Auburn Hills – — The duality of Stan Van Gundy's official titles can clearly be found inside his coaching office inside the practice facility.
A board in front of him carries the names of every NBA player with the year they become free agents next to it, while the adjacent wall displays the names of every Pistons player, with a star next to eight names — players who started at least half their games last season.
Van Gundy, the team president and its head coach, candidly admits he's curious about how the pieces will mesh on the floor with training camp a mere handful of days away.
"Those eight don't include (D.J.) Augustin, who didn't start but was really a starter (in Chicago)," Van Gundy said. "You have nine guys who very fairly consider themselves starters. Last I checked the rules, I won't be able to start nine. There'll be four guys who won't start. What do they do? They'll learn to deal with it; they may not like it but they'll play."
Aside from Augustin, a free-agent addition at point guard, Van Gundy had stars next to the names of Kyle Singler, Caron Butler, Andre Drummond, Brandon Jennings, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Jodie Meeks to go along with the two players who represent the biggest questions he faced upon taking the job a few months ago: Josh Smith and Greg Monroe.
Van Gundy acknowledges the possibility one of them may have to come off the bench, although he wouldn't hedge and insists he has no predisposed thoughts.
When he looked at Smith's film from last season, he didn't see the player he coached against in multiple playoff series when Smith was in Atlanta and Van Gundy coached the Orlando Magic.
"Last year wasn't indicative of what he's capable of as a basketball player," Van Gundy said. "He was an incredibly tough guy to play against (back then). At both ends, he gave us fits. He's one of the most versatile frontline guys in the whole league. He has potential to be a great two-way player and you didn't really see that last year, in all honesty. I think Josh would agree with that."
He mulled plenty of factors as to why Smith didn't make the impact that came with signing a $50 million deal last summer. Whether they be reasons or excuses, he had to deal with Smith on both levels this offseason.
As tricky as Smith's situation was, Monroe's was even more uncertain as the two sides were unable to come to terms on a long-term contract. Monroe will be an unrestricted free agent next summer after signing a $5.3 million qualifying offer.
After calling the team's four-year offer "solid," one that sources told the News last month was slightly more than Smith's deal, Van Gundy said he was disappointed Monroe turned it down but wasn't surprised.
"I've got great respect for him as a player and person, and he's the kind of guy you want to build this around," Van Gundy said. "I think he's a mature guy who thought it out. I don't think greed had any part of it whatsoever."
As definitive as he is about the separation between coaching Monroe and dealing with Monroe as an executive, Van Gundy is also curious how his team will respond, as they are the only team in the last five seasons to be without a playoff appearance.
"I've said to guys already, our defense and rebounding will have to carry us early in the year until I get it figured out," Van Gundy said. "I have ideas, I have a good feel for our players, but in terms of how we put that together, I don't know."
Asked and answered
Selections from Stan Van Gundy's Q&A session:
Q: Now that you take the executive hat off …?
A: I don't know I ever take it off. Jeff (Bower, general manager) and I sort of worked out how we'll communicate with that stuff, and Dennis (Mannion, Palace president) on the other side. Jeff and I, when I'm in town, will meet at 7:30 before the coaches meetings every day, just to keep a handle on what's going on.
Q: So you have to delegate more as a coach then executive?
A: Not so much on the court, practice and stuff. But some of the day-to-day ordinary stuff, I'll stay on top of. Four or five days of the week, I'll make sure to update Tom (Gores), Bob (Wentworth), Phil (Norment). Send them an email, this is what's going on. That's a big part of my job, staying in touch with Tom and making sure ownership knows what's going on and has input on important decisions and doesn't get caught by surprise.
That's not one-sided. They're great about staying in touch, the communication has been tremendous. Tom has far more involvement and input than people here thought previously. Not input in terms of telling you what to do. But he has questions, a piece of advice, everything.
Q: Can an owner be too involved?
A: No. Everybody needs to know, it's Tom's team. How can you be too involved when it's your business. In no other business would people say that, other than sports. Nobody would ever ask, can Tom be too involved with Platinum Equity. It's his business, he runs the show. In every business you decide where you can be involved and where you can't. Tom doesn't make every deal at Platinum Equity but he oversees. I think he does the same thing with the Pistons. He's not trying to run practice.
