June 5, 2014 at 10:54 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Pistons must determine their winning model and build it

Pistons coach and president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy, right, introduces Jeff Bower as the team's general manager. (Todd McInturf / Detroit News)

Auburn Hills It appears daunting. The Pistons lost plenty the past five years, dropping from playoff regulars to playoff outsiders. They lost their way, lost their aura and even just lost their first-round pick.

So how could they possibly find their way back? It starts with the model, the one they used to exemplify, the one Stan Van Gundy is in charge of rebuilding. Not that long ago, you might recall, the Pistons were on the same level as the Spurs. Detroit won the championship in 2004, then lost to San Antonio in Game 7 the following year.

Tonight, the Spurs open the NBA Finals against the Heat with the exact same core that battled those Pistons. They have the same star players (Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili), same coach (Gregg Popovich) and same general manager (R.C. Buford). Theyre one of the remarkable franchises in professional sports, and their secret to success is really no secret at all.

Its stability and continuity, and oh yeah, it helps to start with Duncan. But not another key player on this team was drafted in the upper half of the first round. While many gripe the NBA is stacked against the downtrodden, that the same teams collect the stars and win, its not an excuse the Spurs ever bought, and neither did the Pistons.

Look to the past

This is an entirely new regime, from owner Tom Gores to president of basketball operations Van Gundy, to general manager Jeff Bower, introduced to the media Wednesday. The Pistons once defied the odds and won three championships in a 15-year span, then started chewing through coaches and players. Now few vestiges remain, except for The Palace itself.

Detroit cant offer the sands of South Beach, or the lure of Los Angeles, or the sights of Chicago. But the Pistons can go back to the model and stick with it. Van Gundy is still assessing the roster, but with a frontline of Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith, the Pistons have one commodity in abundance size.

When you ask, do we have a chance to be good with the group we have? Absolutely, Van Gundy said. Its hard to find big guys, and weve got two of the best under 24 years of age.

Van Gundy would love to keep Monroe, an unrestricted free agent after next season, but not at any cost. Hed love to see what Smith can do when not out of position, heaving ridiculous shots. Van Gundy confirmed he doesnt want to play all three at the same time, a lineup that was a defensive disaster.

The Pistons made a lot of messes last season, and no ones kidding anyone here. Theyre a long way from serious contention, although not that far from the playoffs in the weak East. Van Gundy is a very good coach, but he cant automatically turn Smith and Brandon Jennings into effective all-around players. He cant even pluck a prize with a first-round pick, surrendered to Charlotte as the price for a past mistake.

This isnt about past mistakes anymore, and in fact, its better to study Joe Dumars successes. You watch the Pacers implode in the playoffs and you gain more appreciation for the six consecutive trips the Pistons made to the Eastern Conference finals.

In a star-driven league, the Pistons are one of the few to buck the trend, with defense, cohesiveness and smarts. Since 1980, only nine franchises have won a championship, and only seven Pistons, Spurs, Bulls, Lakers, Celtics, Heat and Rockets have multiple titles. In the NBA, you either get lucky and land a superstar, or you collect good pieces and bind them with a strong leader.

Or in San Antonios case, you do both. Popovich has been there 18 seasons and won four championships. Duncan was the No. 1 overall pick in 1997, but Ginobili was a second-rounder out of Argentina and Parker a late-first rounder out of France. Rising star Kawhi Leonard, acquired in a draft-day trade, was taken 15th.

Shooters remain a need

The Pistons arent getting an instant fix like LeBron James. They need adept drafting, clever trading and the glue to hold the model together. Gores opted for expensive glue by giving Van Gundy personnel control and the coaching job, a dual role thats rarely tried but has worked in one key place, San Antonio of course. Bower is tight with Van Gundy and has solid general manager experience in New Orleans, and seems to be a fit.

Were not building it on the San Antonio model, but Id hope we could learn from just about everybody in the league, Van Gundy said. What San Antonio has done well, No. 1, is have great stability. And No. 2, theyve got what were doing here a very strong GM, and theyve used every available option. Theyve done well in the draft, utilized European and international players, and made great trades and key free-agent signings.

Landing Smith was Dumars last major gambit, and it didnt work. But when a player totes a big contract, it makes no sense to bury him, and Van Gundy wont.

One thing that happens when things dont go well, everybody loves a scapegoat, Van Gundy said. Its not fair to pin last year on Josh. A lot of guys didnt play to their level.

Instead of a mismatched frontline, Drummond, Monroe and Smith could form an imposing three-man rotation. Bower spoke glowingly of the size factor, although his first task will be to hunt down some shooters for Van Gundys approval.

If you chugged a beer every time Van Gundy or Bower mentioned collaborative or right fit Wednesday, youd have been downright tipsy. Describing a winning model is the easy part. Building it with long-lasting glue and mislabeled pieces is the daunting part.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
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