The Pistons pulled off a blockbuster trade Monday night, acquiring star Blake Griffin from the Clippers for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, a first-round pick and more. It was big and it was bold, and although not many around the NBA saw it coming, the Pistons clearly had been mulling something of this magnitude.
In the midst of an eight-game losing streak, Stan Van Gundy had plenty to consider — the present, the future, and his own job. Owner Tom Gores hasn’t publicly issued any ultimatums about making the playoffs, but the heat was percolating.
So Van Gundy might have felt compelled to make the move. He’s in the fourth year of a five-year contract, and a season that began with great promise — 14-6 on Nov. 29 — was crumbling. Since Reggie Jackson injured his ankle, the Pistons are 3-12, now 22-26 overall, and the streak has featured some excruciating losses.
You can see the driving force behind the deal in this in-depth Q-and-A conducted by Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski last Friday, when Van Gundy talked about fates and fortunes, and perhaps did some foreshadowing.
Wojo: Has this losing streak — and the injury to Reggie Jackson — shaken your belief in what this team is capable of doing, and does it alter your plans for the trade deadline?
Van Gundy: Nobody here is making any excuses for injuries or anything else. But you do have to try to remain objective in the way you evaluate your team.
We’ve said since I’ve been here, we’re trying to win now, but we’re not gonna give up our draft picks and young players, and that’s a very, very difficult thing to do, to walk that tightrope. When we took over the Pistons, they had the worst record in the Eastern Conference for the previous five years. Basically, what we’ve been doing since that first year is hanging around that 7-8-9-10 (seed) range, right in the middle. I think we’re all talking about it internally, is there a way now to move it forward, to where we can do more than fight for one of the last playoff spots?
Q. You mean, talking about making a move to win right now?
A. Well, that’s the question. It all depends on what you can do. Are there ways you can raise your talent level and make your team better now and next year — a two-year window, or even longer?
Q. There was an ESPN report that the Pistons would be aggressive at the Feb. 8 deadline and were poking around about (Charlotte star) Kemba Walker. Something like that would confirm a win-now mentality, correct?
A. Well, I think that’s always been our preference. I think that’s (owner Tom Gores’) preference. The question is, at what level can you win? Can you get to the fourth spot, the fifth spot, the eighth spot? Based on that, what direction should you take? It’s hard to figure out, all a matter of what’s available.
Q.Very clearly, teams like the Tigers and Red Wings are rebuilding. There seems to be more ambiguity in labeling what your plan is.
A: There is. It’s not an easy thing. You can go one way — trade off your younger guys to get 33-year-old guys who are either on expiring contracts or one year left, and make a run at it now. Or you can try to sell off all your veteran guys and get picks and young guys and go on a longer process.
We don’t feel like any of our moves have strapped us to where we can’t make other moves going forward. Now, if we can get a star — which isn’t easy to do — but if there’s some way to get one of the top 20 players in the league, I think we’d be all-in on that.
Q. You’re in your fourth year here and have made the playoffs once. Do you have to balance the franchise’s long-term plan with your own need to win now?
A. Nah. I’ll be 59 this year. I’ve done this in the NBA for a long time. Financially, I’m set, I don’t need the job to support my family, to live my life. I know people have a hard time believing this, but I don’t feel pressure. Pressure is what a lot of people in our country go through — you may lose your job and how are you gonna support your family?
I have been really, really lucky. I’m not gonna be a guy coaching into my 70s, probably not even into my mid-60s. I told my wife when we came here, this was gonna be the last job, however long it ran.
Q. So you truly don’t wonder or worry about job security?
A. It’s not even an issue for me. Now, I will say I feel a responsibility to all those people up there (pointing to the Pistons offices) who have worked hard and done a good job, and I feel a responsibility to the players and fans. But on a personal level, I don’t worry at all. I think my brother (Jeff Van Gundy) had the best line, which is, ‘Getting fired doesn’t hurt, it’s all the stuff leading up to getting fired that’s painful.’
People talk about, ‘Oh, the heat’s on.’ I’ve had a lot of coaches say, the firing actually takes away the pain. There’s gonna come a day, and at that point, I’d say thanks for the opportunity, wish everybody well, and move on. I like this job and I want to make it better, but if it ended tomorrow, I’d be at peace with that
Q.You get any sense from ownership they’d make that move?
A. I don’t feel it, I don’t sense it and I don’t care about it. I honestly don’t care. I care deeply about this losing streak, and that bothers the hell out of me, affects my life and the way I feel.
Q.There’s a narrative that it’s playoffs-or-bust for you. You think that’s fair?
A. That’s fine. And I don’t know if that’s Tom’s thinking or not. But his thinking is up to him — he has to do what he thinks is best for this organization. And I know he’ll do that in a thoughtful way. I like Tom, and I guarantee you, I will like Tom after this job is gone.
If he walked into my office and said, ‘You’ve got to make the playoffs to keep your job,’ it wouldn’t change what I do on a daily basis whatsoever. I wouldn’t change our personnel approach to do something stupid that would hamstring the organization for years to come.
Q. How taxing has this stretch been?
A. The only thing that’s taxing to me is losing. I have a great group, I really like our players, love the people I work with. But the losing takes a toll because I’m responsible. People want to write that it’s my fault, that’s fine. I’ve never run from that in any job.
Q. As team president, you’re also in charge of personnel, and you’ve made some draft choices that haven’t yet panned out.
A. I’m not trying to avoid accountability, but I just can’t speak on specific personnel issues. When you’re asked to evaluate – was this a good move or a bad move? — well, wait a minute, they’re on my team and I have to coach them. We’ve made some really good personnel decisions, and some not as good.
Q. Do you ever wonder if your feisty style wears on players over time?
A. I would say this — I’m not an easy guy to play for. I think there’s some things I do really well, and some things I don’t do as well. I tend to be a lot harder on guys when we’re winning than when we’re like this. It’s hard to beat on guys in a losing streak because they’re feeling bad already.
Q. During the 14-6 start, everything was looking up. Jackson got injured, and what else has happened?
A. I’m not gonna make any excuses. We had a guy get hurt, a good player, and we were struggling a little before — 5-8 in 13 games before Reggie went down. We’re trying to get back to the offensive pacing and energy we had. Hopefully we get some guys shooting the ball a little bit better. I don’t buy the notion that I was a really good coach in October and November, and all of a sudden I forgot everything in December and January.
Q. Is Andre Drummond’s rise the most encouraging development this season?
A. His improvement has been significant. He’s a historically great rebounder, and for him to be able to make that improvement on his free throws, that’s incredible. While he’s still a little bit inconsistent, he’s improved on defense, and he’s shown he can be a playmaker in the hub of an offense. I’m disappointed for him he didn’t make the All-Star game.
I also think Luke Kennard’s development has been extremely encouraging. I think Reggie Bullock’s improvement has been really, really encouraging.
Q. So to sum it up, because you’re stuck in the middle, the plan basically is to keep exploring all options?
A. We’re trying to get better whenever we can, wherever we can. We’re concerned about the present, trying to put a team on the floor that can compete in the playoffs, and we’re trying to have a future that has some optimism.
The easy thing to do is one or the other. We’re trying to do both, and it’s sometimes difficult to explain or understand, but that’s where we are, walking that tightrope.