Auburn Hills — During the final week of the Pistons’ drive toward the playoffs, coach Stan Van Gundy had a quandary: Ride with rookie Stanley Johnson through a tough stretch or try something different.
Van Gundy had played his hunch in sticking with Johnson — who had five points the previous three games — against the Orlando Magic. So he made a switch, inserting Reggie Bullock.
Bullock finished with 13 points, giving the Pistons the boost they needed for the victory, one that helped lead the franchise to its first postseason spot since 2009.
But, Van Gundy didn’t take any credit. He praised his staff instead.
“My assistants had been pushing for that move to get (Bullock) back in the rotation,” he said.
From game preparation and individual player development to sit-downs with players and pregame workouts, there’s a mountain of work split among the five assistants: Brendan Malone, Bob Beyer, Malik Allen, Tim Hardaway Sr. and Charles Klask.
Though the majority of their work is with the players, the coaches also are sounding boards, keeping the pulse of the team.
“Every couple of weeks, one of them has to give me a reminder to tone it down or talk with this guy or this guy is upset about that,” Van Gundy said. “A lot of times, they have a better feel for where guys are — individually, especially — and what our team is talking about.
“They contribute in just about every way imaginable.”
Similar but different
In Van Gundy’s dual role as team president and coach, he carries the hammer, making most of the decisions but keeping an open ear to his trusted staff.
That includes Malone, who coached under Van Gundy with the Magic from 2004-12. Malone also was an assistant under Chuck Daly during the 1989 and 1990 Pistons championship years.
“Stan is so smart, and when you put a staff together, it took him awhile to get all the coaches in place because he wanted to make sure that he had different personalities and backgrounds so that when we do collectively come together, everyone sees the game similarly but a little differently,” said Beyer, who also was an assistant for Van Gundy in Orlando.
“It helps us as coaches and the message we send to the players is always the same message but sometimes the way Tim delivers it can make more of an impact than the way I can deliver it at a certain time — and vice-versa.”
Van Gundy also brought in former players Hardaway and Allen, looking to infuse some old-school toughness into a retolled and young roster.
“I’ve been around these guys for a little bit now and it’s the best coaching staff I’ve had in my life,” forward Marcus Morris said. “Tim always comes to me when I’m not playing well and says you’re (BSing) — it could be in the middle of the game.”
“He’s keeping it real and he wants my best foot forward; he sees a lot of potential in me and he always tells me that.”
Klask is in his third stint with the Pistons, with whom he started as a video coordinator intern in 2001. He also was an assistant from 2011-13 before rejoining the staff last year.
His main responsibility is working with the reserves who don’t play much — Bullock, Darrun Hilliard, Spencer Dinwiddie and Lorenzo Brown. With the sporadic minutes those players get, it’s a dual role — coach and psychologist.
“To their credit, it’s a testament to them as professionals they stay ready,” said Klask, a Michigan State graduate. “They haven’t gotten too down on the situation — which is easy to do — and they keep working every day and stay positive.”
But, they also have seen their share of high times — such as when Bullock and Hilliard had breakout games during key victories.
Even in those instances, Klask doesn’t root for his guys, realizing they still are part of the team concept.
“I’ve never been with an assistant like Charles,” Hilliard said. “If you watch him, he’s stretching with us and trying to make himself better and trying to prove to us that he’s all in. When you have a coach like that, it builds confidence in you and you have confidence in him, too.”
In two seasons, Van Gundy and the assistants already have made a mark, but still are ascending — and looking to bring the rest of the young squad with them.
Making the playoffs this season is a big step, but there are plenty more to go.
“The core unit of (Drummond), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Reggie Jackson is more attentive now (after having) coaches come in and out,” Hardaway said. “They understand Stan is going to be here and we’re going to be here. It’s a foundation and we’re going to be here to stay for a little while.”
With a trip back to the playoffs, it seems to be working.