It was nearly two years ago when Stan Van Gundy was named Pistons coach and president of basketball operations.
It would have been fitting if he donned a hard hat and pickax during his introductory news conference, foreshadowing the amount of work that would be needed to help turn the franchise around.
He had a centerpiece in Andre Drummond and a budding defensive ace in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, but the roster would need more retooling.
Pick, pick, pick.
Van Gundy began by waiving Josh Smith and swallowing his $54 million contract. Smith will continue to receive $5.4 million per year until 2020.
Then he got Reggie Jackson from the Thunder midseason to replace an injured Brandon Jennings (season-ending, Achilles).
At No. 8 in last June’s draft, he selected Stanley Johnson, who was a little raw, but gritty, which fit Van Gundy’s style.
In July, he fleeced the Suns for Marcus Morris, who had been a role player, and got an extra reserve in Reggie Bullock for a future second-round pick.
And, the latest deal, he added Tobias Harris for Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova.
Pick, pick, pick.
“There were no negatives on our part,” Van Gundy said. “We were not going into the trade deadline looking to deal either one of them. The opportunity to get Tobias for our future was too good to pass up.”
It’s been those bold moves that have marked Van Gundy’s tenure with the Pistons — and the same bold thinking that has propelled the Pistons from also-rans into playoff contenders.
With seven games remaining, the Pistons have 40 wins and are knocking on the door to the playoffs for the first time since 2008-09.
And it will be the current roster buying in to Van Gundy’s exhortations to play better defense, run more on offense and keep picking at their weaknesses: Drummond to play with the same high level of effort, Jackson to stay in front of the ball, Johnson to slow down.
With a young and inexperienced team — the starters are 26 or younger — that message might take more time to sink in.
Still, while the playoffs are no guarantee this season, the Pistons are trending in the right direction. Even playing meaningful games in early April is a step forward.
They’re still a player or two away from truly contending. Some of the improvement will come internally — Drummond continuing his ascent, Jackson getting more comfortable in a starting role, and the core continuing to mesh.
The offseason will see plenty of faces move around in a frenzy of overinflated salaries in the new salary-cap era because of the new TV deal. Van Gundy, though, has done much of his work and can take off his hard hat and wipe his brow.
But there’s still more work — making the playoffs this season would only be a sampler, assuming they don’t get past the first round.
The next step will be smoothing out some rough edges and finding complementary pieces to go with what he’s built.
But the hard part is already done.
LET'S MAKE A DEAL
Stan Van Gundy’s deals that bolstered the Pistons roster:
December 2014: Waived Josh Smith.
February 2015: Acquired Reggie Jackson from Thunder for D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler and picks.
June 2015: Acquired Ersan Ilyasova from Bucks for Caron Butler and Shawne Wiilliams; drafted Stanley Johnson (first round, No. 8).
July 2015: Acquired Marcus Morris from Suns for 2020 second-round pick.
February 2016: Acquired Tobias Harris from Magic for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova.
Schedules for the teams in a fight for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference:
7 DETROIT (40-35, SEVEN GAMES)
Home (three) — Dallas (Friday), Washington (April 8), Miami (April 12). Away (four) — Chicago (Saturday), Miami (Tuesday), Orlando (April 6), Cleveland (April 13)
8 INDIANA (39-35, EIGHT GAMES)
Home (four) — Orlando (tonight), Cleveland (April 6), Brooklyn (April 10), New York (April 12). Away (four) — Philadelphia (Saturday), New York (Sunday), Toronto (April 8), Milwaukee (April 13)
9 CHICAGO (37-37, EIGHT GAMES)
Home (three) — Detroit (Saturday), Cleveland (April 9), Philadelphia (April 13). Away (five) — Houston (tonight), Milwaukee (Sunday), Memphis (Tuesday), Miami (April 7), New Orleans (April 11)
10 WASHINGTON (36-39, SEVEN GAMES)
Home (three) — Brooklyn (April 6), Charlotte (April 10), Atlanta (April 13). Away (four) — Phoenix (Friday), L.A. Clippers (Sunday), Detroit (April 8), Brooklyn (April 11)