Detroit — The Pistons were hunting for a way to make an impact, to restore some credibility. And with decisive clarity, that’s what they just did.
Stan Van Gundy provides instant credibility, which is why the stakes were so high for owner Tom Gores. In a much-needed coup, the Pistons wrestled Van Gundy away from the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night, landing an accomplished coach with a winning track record and a no-nonsense style.
The price was steep but the risk is worthwhile. Gores had to do something bold, and according to a Detroit News source he anted up with $35 million over five years, as well as total control over player personnel. Van Gundy got it all — coach and head of basketball operations, with the mandate to change the franchise’s fractured mindset.
The Warriors have a better team and Van Gundy grew up in that area, enticing for sure. But the Pistons offered rare power, and after years of erosion, it’s an appropriate gamble. They need a singular voice to lead them, with Joe Dumars deposed. Van Gundy has no management experience — which is the risk — but has excellent coaching credentials. He also could hire a GM to handle the day-to-day operations and report to him.
Will it work? Well, I’m fairly certain of this — Van Gundy will be the best Pistons coach since Larry Brown. In eight seasons in Miami and Orlando, he never had a losing record, and won 50 games or more five times. He has coached and prodded two of the league’s best big men, Dwight Howard and Shaquille O’Neal, and isn’t afraid to challenge players and demand defensive effort.
Andre Drummond isn’t Howard or O’Neal, but he has the potential to do similar things if pushed. For the Pistons to rebound, that’s where it has to start, with firm, confident leadership. It won’t be easy to alter a roster that features such disjointed talent as Greg Monroe, Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings, but at least Van Gundy has the power to kick-start a team that’s been out of the playoffs the past five years.
Years of disarray
He’s fully accountable, which is better than no one being accountable. The Pistons have been in disarray since owner Bill Davidson died — players didn’t trust coaches who didn’t trust management who didn’t trust ownership who didn’t trust coaches. And coaches didn’t survive long enough to get new address labels printed.
This is an aggressive move by Gores for the right reasons, because it makes basketball sense. He has courted Phil Jackson and reportedly been interested in Tom Izzo, big names with impressive backgrounds. Van Gundy isn’t as sexy, and that has nothing to do with his paunch and ruffled look. When he was coaching the Magic, someone once said he looked like a vacuum cleaner salesman, and, ahem, I stand by the statement.
But Van Gundy doesn’t stand on pretense, and he should fit in a franchise once known for embracing the dirty work. Gregg Popovich of the Spurs and Doc Rivers of the Clippers are the only NBA coaches with full personnel control, but the Pistons probably weren’t going to land a prized candidate without offering it. Plowing through eight coaches in 13 years has a way of frightening away the good ones.
Much of that shuffling was under Dumars’ watch, but Gores didn’t change it, firing Lawrence Frank and Maurice Cheeks. What makes Van Gundy different, much better than a normal NBA retread? His no-back-down approach, desperately needed in Auburn Hills, where players have had their way with a succession of patsies.
Standing his ground
In Orlando in 2012, Van Gundy famously declared Howard was trying to get him fired, and didn’t backtrack when Howard awkwardly interrupted the on-camera interview. Van Gundy did get fired but gained some respect for confronting his star, and his reputation hasn’t been damaged by a two-year absence.
Howard may have been miffed by Van Gundy’s hard-driving style but he also flourished, winning three straight Defensive Player of the Year awards from 2009-12. And just for fun, take a look at the flimsy roster of the Orlando team that reached the NBA Finals in 2009.
The Magic lost to the Lakers with a starting lineup of Howard, Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu, Courtney Lee and Jameer Nelson. Van Gundy essentially planted his big man inside and spread the court with a bunch of shooters, and the Magic won 59 games two straight seasons. Van Gundy, 54, has a 371-208 regular-season record (.641 winning percentage) and a 48-39 mark in the playoffs. He also had spats with both of his big stars, Howard and O’Neal, and that makes you question his adaptability. It also might make you appreciate his conviction.
Howard eventually seemed to appreciate it, and now says he considers Van Gundy a trusted adviser who helped guide him to play for the Rockets.
“We had great years together, great runs in the playoffs, so he understands what it would take to win,” Howard told Houston reporters last year. “Stan is a guru when it comes to studying basketball. Getting advice from him has always been beneficial to me.”
The lure of Golden State had to be powerful, but the Warriors have meddlesome management that forced out coach Mark Jackson. They also play in the Western Conference, where the path through the playoffs is more treacherous.
Van Gundy may be a Florida guy and a California guy, but he has a Midwest mentality. He has a chance to make the strongest mark of his career, and if players don’t like his style, he has the hammer to make changes. It’s a lot of power for one person, and it’s generally not a popular setup in the league. But someone has to take charge of the Pistons, and Van Gundy is worth the speculative investment.