But he's involved with basketball decisions, free agency. I won't say potential trades, but nothing ever got close in the summer but he was involved with calls.
Q: You talk about deal-making. You came into this summer with a game plan for Greg (Monroe). Obviously you didn't come to an agreement. Were you ever close to getting anything done?
A: That I can't answer. That's more to Greg, was he close to an agreement? There came a point where his agent said, "Look, we don't want to get into a long back and forth. Give us your best offer." We sat and talked about it and outlined some things we wanted to accomplish with the offer. When I say "we," that was ownership involved. It was a well-thought-out, solid offer in terms of what we wanted to offer. Greg had to make a decision. I'm being honest. I was disappointed to a degree.
A: No, not surprised. You're not gonna surprise me in this league. I was disappointed for us. We certainly wanted him to take the four-year deal. I've got great respect for him as a player and person, and he's the kind of guy you want to build this around. At the same time, going forward and how you rebuild this thing, we have to have some discipline in what we do.
Q: Fiscal discipline?
A: We went to what we thought was a significant offer but one we could live with in our overall structure of how we wanted to do things in the next 3-4 years. I think you get to a point where, we were right where we wanted to be if he took it, that would've made us the happiest. It didn't work that way and I have great respect for what he did. He left a lot of guaranteed money on the table because his goals were different with what he wanted to do. I think he's a mature guy who thought it out. I don't think greed had any part of it whatsoever. I think Greg decided he wanted to get to unrestricted free agency and be able to call his own shots with where he played.
His attitude has been great. At least I haven't noticed it from my point. Business is business. I've got no hard feelings. I hope he doesn't. I've seen no sign of a rift. He's come in and worked hard, he's been receptive to me and our coaching staff. He's fun to be with.
It changes strategy with where we go next offseason but for this season, it doesn't change anything.
Q: Was there ever concern he doesn't want to be here?
A: It's certainly a concern that he wasn't sure that he wanted to be here. It wasn't a definite "I definitely want to be here" kind of thing. Greg has concerns about some of the things that happened here. I think he handled it professionally. I think he handled the whole process professionally. I think we did, too.
Q: Does that affect how you coach him on the floor?
A: I couldn't do that even if I tried. Pete Carril (former Princeton coach) had a quote where he wants everything to go right, every day. Because the details are important. When I get out there, I'm coaching, I'm correcting. I couldn't flip that switch anyways. You always have guys in the last year of their contracts. That's a fact of life in the NBA. I don't think you coach anyone any differently. We're coaching to win, to try to be as good as we can. Then when it's time for business decisions, you make business decisions, but you have to separate from what's going on with that.
Q: Speaking of business decisions, you have what's going on with Josh. When you looked at the film and what you saw from him last year, what stood out to you? And, with the rumors swirling around, do you pull him in here and let him know what's going on or what isn't?
A: I think last year, and Josh would say the same thing, wasn't indicative of what he's capable of as a basketball player. We had to play him a lot in Orlando, four times a year and 10 playoff games. Five years in Orlando, I had to coach against him 30 times.
He was an incredibly tough guy to play against. At both ends, he gave us fits. He's one of the most versatile frontline guys in the whole league. He has potential to be a great two-way player and you didn't really see that last year, in all honesty. I think Josh would agree with that. Whatever the reasons are, it's not relevant. We think Josh is capable of a lot better basketball.
A lot of that has to come from him in his commitment to getting back to playing the way he's capable of playing. I take responsibility for two things, and the hard part for players is you have to demand a high level, which means they're gonna be (mad) at you quite a bit.
I said it to him and to his dad, I don't wanna let him be mediocre because I know how good he can be. The other thing is, we have to put him in situations where we maximize his skills and abilities — where he does the things that I know damn well, from being on the other side, that he's capable of doing. That's what I've seen on film.
I didn't wait for him to come in here to talk to him. When the rumors came up, I talked to him on the phone and was really honest with him on our stance. I'm not getting into the details of those conversations, Josh can get into it if he can. I try to be really honest and really direct as I will be with guys going forward.
