It appeared it would work, at least at first. Stan Van Gundy inherited a mess of a roster four years ago, was decisive and strong-willed, instilled credibility and returned the Pistons to the playoffs. He didn’t make all the right decisions, and that’s why he’s gone, but he made them, sometimes boldly, sometimes recklessly.
It’s easy to see why Tom Gores lost faith in Van Gundy’s direction, and the Pistons’ record wasn’t good enough to justify another season. But is there a reason to have faith Gores will make the next right decision, after he spent nearly a month contemplating this one? Has he learned anything in seven years as owner, going through three coaches and delivering one playoff appearance and one winning season?
The Pistons have a gaping leadership void, more pronounced now that Van Gundy, with his dual titles, is gone. Gores doesn’t seem inclined to fill it himself, popping into town a few times a year to express regret for not winning. You can’t blame him for turning over control of the franchise to a respected guy like Van Gundy. You can blame him for mixed messages and insufficient oversight.
Before Gores — along with vice chairman Arn Tellem and Platinum Equity partner Bob Wentworth — can figure out how to fix their problems, they have to figure out what went wrong, and what they must do differently.
For starters, the dual role of president-coach is dead here, and they’ll admit it. There’s a reason only two NBA teams — San Antonio with Gregg Popovich and Minnesota with Tom Thibodeau — still use it. With Van Gundy, there weren’t enough checks and balances to prevent questionable moves, especially in the draft (insert obligatory mention of Donovan Mitchell gaffe). I’m guessing GM Jeff Bower was a trusted ally, not a debater.
And second, the Pistons’ old-school thinking has to change. It won’t be easy with their especially challenging situation. Although they have the talent to be a lower-rung playoff team, when healthy, they have an inflexible, capped-out roster, likely no first-round pick, and an expensive threesome in Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson. They’re stuck, neither in prime position for contention, nor for a major rebuild.
The league has changed since Van Gundy was successful elsewhere surrounding a big man with shooters. He didn’t win enough here (152-176) partly because he never collected enough shooters, but also because the Pistons are locked into a center who’s both young and old-school. Drummond is a rebounding behemoth, but lacks the offensive skill and defensive quickness to be a game-changer.
Change wasn’t easy for Van Gundy, 58, who won in Orlando and Miami with his hard-driving style. His blunt honesty is appreciated by people like me, and maybe you, and it will be missed. But as time passes, it isn’t as appreciated by players.
Drummond and Jackson bore the weight of the scrutiny, as they should, as the highest-paid players before Griffin’s arrival. Too often, the Pistons’ effort waned, as Van Gundy’s irritation rose. At times, he complained about the team’s lack of energy, rightly so. He’d put blame on himself, rightly so. But he couldn’t coax out more. I don’t think players quit on him, but they did cave too easily to frustration.
Van Gundy tried to shake it up one last bold time, acquiring Griffin from the Clippers for the Pistons’ top two scorers, Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley, and a first-round pick. Even if it didn’t make good financial or basketball sense, it was a gambit to stir excitement in the midst of a moribund season.
Like Van Gundy’s overall regime, it worked at first, providing an energetic boost. Then Griffin got hurt and Jackson stayed hurt and the Griffin-Jackson-Drummond trio played precisely four games together.
If Gores was pushing to acquire a star like Griffin for a playoff run, was he obliged to give Van Gundy another season to see it through? That’s certainly what Van Gundy thought, and he told the News he was willing to surrender some control and return just as coach, but a deal couldn’t be reached with Gores.
That’s not to say Van Gundy earned another season, but with the Pistons under Gores, the plan meanders. If Gores intends to keep the franchise a while — he’s given no indication he’s eager to cash in and sell — he needs to fully appreciate the responsibility.
Too many mistakes
This next hire is an enormous one, as the Pistons must find a director of basketball operations, preferably with experience, before picking a coach. They need someone in charge who has a basketball vision, because the current roster is a hodge-podge of muddied plans and bloated contracts. Tellem is savvy on the business side and could play a larger role, but the Pistons’ problem is basketball, not business. Believe it or not, they did fine financially despite all the empty seats at Little Caesars Arena.
The Van Gundy Experience was working when the Pistons made the playoffs in his second season and played the Cavaliers tight while getting swept. It then devolved into a cautionary tale about leadership and vision. Jackson’s repeated absences cannot be discounted, but Van Gundy didn’t collect sufficient depth to compensate for injuries.
Too many times, he veered direction, chasing mistakes with more mistakes. He drafted Stanley Johnson in the first round for defense, and missed on a shooter like Devin Booker. Two years later, he grabbed a shooter in the first round, Luke Kennard, and missed on Mitchell, now a star in Utah.
Van Gundy’s search for shooters is where he made free-agent mistakes — Langston Galloway, Jon Leuer. He kept rearranging and pulled off some clever trades, but never figured out the Drummond conundrum. Then he doubled down on the big-man issue with Griffin, who needs to continue expanding his perimeter game to space the floor.
That’s where it circles back to Gores. Did Van Gundy repeatedly alter direction because the owner didn’t provide any, and then made the risky leap for Griffin partly at Gores’ urging? Was Gores too tightly tied to Drummond and his contract for Van Gundy to trade him?
Making the playoffs clearly was a goal for the Pistons, and that’s fine. Tanking is unseemly, even if it occasionally works, and the Pistons have been irrelevant too long to disappear for another five years.
But now they sit nearly in the same spot as four years ago, with better players but not necessarily a better plan. There needs to be a separation of duties and mindsets — immediate benefit versus long-term vision. Ultimately, Van Gundy didn’t work out here, but Gores and his trusted advisers have to know there’s plenty of blame to go around.