn’t get through the workout. He was unbelievably skilled, but he was 18 and immature and young. And I was as surprised as anybody when we drafted him."
Milicic would go down as one of the biggest busts in NBA history. Anthony, who retired this month as one of the NBA's top-10 all-time scorers, has also said the Pistons would have won multiple championships had they drafted him instead. Whether or not that's true, Brown has no doubt Anthony "would have flourished" with a strong core of veterans in Detroit -- and the Pistons "would have flourished" with him.
"Knowing Carmelo now like I know him, I think if he would have been exposed to the type of people we had on that team, he would have been amazing. I really believe that. ... I look at a 19-year-old kid coming out of Syracuse with that talent, being in that environment in Detroit, I think he would have done anything to improve his game and to play at the level that we know he was capable of playing," said Brown, who wound up coaching Anthony on Team USA at the 2004 Olympics.
Now 82, Brown was most recently an assistant coach under Penny Hardaway at Memphis. Reflecting on his tenure with the Pistons, he said he was lucky to "walk into an environment where we had a chance to win if I didn’t screw it up."
"The thing I loved most was the people I was surrounded with: my staff, having the best trainer that ever lived in Arnie Kander, and then having a bunch of players that a lot of people thought at one time were failures and when I walked in that locker room and watched them practice, I realized how lucky I was," Brown said. "And a lot of it was because of what Joe assembled, the owner we had with Mr. D and then what Chuck (Daly) built with Isiah (Thomas) and Joe Dumars and that group. They set a standard and we tried to live up to that."