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Niyo: Van Gundy must solve Drummond-Jackson riddle

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — The coach called it “a year of misery.” And his boss has chosen to take that as a positive — or make it one, rather.

So in the aftermath of this exasperating Pistons season there’s that, at least. The organizational “synergy” that owner Tom Gores promised when he hired Stan Van Gundy as president and head coach three years ago remains intact.

But if that’s merely a default position — or a defense mechanism — or if it’s a real strength, as Van Gundy insisted Friday, we’re about to find out. Because less than 48 hours after his team capped a losing season — a 37-45 finish that felt like a step-back airball on the heels of last year’s playoff breakthrough — the man with two hats was doubling down, rather than hedging his bet.

“It was a disappointment: I think we’d be lying if we said anything else,” Van Gundy said Friday, joined by general manager Jeff Bower at his season-ending press conference at The Palace.

“But I don’t think it’s the end of our process or final verdict on our team. I think we’re still moving forward.”

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That sounds like wishful thinking to some, of course. In the Eastern Conference, only Charlotte, with 12 fewer wins this season compared to last, had a bigger dropoff than Detroit and Miami (minus-7), and no team faded faster down the stretch.

But Van Gundy says he likes the “core” of his team — a roster he completely turned over in his first two years on the job — and continues to point to its relative youth, with the top eight players on the roster age 28 or younger, as cause for optimism.

“I’m actually really hoping that there’s a lot of learning that goes on from this experience,” he said. “And that the pain of it propels us forward. Because I think no matter how much we warned against it, I think a lot of guys came in (last fall) with the attitude of, ‘Well, we’ll go from where we left off last year.’ And it doesn’t work like that.”

Dynamic duo

But if it’s going to work at all, it’s still going to come down to whether Van Gundy can make this work, building a team around Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond, a polarizing pick-and-roll tandem that came undone this season.

Jackson’s knee injury hobbled Van Gundy’s plans from the start, and the point guard’s early-December return only made things worse, disrupting team chemistry and ultimately dividing the locker room as Jackson struggled to find his game. At the end, with playoff hopes slipping away, Van Gundy finally felt compelled to pull the plug on Jackson’s season.

But the coach now says Jackson’s medical concerns are behind him — recent MRI exams confirmed as much — and he remains convinced Jackson’s confidence will return as well. By way of proof, he cited a practice a week ago before the trip to Houston, when a well-rested Jackson played a scout-team role as James Harden, “and for 45 minutes, he was unbelievable.” Attacking constantly, getting to the rim, kicking the ball out for 3-pointers.

“And guys were loving playing with him,” Van Gundy said. “To a man, everybody on our coaching staff came out of that practice saying, ‘Whoa!’ … I don’t have much doubt that he’ll get back to being that guy.”

If not, there’s little doubt where this is headed, though, because as Jackson goes, so goes Drummond. And those two — signed to contract extensions worth a combined $210 million the last two summers — remain the linchpins to this whole operation.

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A year after signing a max deal, Drummond’s progress seemed to stagnate this season, much like the Pistons’ offense. And while Jackson’s struggles certainly played a role in that, there’s no excuse for some of it, from the inconsistent efforts to the ineffective post game and the anemic free-throw shooting.

On that last count, a new pre-shot routine — even some work with virtual-reality technology — seemed to help initially last fall, as Drummond — a career 38-percent free-throw shooter — shot 45 percent from the line the first half of the season. But he shot just 26.6 percent after the All-Star break, and when Van Gundy sits down with him for his exit interview Monday, it sounds as if that’ll be among the ultimatums delivered.

“He needs to have a sense of urgency to elevate his game,” Van Gundy said. “He’s been in the league five years now. He’s still young, he hasn’t turned 24. The sky’s the limit for him.

“But he needs to do some work to get there.”

Moving parts

He’s hardly alone in that regard — others regressed in a variety of areas this season — and while Van Gundy clearly doesn’t sound ready to blow it up, despite trade rumors to the contrary involving both Jackson and Drummond this winter, he does acknowledge the need “to tweak some things with our roster.”

If Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is re-signed, that might mean a key piece like Tobias Harris or Jon Leuer gets moved this summer, particularly with the luxury tax looming. Boban Marjanovic will see an expanded role with Aron Baynes likely opting out of his contract and landing elsewhere. Henry Ellenson should as well in his second year, and the Pistons are poised to add a lottery pick to the roster in June.

Regardless, it’s on Van Gundy to figure all this out, and he knows it.

He acknowledged he’ll have to be more flexible with his playing rotation next season. And regardless of what happens with Jackson, he knows he needs to overhaul the offensive system, diversifying things “to fit our players a little bit better.” The Pistons finished 25th in the NBA in offensive efficiency, 28th in 3-point shooting, and no team took more mid-range jumpers — an anathema in basketball’s analytics revolution — than Detroit did this season.

As for any concerns about his dual-title role, Van Gundy is quick to note that Bower does all the heavy lifting in running the personnel department during the season. (“I’m 99.9-percent focused on coaching,” Van Gundy said.) It’s also Bower’s job, in part, to keep the head coach from short-circuiting with short-term thinking.

“After every loss, you want to trade everybody,” Van Gundy laughed.

“I’ve directed Jeff to do that several times. But he’s smart enough not to do that.”

The other danger, though, and Van Gundy admitted this Friday, “is you make a move and you’re so tied to that move and wanting that move to look good that you get fixated and aren’t willing to change directions.

“I really haven’t had a problem with that, I don’t think, so far.”

So far. But by staying the course, he’s willing to risk it, it seems.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo