Auburn Hills — Stan Van Gundy has gotten a reputation as a sometimes-surly, tell-it-like-it-is coach who isn’t afraid to go off script in a press conference.
At a team dinner just before the start of training camp, the Pistons coach unveiled a mantra for his team this season. It wasn’t something he dug up in a self-help manual; rather, it was a nugget he gleaned from one of his close colleagues, Miami Heat coach Eric Spoelstra.
It’s fairly simple and is befitting of an office motivational poster: find your greatness.
The conversation moved from just philosophy to action: they went around and had a cathartic discussion.
“It was really just about team. A lot of it was getting guys to play to their strengths and we went through every guy. They talked, too,” Van Gundy said. “This is a guy’s greatest strength — and how do we help him get to that?”
Finding your greatness.
It’s been a catch phrase that many of the players have repeated in the three weeks since, not needing to put any spin on it.
“Coach made it very clear going into the season that he wants guys to get to their greatness,” forward Anthony Tolliver said. “What you do — bring that to the table the majority of the time, not to say you can stay in a box. If you do what you do great most of the time, it’s going to be really good for our team.”
That means Andre Drummond rebounding and running the pick-and-roll with Reggie Jackson. It means Avery Bradley getting through screens and playing suffocating defense.
It includes Tobias Harris being a versatile scorer, Stanley Johnson getting out in transition and taking smart shots and Langston Galloway being a combo guard who can connect from the outside.
So far, so good. Johnson is taking it to heart, which could be a critical step forward as he takes on a bigger role as the potential starting small forward.
“This year is all about ‘What is your greatness?’ ” Johnson said, “so I try to shoot shots that are all to my greatness: midrange pull-ups, to the basket, open 3s and stuff like that.”
It seems like a small step, but it could be a huge boost if it has the same impact it had in Miami, where Spoelstra focused his attention on role players such as James Johnson and Wayne Ellington and accentuated their roles with situations in which they could excel.
That caught Van Gundy’s attention when he saw how good they were at their greatness.
“They were always good, but now they’re really good because he let James put the ball on the floor and be a playmaker and he let Wayne just run off screens and fire,” Van Gundy said. “And it became a huge threat; he played to their strengths.
“You can get hung up on what they don’t do well, so let’s have him do the things he does really well and both individually and as a team, let’s get to those things. We’re still not there as a team, but we’re trying to get there.”
Van Gundy pointed to Galloway’s greatness in his first training camp with the Pistons and his ability to get up good shots, scoring 16 points on 15 shots in Tuesday’s preseason game against the Raptors, a sign he has the green light to put up good shots, in rhythm.
The distinction, Van Gundy said, is not just adding things to the list — and distinguishing between goodness and greatness — such as 7-foot-4 Boban Marjanovic expanding his game far from the rim.
“He likes to be the 7-4 high-post player,” Van Gundy said. “Nope, get your butt down there and we wave him down there and throw the ball in. You can’t miss him when he’s down there open.”
Van Gundy and the players acknowledge it’s going to take some time to get used to the new thought process, but many are embracing it already and trying to find ways to help their teammates get to their greatness, whether it’s making the extra pass or not taking an opportunity that would put them out of their wheelhouse.
It starts Wednesday in the season opener.
It should be a good one — or maybe a great one.