Stan Van Gundy says the Pistons' poor record demanded some 'adjustment.'
Auburn Hills — This is how you clean house.
You move the furniture — to the curb, if necessary — instead of just vacuuming around it, hoping no one notices.
And that's what the Pistons finally began doing Monday, releasing veteran forward Josh Smith — their highest-paid and most-polarizing player — in a move that was both stunning and surprisingly sensible, for all parties involved.
Stan Van Gundy, the Pistons' president and head coach in charge of this cluttered mess at The Palace, said it wasn't a matter of "convincing" owner Tom Gores to pay Smith more than $30 million to go away. But he acknowledged that Monday's white flag, or White Elephant Sale, or whatever it was, was something he and his boss had been discussing for "the last three weeks or so."
Pistons fans, of course, have been discussing it for a lot longer than that, as Smith, despite spending less than 18 months in Detroit, had become a symbol of years of organizational dysfunction and short-sighted thinking.
His was a disastrous free-agent signing two summers ago, as it turned out, one of Joe Dumars' final, desperate acts as he tried to retool a roster that was beyond repair. And it didn't take analytics or a scout's sixth sense to see that, either.
Evidence of Smith's offense-wrecking presence was actually audible many nights at the Palace, with ill-conceived shots eliciting shrieks and groans from what passes for a crowd these days in Auburn Hills. Perhaps fittingly, Smith's last act in a Pistons uniform was missing a pair of free throws in the waning seconds Sunday as a late rally came up short against the Nets.
Still, the decision to put Smith on waivers Monday came as a shock to just about everyone, including his teammates, who learned of the news shortly before their midday practice. The 11th-year pro is putting up career-worst shooting percentages this season, but in the second year of a four-year, $54 million contract, he still seemed unlikely to move.
'Time for a change'
Forward Greg Monroe, a pending free agent who never developed any chemistry with Smith, called it "definitely the most surprising thing that's happened since I've been in the league." And that's saying something, coming from a guy who has played for two different owners and four head coaches, while enduring both a player mutiny and an owners' lockout in his four-plus NBA seasons.
Point guard Brandon Jennings echoed those sentiments, summarizing Van Gundy's brief team meeting Monday with a bewildered shrug, "He said it was just time for a change."
Past time, as we all know.
But that's a distinction Van Gundy doesn't really need to make, given his short tenure and his elevated status here, with dual titles and his own mandate, not some silly, playoffs-or-bust directive. And more than anything, Monday's roster purge was an acknowledgement of exactly that.
If Gores didn't take much convincing, it's probably because he saw just how costly it can be to trade away a bad contract, something Van Gundy could have done soon after taking this job in May. Unwilling to use the amnesty clause on Ben Gordon two years ago, the Pistons ended up sending a first-round pick to Charlotte to unload him. That pick ended up a lottery selection this past summer, an embarrassing postscript to the end of Dumars' tenure — and another reason to doubt Gores' judgment.
The asking price for Smith probably was something similar as Van Gundy and his general manager, Jeff Bower, fielded calls in recent weeks with the team floundering. And while Sacramento showed the most interest in Smith over the summer, the return would've been more of the same. (Jason Thompson and either Derrick Williams or Carl Landry, ESPN reported.)
"I would rather be where we are right now," Van Gundy insisted Monday, "than having taken back the players that we were offered that would've sat on our (salary) cap for the next three years. I think that would've slowed down our rebuilding efforts."
Clearly, that's what this is now — a rebuilding effort — with no pretense of winning anytime soon.
That's never an easy sell. But really now, can it be any harder than what fans in Detroit have been subjected to the past several years? A fire sale sounds more than reasonable, honestly. And if there's any silver lining to be found in this season's abominable start, that'd be it.
'Didn't anticipate this'
Jettisoning Smith, who'll latch on with Houston or Sacramento or some other contender, gives Van Gundy more cap room to reshape this roster this summer and next. It also allows him to spend more time focusing on the development of young players, from Andre Drummond to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to Spencer Dinwiddie.
But there's also this: As humiliating as it is to get drowned out by Toronto Raptors fans in your own building — that was last Friday's show at The Palace — at least it ends the charade.
"I didn't anticipate this," said Van Gundy, though he probably should have, in hindsight. "I mean, we went into the season expecting to be much, much better than this. For whatever reasons, it hasn't worked out that way. And to just continue on the same course and not do anything differently at 5-23 would be pretty bad leadership at this point."
Pretty hard to argue that, I guess. And we've certainly seen enough of that — bad leadership — from the Pistons in recent years. Monday was just another painful reminder.