Josh has heard a million trade rumors. I don't think they bothered him a whole lot anyways. You hear them all the time and 99 percent of them don't come true. The rumors with Josh were so persistent, and there were some things that were way off from the truth that I had to make sure he heard from us.
Q: Have you internally made the decision that someone of those three has to come off the bench? Or have you decided they can't play together in stretches?
A: I think the second would be closer. I think there are situations where we'll play bigger and play them together.
Q: Sometimes it worked last year.
A: I was gonna say that. What I don't think will happen is it'll be our primary lineup. I'll go into camp, probably, I think I'm pretty open-minded but this will be the most open-minded I've ever been in coaching. I think if you look at the positions … people who watched us all the time, fans, media, coaches, whatever — if I gave 15 people and (asked) who would start, I might get 15 different lineups.
Maybe what emerges is those three guys start at 3-4-5. I don't anticipate that would be the case but even if they do, that won't be the lineup that gets the most minutes. It can be effective against some teams and some lineups.
What we'll do in the preseason is start a different group with different rotations almost every game and look at every team in the East and say, on a night-to-night basis, what's the best way for us to start and rotate our players?
Starting isn't important to me or other coaches. But it's really important to players. As a coach you're looking at, you have to have a balance of your best offensive players, you have to know what you're doing in your second unit. Maybe you need a go-to guy in your second unit. I don't think on most teams the five best guys are starting.
Q: The five guys that fit?
A: Right. And the bench that fits. If I have to talk about our strengths, I think one of our biggest strengths is balance and depth. I don't think we have to rely on anybody getting us 25 points a night. We're best when we're sharing and moving the ball. No matter what starting lineup you look at, when you look at our bench and compare it to other people's bench, I think you have to say their bench matches up well. That's a great strength.
What you said, I have to find the best way to rotate guys, so that we have offense-defense balance on the floor with the understanding that you guys (media) will portray everything as a battle, as if the guy I'm starting is better than the guy I'm bringing off the bench. That's not always the case.
There's eight guys on our roster; those guys started half or more of their games last year and it doesn't include (D.J.) Augustin, who didn't start but was really a starter. They brought him off the bench but he played the whole game.
Include him, you have nine guys who very fairly consider themselves starters. Last time I checked the rules, I won't be able to start nine. They'll at least be four guys who won't start. What do they do? They'll learn to deal with it. They may not like it but they'll play.
Q: I guess if there's one guy you can pencil in, it would be Andre (Drummond)?
A: He's 21 years old and he's already an elite defender and rebounder.
Q: I'd disagree on the defender part just yet.
A: I understand. He's an elite shot-blocker. Fourth in the league, you're an elite guy. You might think he can do more but again, he was 20 years old. He's one of the best rebounders in the league on a team that's going to emphasize defense and rebounding. Is he a definite to start at center? No, he'll have to earn it like everybody else.
But he's got the best ability to anchor a defense and one of the best in the league in terms of potential. There's a lot of ways to play good defense, but to be elite you have to have everybody doing their job. You have to be disciplined in your system. You can't make mistakes, but size and ability to protect the rim means a lot.
He protects the rim, Josh can. He didn't get much chance — it's hard to do from the (small forward) — and I'm impressed with Greg. He doesn't have the jumping ability or shot-blocking ability but his technique is very, very good. He needs to develop discipline to not get silly fouls but I think he can be really good.
He's capable of doing virtually everything and he will do it. No, he's got to do it for longer periods of time in a game and he's gotta do it day to day in practice and night to night in a game. He's got to sustain it, it's got to be every day. He's got the ability to impact the game on a "bad" night. It doesn't matter. The things he does he can do every night. I think he's capable of it.
I've said it to him several times. I'm not worried about whether or not he likes me. I hope he likes me. Nobody likes to be hated. I feel a responsibility to not allow him to be mediocre. I felt that way with Dwight (Howard), too. Everything within my power to help him become what he can become. He's a great young talent and I feel a sense of responsibility. I've said it several times: I'm not getting on you because I'm unhappy. I'm getting on you because there's more there.