Pistons coach discusses relationship with team owner. Rod Beard
Detroit — Tom Gores has a big decision to make. Apparently, so might Stan Van Gundy.
That was the logical conclusion from the owner’s rare public comments at Little Caesars Arena Friday night. If you sift through the ambiguity, Gores is considering a change after the season, as the Pistons meander to the finish.
With a polite — and purposeful — non-committal on Van Gundy’s future, Gores might have begun the process of parting ways. With the Pistons likely to miss the playoffs for the third time in four seasons, it’s not a surprise.
Would Gores outright fire Van Gundy? I’m not sure it’ll come to that. When the two meet, my guess is, it’ll be amicable, and might end up being mutual. Gores could remove one of Van Gundy’s dual roles — president of basketball operations — and perhaps give him the last season of his contract solely to coach. At 58, Van Gundy might prefer to walk away than accept a new arrangement.
Speaking at halftime of the Pistons’ 99-83 victory over the Bulls, Gores laid out the scenario, sort of. With the Pistons’ 30-36 record, he certainly couldn’t endorse his coach. Out of respect for Van Gundy and the final 16 games, he didn’t want to deliver a definitive fate, either. So he said they’d talk after the season, and was asked what they planned to discuss.
“It’s about what happened this year, what we’re gonna do, our future,” Gores said. “Stan’s a team player. We’re not winning enough, so we have to talk about that.”
So, will Van Gundy be the coach next season?
“Stan and I have not discussed that,” Gores said. “I believe in Stan, but he’s a team player, so we’re gonna see. He’ll do exactly the right thing for this franchise. But right now he’s busy coaching this team. We’ll go from there.”
That’s both vague and cryptic. And to his credit, Van Gundy understands it fully. As badly as the Pistons’ chances were damaged by the injury to point guard Reggie Jackson — he’s missed 33 games with a sprained right ankle — and as boldly as Van Gundy moved to land Blake Griffin, the clock on a coach’s tenure doesn’t stop ticking.
No fables of reconstruction
Van Gundy did a good job early here, completely remaking a woeful team, with Andre Drummond the only inherited player remaining. But amid curious moves, shifting directions and key injuries, it has stalled.
“I think Tom and I are totally on the same page,” Van Gundy said. “Our team’s playing hard, I like the guys we’ve had, some things have happened out of our control. But I’m not looking to make excuses. This business is about winning games, and we haven’t been doing enough of that. … I’ve been through this several times, but never this upfront and direct, and never with this kind of relationship with an owner. I have total respect for Tom. I love the way I’ve been treated here, but I also understand and respect Tom has to do what he thinks is best for the franchise.”
But might Van Gundy also have a decision to make, if Gores removes the president’s role (and full personnel control) but offers to keep him as coach? It has been reported in NBA circles that Gores could elevate Arn Tellem, his vice chairman since 2015, to head of basketball operations.
“Yeah, I guess I have a decision to make too, you always do,” Van Gundy said. “It’s a two-way thing, but it’s really him first.”
Van Gundy doesn’t seem inclined to campaign to keep both jobs, or either job. He has said this is his last coaching stop, and reiterated he’s fine with whatever happens.
“I’ve said before, if I’m not here next year, I’m not chasing jobs anywhere else,” Van Gundy said. “You can come look for me on my lake in the summer here, or my porch in Florida in the winter. What decision Tom’s gonna make at the end of the year, that doesn’t worry me even a little bit.”
Now, would he love to stay and see what Griffin, Drummond and Jackson can do next season, healthy and fully integrated? Of course, he would. Griffin has played very well lately — 25, 31, 25, 31 points his past four games — and when Jackson has been healthy, the Pistons have looked like a playoff team. Just two years ago, they were rising nicely with him, making the playoffs for the first time in seven years.
This season, the Pistons were 19-14 with Jackson and are 11-22 since he went out. That explains a chunk of their woes, and shouldn’t be minimized. But it doesn’t explain the flawed roster assembled by Van Gundy and his GM, Jeff Bower. The Pistons lack depth and shooters, partly a consequence of shipping Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley to the Clippers for Griffin. But there have been blunders in the draft — taking Luke Kennard over Donovan Mitchell remains the monstrous one — and questionable signings.
Somehow, in a perimeter-based league, the Pistons have only one dependable wing shooter in Reggie Bullock, unless Kennard develops. At times, they look disinterested on defense and disjointed on offense. Is that the function of a mismatched roster that hasn’t had time to mesh? Or a function of Van Gundy’s sometimes-overbearing style, which can wear on players?
If Gores pushed for Van Gundy to acquire a star in Griffin, then the owner might feel obligated to give him one more season, perhaps with a shakeup on his coaching staff. But Gores didn’t sound obligated Friday night, and said they haven’t broached the topic of Van Gundy’s future, yet.
“Stan and I have no excuses, we have to win,” said Gores, adding there was no playoffs-or-else ultimatum. “We gotta deliver and we haven’t, but I think we will. And by the way, this team has not quit, I’ll tell you that. I’m not giving up on Stan, I’m not giving up on this team. I think Stan’s done a great job in certain areas, creating a good culture here. … (But) we’re not winning, so we gotta adjust something. Clearly we can’t be stubborn about anything, but I don’t think we’re that far off.”
With the addition of Griffin, Gores said the Pistons have a “good core.” That’s certainly debatable, but again, he wasn’t interested in downgrading his team with games remaining.
Considering the mutual respect between Gores and Van Gundy, this probably will unfold without any vitriol. But mutual respect doesn’t preclude tough decisions, and for the two men at the top of the Pistons organization, those decisions are coming soon.