If it’s this difficult to make it work, perhaps it can’t work anymore. If Tom Gores and Stan Van Gundy need three weeks to hammer out a plan, they don’t have a viable plan.
The longer the Pistons take figuring out their future, the worst it looks for everyone. Gores reportedly wants Van Gundy back as coach but with a restructured front office. Van Gundy reportedly is resisting significant changes.
At this point — barring some unforeseen compromise — it’s best for the Pistons and Van Gundy to part ways. Gores doesn’t have to call it a firing. Van Gundy doesn’t have to call it a resignation. Call it amicable, just make the darn call already to retain some credibility with fans and the league.
Sticking with the status quo now, after the Pistons missed the playoffs for the third time in Van Gundy’s four seasons, would look like settling. Based on Gores’ remarks at halftime of the home finale April 9 — “We still have to make changes, we’re not winning” — I doubt he’s eager to settle.
But the longer this goes, he might not have a choice, because hiring an entirely new regime would be problematic. It also would require a backup plan, and there’s no evidence Gores even has one. And if he decides to give Van Gundy another shot with a healthy (theoretically) Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, would the coach demand a contract extension to avoid lame-duck status?
So many variables, but in some ways, this is unfolding as expected, or feared. Gores is pushing a restructure, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Van Gundy, ever prideful and stubborn, is pushing back on efforts to alter the role of his GM, Jeff Bower, unwilling to cede personnel control. Based on the report, Bower will meet with Gores this week, after Van Gundy went through a series of discussions with the owner.
Gores and Van Gundy haven’t talked publicly since the season ended, but at the time, both suggested they had plenty to figure out.
From Gores: “I think we gotta make some changes. I’m just not sure what they are. … Stan’s a team player, and he’ll do what’s right for the organization, just like I will.”
From Van Gundy: “He has a decision to make, and yeah, I guess I have a decision to make too. … I’m not the least bit concerned about it. I’ve been in this league 20 years and been very, very fortunate, I don’t need to work another day in my life. I have all the security I need — this is about what’s best for the organization. I’ve said before, if I’m not here next year, I’m not chasing jobs anywhere else. You can come look for me on my lake in the summer here, or my porch in Florida in the winter.”
That sounds like a coach who won’t stay in an arrangement he doesn’t like under a boss he doesn’t want. There have been reports Pistons vice chairman Arn Tellem, who works closely with Gores, could take a more prominent role. Van Gundy is 58 with a wide range of interests and has said he could leave with few regrets, even with one year at $7 million left on his contract. The money could be settled easily enough, as the respect between Gores and Van Gundy seems genuine.
When Van Gundy came here four years ago, the Pistons were an absolute mess, and he brought instant credibility. It’s amazing to recall now, but Van Gundy reportedly chose the Pistons over Golden State, primarily because Gores was willing to give him control as president of basketball operations. Van Gundy hired trusted associate Bower and started making deals, and in his second season, the Pistons broke a six-year playoff drought.
But now they’re stuck again with an inflexible roster, after trading for Griffin. Van Gundy and Bower obviously didn’t make that move in a vacuum, it bore the blessing of the owner. And before getting injured late in the season, Griffin flashed his star persona.
Van Gundy believes when Griffin, Drummond and Jackson are healthy — they played exactly four games together — the Pistons are a playoff team. And they probably are, although without the ability to add role pieces, their ceiling is low, perhaps no higher than a six seed.
Some personnel decisions were horrible, especially in the draft, bypassing future stars Donovan Mitchell and Devin Booker.
The selection last year of Luke Kennard over Mitchell is virtually a fireable offense by itself, and watching the Utah star shine in the playoffs isn’t helping Van Gundy. Free-agent signings — Langston Galloway, Jon Leuer — cost way too much and delivered way too little.
The Pistons certainly need to reassess the way they acquire players, and I think Van Gundy would admit it. But allowing Bower to be fired or demoted would make it appear he was shirking responsibility. Almost everyone in Van Gundy’s front office and coaching staff is on an expiring contract, so a clean sweep would be simple for Gores. And I doubt anyone would say firing Van Gundy was unfair with a 152-176 record here — not even Van Gundy himself.
Rumors of change
Has he grated on players at times and failed to coax maximum effort out of them? Yep. His blunt, hard-driving personality is a strength and a weakness.
Did missing his point guard, Jackson, for 37 games make it more difficult to judge the roster? Of course, and the Pistons were 27-18 with him in the lineup. But counting on Jackson is an increasingly risky proposition.
Until there is actual change, there will be rumors of change. Tellem is a prominent figure, although he has many duties on the business side of the franchise.
Former Piston Chauncey Billups’ name surfaced, although he shot down the idea as long as the Pistons’ positions were filled. Former Memphis coach David Fizdale is an available candidate, and there are others.
But convincing someone to take over a roster filled with large, hard-to-trade contracts might not be as easy as you think. The Pistons are neither rebuilding nor steadily rising, and they likely won’t have their first-round pick this year.
How does this team get better, in the long term or short term?
Retaining Van Gundy may be the easy short-term answer because he acquired the players and knows them best. But to me, it looks like delaying the inevitable. If Gores and Van Gundy need this much time to move forward, it’s time to move on.