May 16, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Tom Gores' defining moment must push Pistons forward this time

New Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy
New Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy : Stan Van Gundy is introduced as Detroit's new coach and president of basketball operations.

Auburn Hills — Pistons owner Tom Gores says he’s sleeping better these days, which in turn is supposed to be good news for his team’s slumbering fan base.

And what Gores called his “defining moment” at a news conference introducing Stan Van Gundy as the new face — and singular voice — of the franchise sure seems like a big step in the right direction.

But the only real question, aside from the ones about Josh Smith’s shot selection and Greg Monroe’s contract demands, is what took him so long?

It took nearly three full years to make “the most important decision we have made as an organization,” as Gores put it Thursday. It took three dismal seasons, three more coaching hires and a few too many botched personnel moves to reach it — finally parting company with team president Joe Dumars last month — even though Gores introduced himself to Pistons fans in 2011 by promising not to sit with mistakes too long.

“That’s a culture that we’ve got to reset here,” he said at the time.

Thursday, Gores announced, “Not only did we hire a coach and president of basketball, we are resetting the culture of the franchise.”

Well, one of these times, they’re bound to get it right.

Stuck at the bottom

The Pistons are the only team in the Eastern Conference to miss the playoffs in each of the last five seasons. Only two other teams in the entire league — Sacramento and Minnesota — are mired in a similar drought. And yet somehow the Pistons don’t have a top-five draft pick to show for it. (They might not even have a first-rounder at all this summer, depending on what happens at Tuesday’s NBA draft lottery.)

In many respects, they’re still on the ground floor of this rebuilding project, and for that construction delay Gores ultimately has only himself — and the rest of his ownership team — to blame.

The Pistons have gone from 30th to 28th to 26th in attendance the last three seasons — hardly a groundswell — and they still rank dead last in percentage of capacity filled (68 percent) at their arena.

They’re still paying somebody not to coach this team, too, having fired Maurice Cheeks in February only 50 games into a two-year contract. (Another somebody, Lawrence Frank, just came off the payroll, a year after he was fired as head coach.)

On that topic, Gores said Thursday he felt like “had to make a move” at midseason, knowing then Cheeks wasn’t the right coach for him and noting “it would be unfair to Mo and to our organization to pretend for a half-season.”

“Look, I know I got a lot of flak for this,” Gores said. “But we needed to move forward in a way that we believed in.”

It’s easy to believe in Van Gundy, and not just for his bosses, though the five-year, $35 million commitment sure helps in myriad ways. His track record speaks volumes — the sixth-highest win percentage (.641) among coaches with 500-plus games under his belt — and his voice certainly carries as well.

Gores wanted a leader, and he got one. As a coach, Van Gundy doesn’t just ask for accountability, he demands it. His game preparation is widely respected around the league. And considering the dysfunctional mess the Pistons have been in recent years, Gores might’ve been understating things when he called “intercepting” Van Gundy en route to a more attractive job elsewhere “a real coup for Detroit.”

“Over our years here owning the Pistons,” Gores said, “we haven’t seen a guy like Stan.”

Broken promises

The fans haven’t in far too long, either. And listening to Van Gundy talk Thursday, you couldn’t help but wonder what Pistons management saw in so many of the coaching hires that preceded him — Cheeks, John Kuester and Michael Curry, just to name a few.

Not surprisingly, Dumars’ name was never mentioned at Thursday’s news conference. But the rift that grew over time between Van Gundy’s predecessor and ownership certainly was discussed, if obliquely.

Gores repeatedly referenced “the lack of connectivity between the floor and the front office” as his franchise’s biggest failing. Van Gundy kept mentioning “synergy” as if it were some kind of trade secret. The new personnel boss also noted “we’re building a team here, we’re not accumulating talent,” which is essentially the opposite of what the Pistons went out and did last summer.

But mostly, this all comes back to an introductory promise from ownership that hasn’t been kept.

“I could give everybody our philosophy, I could give them our culture,” Gores said Thursday, by way of explanation. “But if you don’t walk the talk and you don’t put that on the floor, what do you have, really? All of my speeches don’t mean anything if we don’t do it on the floor.”

Simply put, they haven’t, because they haven’t. And when I asked the Pistons owner if it bothered him that he’s talking about “resetting the culture” and trying to “redefine what this franchise means” three years after assuming control of it, he didn’t hesitate.

“Not at all,” Gores said. “I think great things take time.”

But make no mistake, this time they have to get it right.

Tom Gores made his defining move as Pistons owner, signing Stan Van Gundy to be the coach and president of basketball operations. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News
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