Niyo: Pistons’ daunting challenges squarely on Gores

John Niyo
The Detroit News

The hard questions don’t have easy answers. The easy questions aren’t worth asking at this point.

And the age-old question Pistons fans are left to ponder today — “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” — really is a loaded one.

Yeah, so?

That’d be the natural response, given where this franchise was and where its headed now that Stan Van Gundy is out as team president and head coach.

That long-simmering decision came as no surprise, really. The writing has been on the wall for weeks, if not months. And while it wasn’t terribly petty in the end — owner Tom Gores had plenty of praise for Van Gundy in Monday’s press release — this certainly isn’t pretty, either.

Because Gores and his management team are once again asking Pistons fans — what’s left of them, anyway — to brace for more change and the kind of uncertainty they were told was history back in 2014. That’s when Gores handed Van Gundy the keys to the house as well as the car in the garage, talking about re-setting the culture and “connecting the front office to the floor.”

More: Here’s a look at possible Pistons coaching candidates

Gores called that headline-grabbing hire a “real coup for Detroit,” swooping in to make Van Gundy an offer other NBA teams wouldn’t match and one the veteran coach couldn’t refuse.

But here we are — four years and one fleeting playoff appearance later — wondering if we’ve just witnessed another Palace coup, with Arn Tellem, the PS&E vice chairman and Gores’ chief lieutenant, expected to play an influential role in everything that comes next. Retrofitting the front office. Finding a coach who can squeeze a contender out of a capped-out roster. Figuring out a way to fill all those empty seats in the fancy new downtown arena they still effectively rent.

Presumably, there’s a plan in place, and one that’ll end better than some of the Pistons’ failed free-agent forays in recent years with Van Gundy in charge. If Gores and Tellem can lure an experienced general manager to Detroit and bring in a coach with a track record of developing players — like former Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer or Toronto’s Dwane Casey, if he’s let go after another playoff exit — then maybe this all looks much different a year from now.

Familiar possibilities

There are other strong candidates out there as well, not to mention some familiar faces — Chauncey Billups? Jerry Stackhouse? — that might excite the fans in Detroit, and probably the players, too.

At the moment, though, this feels more like the coup de grace. A mercy killing, if you will. Van Gundy wanted one more season to see what he could do with the roster he built, and that’s understandable: He got all of 44 minutes with Blake Griffin together on the court with Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond. And it’d require some revisionist history to look at the roster he inherited four years ago and suggest little has changed here.

Still, it’s hard to see how this would’ve ended much differently for Van Gundy, who lasted longer in Detroit than every other coach since Chuck Daly resigned in 1992. And, frankly, there’s no reason this divorce should’ve taken this long.

The Pistons were eliminated from playoff contention on April 4. Their season ended a week later. And if ownership was convinced significant changes needed to be made — something Gores strongly suggested in his last media session during the Pistons’ home finale — there really wasn’t much left to discuss.

Van Gundy said late Monday he was “perfectly willing” to relinquish his front-office title, but with general manager Jeff Bower’s fate also hanging in the balance, there was no middle ground to be found, apparently.

This was the deal they’d made four years ago, when the Pistons handed Van Gundy a five-year, $35 million contract. And this was the not-so-subtle message the 58-year-old coach delivered back in March, as the season slipped away, candidly noting he’d be comfortable walking away if it came to it.

“I guess I have a decision to make, too,” Van Gundy had said. “It’s a two-way thing, but it’s really him first.”

And now it’s all on him — on Gores — which is the way it should be. He and his Platinum Equity crew bought this team for a song seven years ago, but fans are still waiting for a winning return on that investment. The Pistons’ move back to Detroit — shepherded by Tellem — was part of a much larger plan, with all kinds of civic and business implications. But this is still professional sports, where the goal is to win a championship, isn’t it?

Gores, in his statement Monday, said “we decided that a change is necessary to regain our momentum,” which aside from the troubling pronouns is also a bit of a reach.

Salary challenges

Impulse and momentum are two different forces. And if the Pistons were adrift when Van Gundy took over, they’re now landlocked, with $75 million tied up in those three core players next season and almost no salary-cap flexibility until 2020.

Van Gundy’s best moves were talent swaps — trades that brought in Jackson, Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris, among others. But his draft missteps may haunt the franchise for years — specifically passing up Donovan Mitchell last summer — and there’s not enough surplus value on the roster thanks to all the free-agent overpays for role players like Jon Leuer and Langston Galloway.

So, yes, there’s ample evidence to justify pulling the plug here. The problem is there’s much less that suggests the people in power can find the right answer in the dark.