May 21, 2014 at 10:13 am

John Niyo

Pistons' past mistakes cost new coach Stan Van Gundy with lottery snub

The Pistons' trade of Ben Gordon, above, for Corey Maggette in 2012 sent Charlotte the ninth pick. (Clarence Tabb Jr. / Detroit News)

Auburn Hills — Most of the top NBA draft prospects skipped out on the league’s annual scouting combine last week in Chicago.

Stan Van Gundy scrambled to get there a day late after he was introduced as the new Pistons president and head coach.

Turns out he could’ve saved himself the trip. Because his predecessor — and ultimately his boss — likely cost this team any truly meaningful place in this year’s top-heavy NBA draft.

And there’s no telling how that’ll affect the rebuilding plan that was to begin in earnest with another top-10 pick in a rookie class that looks to be one of the most talented in years.

So, that didn’t take long, did it? Five days on the job, and already Van Gundy was busy doing damage control Tuesday night, moments after the NBA’s draft lottery show in New York offered yet another reminder just what a mess they’d made of things at The Palace the last few years.

A lottery ticket that went out with the trash? Or tucked in the pocket of a suit taken to the cleaners?

That’s essentially what this was, and it was left to Van Gundy to try to rationalize the first unofficial loss of his tenure in Detroit.

In a statement released by the team, Van Gundy called Tuesday night’s lottery results “disappointing, but not disastrous.” Soon after, on a conference call from New York, assistant general manager George David used a similar phrase, saying, “It’s disappointing, but it’s not devastating.”

David went on to explain his initial reaction to the surprising lottery results — when Charlotte flashed at No. 9, Detroit’s fate was unsealed, I guess you’d say — and it wasn’t the same as most Pistons fans.

“When you see that, immediately your mind turns to, ‘OK, what’s the next avenue? What’s the next step? How can we make ourselves better?’ ” David insisted. “I think that’s the only way you can look at it.”

It simply didn't work

Maybe so. But for the die-hard fans who’ve endured five consecutive lottery drawings — something no other Eastern Conference franchise can say — there’s another way to look at this.

It’s another example of owner Tom Gores’ NBA naivete coming home to roost.

This wasn’t simply the cost of unloading one of Joe Dumars’ worst free-agent contracts in one of his worst trades, sending Ben Gordon and a future first-rounder to Charlotte for Corey Maggette in June of 2012.

Neither player moved in that deal did a thing on the court, of course. Maggette totaled 95 points in 18 games for the Pistons, while Gordon shot under 40 percent until the Bobcats — now the Hornets again — finally pulled the plug this past winter.

But the players weren’t the point. It was trash in, and trash out, as they say. No, the point was the Pistons were buying salary-cap relief, gaining a year of flexibility in exchange for that first-round pick.

Possible pick worth a call

You get what you pay for, though. And rather than protecting his team’s future, Gores banked instead on a quick turnaround, which is his nature, I suppose, as a private-equity billionaire. Instead of using the amnesty clause, forking over a chunk of money to rid themselves of the $25 million remaining on Gordon’s contract, the Pistons risked a golden lottery ticket.

And as Van Gundy duly noted Tuesday, “We knew we would lose our pick this year or next.”

Next year’s pick figures to be a little less valuable, though. And rather than adding a potential shooting star for pennies on the dollar in next month’s draft — Kentucky’s James Young or Creighton’s Doug McDermott or perhaps Michigan’s Nik Stauskas or Michigan State’s Gary Harris — Van Gundy will feel even more urgency to find a couple in free agency or via trade this summer.

Unless he can swing a deal to get back the first-rounder he just lost, that is. Not sure who’s offering one right now, but it might be worth calling Charlotte.

After Tuesday night’s misfortune, they owe him a favor.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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