Title teams start with small moves, says Van Gundy

Vincent Goodwill Jr.
The Detroit News

Toronto — Every time Anthony Tolliver hits a 3-pointer or bodies up a power forward on defense, and every time Joel Anthony emerges from mothballs to block shots or absorb minutes in the instance of foul trouble, Stan Van Gundy the executive is validated.

They certainly were little more than blips on the NBA transaction page when the Pistons essentially took advantage of teams in or around the luxury tax who were looking to dump salary, but Van Gundy feels they are crucial pieces toward building a championship team — or at least a foundation.

The Phoenix Suns wanted to get rid of Tolliver's salary so they took on Tony Mitchell's second-round money, to the Pistons' gain.

"He's been great. We knew he was a quality guy, a great professional," Van Gundy said. "He's a good fit with Greg (Monroe) and Andre (Drummond) because he can space the floor and create more room for them. He's a pretty good defender."

Anthony was acquired in the preseason for Will Bynum, who likely was going to be the third point guard behind Brandon Jennings and D.J. Augustin.

"Anthony Tolliver, we thought was a very good move. Joel Anthony was a very good move for us. He's helped us on numerous occasions," Van Gundy said. "Those are the kind of moves that don't get a lot of attention but are important for your organization."

Of course, those moves don't garner any real positive attention if the main pieces aren't handling their business, but Van Gundy believes they're crucial to moving forward, from a team that should be a playoff team to one that's in the thick of actual contention.

At every stop, he's routinely asked about his surprising move of releasing Josh Smith with well over $27 million left on his contract, and the answer is so common it almost feels like the words are rehearsed. But perhaps he wants to show his acumen as an executive with such statements about the unheralded Tolliver and Anthony.

"A lot of times all people focus on is major moves, but if you really look at the way people build teams, it's little by little," Van Gundy said.

He thinks players such as Jodie Meeks and Augustin, players signed via free agency last summer, can be helpful pieces while in Detroit but also collateral for a bigger deal should it present itself.

The last Pistons championship team was built on unheralded players such as Chucky Atkins, Jon Barry, Cliff Robinson and Zeljko Rebraca, contributors to teams that got the Pistons back to respectability before they were parlayed into the players who won a title.

"The move that got the attention when I was in Miami was when we traded for (Shaquille O'Neal)," Van Gundy said. "But to get there it was the moves the year before that gave us quality pieces. We finished the year well and got in the second round of the playoffs."

Van Gundy's 2003-04 team went to the second round of the playoffs, losing to the top-seeded Indiana Pacers in six games, setting the stage for the O'Neal acquisition.

At the time — and historically as well — the trade was considered highway robbery for the most dominant player in the league, even if he was at the tail end of his prime.

Caron Butler just finished his second year and had promise but was three years away from being an All-Star. Brian Grant was a serviceable veteran at the tail end of his career. Lamar Odom was as close to a centerpiece as one could be in that trade, with one of his best statistical seasons at 16.4 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists.

Not even throwing in two first-round picks in addition equated to the O'Neal effect. Now, it would be foolish to suggest the Pistons are on the road to acquiring such a player — plenty of unpredictable circumstances would have to unfold.

After speaking in somewhat vague terms, he delivered a small glimpse into his plan for the future.

"Now you're able to move those guys for Shaq in a multi-(team deal)," he said. "So it's all those little steps you take, day by day, that don't seem like a lot, where you create a little cap space or give you another asset or a guy who can help you."