Pistons build playoff team with series of small moves

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills – — In a good bowl of gumbo, no one ingredient outshines another.

A hearty mix of seafood, meat, vegetables and broth go into making the stew — and nothing stands out.

For Pistons president Stan Van Gundy and general manager Jeff Bower, it’s as much about the ingredients in the gumbo as it is in Van Gundy’s dual role as coach in stirring the mixture and making it work.

While the players have gotten the Pistons back to the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons, it’s the behind-the-scenes work Van Gundy and Bower to assemble the right ingredients that made it possible.

Since Van Gundy took over as president before last season, he’s cleared the cupboards and restocked with a playoff-worthy squad that snagged the No. 8 seed, which opens against the No. 1 Cavaliers on Sunday.

“In general, we knew there was going to have to be significant turnover for a lot of reasons,” Van Gundy said. “I don’t know that we thought that we would be able to turn it over as quickly as we did or get some of the guys we’ve been able to get.

“We weren’t happy with where it was.”

The only holdovers from the original squad Van Gundy inherited are starters Andre Drummond and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Last year, the Pistons waived Josh Smith and made a deal with the Thunder for point guard Reggie Jackson — and one of the main ingredients was in place.

Van Gundy then made a trade with the Suns, getting Marcus Morris and Reggie Bullock for a 2020 second-round pick.

The final ingredient came this season just before the trade deadline, when Van Gundy acquired Tobias Harris — who has three more years left on his deal — from the Magic for the expiring contracts of Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova.

“Every move along the way has been really good and that’s where Jeff does his work,” Van Gundy said. “It’s not necessarily one big splashy move, and I don’t know if we were in that position (to make a big deal) but we’ve made enough little ones.”

Those were the big moves.

Several other more subtle ones are what filled the gaps and made the roster as deep as it has become.

Backup center Aron Baynes signed as a free agent during the offseason. Steve Blake came from the Nets for seldom-used Quincy Miller. Veteran reserve center Joel Anthony, a valuable mentor for Drummond, arrived for Will Bynum.

They’re the roux that helps the gumbo’s base.

“Put all those things together and it’s what’s moved us forward,” Van Gundy said. “I don’t think any of those moves caught national attention.”

The road ahead, however, won’t be easy for the Pistons.

While the core has been established, Van Gundy and Bower still need to look at the free-agent market and make some tweaks to the roster.

And, for the first time in a while, the Pistons have a draft pick outside the lottery, which they could choose to keep or package to bring in another valuable ingredient.

“Now the challenge gets harder,” Van Gundy said. “We’ve got to make some good decisions this summer in free agency. I don’t think we’re going to be the July 1 major players but we need to make two or three Aron Baynes-level decisions.

“I don’t remember any big celebrations when we signed Aron Baynes, but he’s ended up being a pivotal piece of what we’re doing.”

But as Van Gundy has insisted all season, the biggest strides will have to come from players already on the roster.

That solid base could allow the Pistons to attract free agents who see the Pistons as an up-and-coming team who made the postseason and are one piece away.

“Our core is more attractive and no matter what we do this summer, the biggest improvement has to come internally,” Van Gundy said. “They need to come back better than they are now. That’s where we’ll get our major improvements and then hopefully a couple of good acquisitions to upgrade us.”



Building blocks

A look at how the Pistons were constructed:


Tobias Harris from Magic for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova

Marcus Morris and Reggie Bullock: from Suns for 2020 second-round pick

Steve Blake from Nets for Quincy Miller

Reggie Jackson from Thunder for D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler

Anthony Tolliver from Suns for Tony Mitchell

Joel Anthony from Celtics for Will Bynum


■Aron Baynes and Jodie Meeks


■Stanley Johnson and Darrun Hilliard (2015)

■Spencer Dinwiddie (2014)

■Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (2013)

■Andre Drummond (2012)