July 15, 2014 at 9:18 pm

John Niyo

Pistons moving up but biggest step awaits

Meet new Piston Jodie Meeks
Meet new Piston Jodie Meeks: Pistons introduce their No. 1 free-agent acquisition.

Auburn Hills — If you’re waiting for something more from the Pistons this offseason — something more than improved marksmanship and citizenship — then you’re not alone.

In fact, you’re a bit like new team president and coach Stan Van Gundy, who says he’s done with most of his offseason shopping even as he admits there’s still one expensive item left in his cart.

Greg Monroe is neither here nor there, and there’s no telling where — or when — that situation will be resolved.

The Pistons big man is a restricted free agent, and one of the biggest names remaining on the market. But with no offer sheet yet from another team, and no hint of progress on a long-term deal to remain in Detroit, there’s not much left for Van Gundy to say on the matter.

That didn’t stop us from asking about it Monday, as team officials held a new conference to officially announce the signing of shooting guard Jodie Meeks. Or today, when officials trot out Caron Butler and DJ Augustin, two more under-the-radar additions who’ll undoubtedly help The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.

“Look, I’m not sweatin’ it right now,” Van Gundy shrugged when the Monroe subject was brought up. “There’s nothing that we can do at this point. …

“It’ll play out. I wouldn’t say that I’m not a little nervous about it. I am. But it’s out of my control, at least at this point.”

And really, that speaks to a larger challenge for the Pistons boss this summer. Van Gundy was handed control of the franchise with his dual titles. He was handed some salary-cap flexibility, too, with expiring contracts (Charlie Villanueva, Rodney Stuckey and Chauncey Billups) and Monroe’s matching rights.

Vision far from reality

But beyond that, he’s stuck selling an idea, and a vision that’s clouded by the current reality — a roster that clearly doesn’t fit those grand plans. Not with Brandon Jennings running the point. Not with Josh Smith, easily the team’s highest-paid player, perhaps destined for a sixth-man role. And probably not with David Falk, Monroe’s agent, playing a wait-and-see game with the Pistons, presumably angling for a maximum-contract offer from another team.

The assumption is Monroe — weary (and wary) after enduring four years of dysfunction in Detroit — may prefer to continue his career somewhere else. He hasn’t said so publicly, and Van Gundy was quick to praise Monroe for handling this current sit-in “very professionally.” But no one, least of all Van Gundy, would blame the offensively-gifted big man if that were indeed the case.

“It’s hard to sell (your plan to) guys you haven’t coached,” Van Gundy said. “Yeah, you’re going in, talking to ’em and everything else, trying to give them an idea of what your vision is. But it’d be a lot easier if I had coached him. I think it’d be a lot easier for him, too, quite honestly. Because he would have a feel for whether he wanted to be here or not.”

Of course, Monroe may not have a choice in the end. If no offer sheet comes, he’ll either have to settle for something less than a max deal in Detroit — or for considerably less with the one-year qualifying offer that’d allow him to be an unrestricted free agent next summer.

By then, Van Gundy will have had a chance to show what he can do as a coach, and what he has done with great success in previous stops in Orlando and Miami. For now, though, having done what he could to address Detroit’s desperate need for perimeter shooting — and if it meant overpaying to do so, so be it — Van Gundy says “our roster’s pretty well set.”

“And I think we’re gonna make some noise,” added Meeks, the primary Pistons target who signed a three-year, $19 million deal Monday. “Especially when you see all the moves that are going on the NBA with free agency. The East is wide open.”

East only tougher

That’s one way of looking at it, I suppose. This summer’s free agency certainly has altered the landscape surrounding the Pistons, who’ve missed the playoffs five years running. But if anything, they’ve probably lost ground.

The Cavaliers rolled out the red carpet for LeBron James, still may swing a deal for Kevin Love, and insist they’re going to keep Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 overall pick in last month’s draft. They’ve averaged less than 25 wins a season since James bolted for the Heat in 2010, but now they’re the NBA title favorites with the Las Vegas oddsmakers.

Elsewhere, the Bulls, who won 48 games without Derrick Rose last year, have brought in veteran Pau Gasol and rookie Doug McDermott. Indiana still needs to re-sign Lance Stephenson, but it has added a couple shooters to a team that owned the best record in the East last season. And though the Heat took a huge hit, it did keep two-thirds of its Big 3, filling part of the void with Luol Deng.

Young teams on the rise in Toronto and Washington remained largely intact — the Wizards replaced Trevor Ariza with Paul Pierce — and even New York, which finished eight games better than Detroit in the standings, managed to convince star Carmelo Anthony to stay with the Knicks with the promise of a brighter future.

“I certainly notice what you’re noticing,” Van Gundy said, when asked about the East’s changing dynamic. “I mean, people are getting better. But I just worry about us.”

Unfortunately for him, that’s about all he can do for the moment: Worry, and wait.


New Pistons guard Jodie Meeks, left, and president and coach Stan Van Gundy try to give all the right answers at The Palace. / Clarence Tabb Jr. / Detroit News
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