Wojo: Pistons' next step -- end playoff drought
Auburn Hills — Stan Van Gundy is blunt, which is good. He’s also bold, which is better. And he has a plan he won’t abandon at any cost, which makes sense under one condition — the Pistons have to show progress on the court, not only in shrewd roster maneuverings.
Just about every deal Van Gundy and GM Jeff Bower have made looks like a necessary part of the process. Getting forward Tobias Harris, 23, from Orlando for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova was a great strategic move, widely lauded around the NBA.
The Pistons now have a young, talented core under workable contracts that could grow into something special. Many teams will have freedom this summer with the expanded salary cap, but the Pistons won’t have to join the free-agent fray after adding Harris and his $64-million contract. With five guys 25 or younger — Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson, Harris — the P-words are falling into place.
So, will it go from the Plan to the Process to the Playoffs? The Pistons sit at No. 9 in the East, a half-game out of the final spot as play resumes this week. They need to end the franchise’s playoff drought, no doubt, and do it as quickly as possible. But management is wise not to do it at any cost.
As team president, Van Gundy could’ve acquired a veteran by today’s deadline, surrendering a No. 1 pick or another asset, and it might have pushed the Pistons closer. It also would’ve been an illusion of progress. It would be much more beneficial to get in with players who will be around for a while, including the 6-9 Harris. What the Pistons lose in experience and continuity, they gain in promise.
“We very much want to make the playoffs this year, but we’re not gonna sacrifice the future,” Van Gundy said Wednesday. “Our future hopefully is not fighting for the seventh or eighth playoff seed. For this year, the easy thing would’ve been to keep everybody together.
“But when you look ahead, it would’ve been foolish to pass this up. We’re trying to build something that can be really, really good, and it’s up to me to bring it together as quickly as we can and still make our run.”
Van Gundy isn’t trying to fool anyone, which is much appreciated. The Pistons are in rebuild mode and he has the power and stability to stick with the plan, the one fully endorsed by owner Tom Gores. Again, that’s fine. Van Gundy has earned the right to use another P-word, Patience.
Harris is a versatile wing who can play inside or outside and is a better scorer than defender. He has considerable upside that comes with some risk. So does Jackson, acquired a year ago. So does Johnson, drafted over the touted Justise Winslow.
As much as I like Van Gundy’s moves, true validation can only come in the postseason. The Pistons are 27-27 after going 32-50 last season. Sad to say, the team’s current streak of missing the playoffs is the same as its fabled streak of Eastern Conference finals appearances — six years.
Is it vital for the Pistons to get in this year? The plan says it isn’t, although fans might disagree. But in the absence of a playoff, there has to an on-court payoff, with better defense and more consistent, cohesive effort. In an odd way, Van Gundy and Bower’s success in picking up pieces puts a bit more pressure on Van Gundy the coach. The Pistons now have talent that was drafted high and paid a lot.
Harris, who looks like a more-athletic version of Marcus Morris, gets the plan, but isn’t expecting to wait long for results.
“I think it’s a perfect fit, the nucleus, the young core,” Harris said. “I think we have the right balance of pieces and talent and offensive ability. I would hope I’m here for the team to make that playoff push.”
There’s no downside to reaching the playoffs because that whole pray-for-the-lottery thing doesn’t work. And the East is fairly wide open after the top two, Cleveland and Toronto. Chicago and Miami have injuries and Atlanta may be looking to retool. There’s nothing formidable about the bulk of the conference, and the Pistons have to know it.
If they can’t push it with trades that lack long-term gain, they at least can push it on the floor in the final 28 regular-season games. The worst thing to do is get stuck between philosophies, which is what destroyed the end of the Joe Dumars regime. As a novice owner, Gores issued a vague playoff mandate and Dumars reacted with uncertainty. He spent big on veteran players such as Josh Smith and it completely bombed.
Van Gundy now has the advantage of Gores’ measured, less-impetuous approach. The owner learned the plan has to be clear and can’t bend to public whim. And blunt-talking Van Gundy is the guy to implement it. He put together a similar team in Orlando, with a big guy (Dwight Howard) in the middle and shooters all around, and took the Magic to the NBA Finals in 2009.
“Tom’s philosophy was laid out right from the start,” Van Gundy said. “You’re always tempted, especially as a coach and as an owner, to try to rush the process. We’ve been really disciplined to the process.”
There’s a lot to process, and not a lot of time left this season. It’s a delicate balance between the Plan and the Playoffs, and soon, we should see both.