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). They’re one of the remarkable franchises in professional sports, and their secret to success is really no secret at all.
It’s 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, it’s 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 can’t 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. “It’s hard to find big guys, and we’ve 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. He’d love to see what Smith can do when not out of position, heaving ridiculous shots. Van Gundy confirmed he doesn’t 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 one’s kidding anyone here. They’re 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 can’t automatically turn Smith and Brandon Jennings into effective all-around players. He can’t even pluck a prize with a first-round pick, surrendered to Charlotte as the price for a past mistake.
This isn’t about past mistakes anymore, and in fact, it’s 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 Antonio’s 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 aren’t 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 that’s 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.
“We’re not building it on the San Antonio model, but I’d 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, they’ve got what we’re doing here — a very strong GM, and they’ve used every available option. They’ve 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 didn’t work. But when a player totes a big contract, it makes no sense to bury him, and Van Gundy won’t.
“One thing that happens when things don’t go well, everybody loves a scapegoat,” Van Gundy said. “It’s not fair to pin last year on Josh. A lot of guys didn’t 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 Gundy’s approval.
If you chugged a beer every time Van Gundy or Bower mentioned “collaborative” or “right fit” Wednesday, you’d 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.