Stan Van Gundy has remade Pistons, but will he win?
When Stan Van Gundy assumed the dual role of Detroit Pistons coach and team president on May 15, 2014, he inherited a project. His task was to turn around the fortunes of a franchise that had missed the playoffs for five straight years and hadn’t won more than 30 games in a season since the “Goin’ to Work” era punched the clock in 2008-09.
The starting lineup in the last game before Van Gundy took over was Brandon Jennings, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Singler, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond.
Things have changed a bit since then.
The Pistons have added a bona fide superstar in Blake Griffin and are building around the trio of Griffin, Drummond and Reggie Jackson. The complementary pieces around them are lower-cost options and have brought a mixed bag of skills that haven’t all meshed fully.
As the Pistons (29-36) try to salvage their season after Jackson’s devastating ankle injury derailed their playoff hopes, the bigger question is whether Van Gundy will be around to see his construction to completion.
Jackson hasn’t played with Griffin and Drummond, which could lead to Van Gundy getting the final season of his five-year contract to see things through. Or, Tom Gores and his lieutenants might decide to move in a different direction.
Van Gundy has constructed an improved roster in four years but only has one postseason appearance to show for it. He’s had his best success in trades, with lesser results in the draft and free agency.
Here is an analysis on the significant personnel moves made by Van Gundy with the Pistons:
Dec. 24, 2014: Traded Tony Mitchell to the Suns for Anthony Tolliver. In the early stages of the overhaul, they brought in Tolliver, a savvy veteran with a nice 3-point stroke and a stabilizing locker-room presence.
June 11, 2015: Traded Caron Butler and Shawne Williams to the Bucks for Ersan Ilyasova. Van Gundy covets perimeter-shooting big men and Ilyasova was a roster upgrade over Butler, who was on his last legs.
July 9, 2015: Traded a 2020 second-round draft pick to the Suns for Reggie Bullock, Danny Granger and Marcus Morris. This was by far the best trade of the Van Gundy era. They netted a two-year starter in Morris and Bullock has been one of the bigger surprises this season, moving into a starting role. This deal was the first building block to the bartering upgrades.
Feb. 16, 2016: Traded Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings to the Magic for Tobias Harris. Van Gundy fleeced the Magic, getting a durable and consistent scorer for a pair of expiring contracts. In 157 games with the Pistons, Harris averaged 16.8 points and 5.3 rebounds. He often played out of position but often was their best offensive option.
July 7, 2017: Traded Marcus Morris to the Celtics for Avery Bradley and a 2019 second-round pick. The Pistons took advantage of the Celtics’ desperation to clear cap space to get Gordon Hayward. Morris was a valuable piece, but Bradley was an elite defensive upgrade.
Jan. 29, 2018: Traded Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a 2018 protected first-round pick and a 2019 second-round pick to the Clippers for Blake Griffin, Brice Johnson and Willie Reed. In a franchise-changing move, the Pistons and owner Tom Gores got the star they had long coveted in Griffin, a five-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA selection. At age 28, he’s not the same elite-level player he once was, but he immediately became the Pistons’ best player. They took on a significant financial risk with Griffin’s injury history and behemoth contract for $173 million over five years. They also paid a steep price in giving up Harris and the first-round pick, which will be in the lottery if they can’t get out of their nosedive.
Feb. 8, 2018: Traded Willie Reed and a 2022 second-round draft pick to the Bulls for Jameer Nelson; traded Brice Johnson and a 2022 second-round draft pick to the Grizzlies for James Ennis. They took the extra pieces from the Griffin trade and got another option at point guard in Nelson and a viable piece in Ennis, both of whom are on expiring contracts. Van Gundy slid Nelson into the backup role for five games and now he’s out of the rotation. Ennis has played well at times as the backup small forward.
Dec. 22, 2014: Waived Josh Smith. After signing a four-year deal for $54 million in July 2013 during the Joe Dumars era, Smith was a colossal bust in Detroit and Van Gundy cut ties, using the stretch provision to ease the financial hit. The Pistons paid $27.5 million in his two seasons and $5.4 million every year since — and he’s still on the payroll for $5.4 million until 2019-20.
July 14, 2014: Signed Jodie Meeks. He was never able to stay healthy enough to be effective. He was traded to the Magic for a 2019 second-round pick.
July 20, 2015: Signed Reggie Jackson. At five years and $80 million, it turned out to be a relative bargain, considering what starting point guards are making. The downside has been the major injuries: knee tendinitis last season and a grade-3 ankle sprain this season. In the past two seasons, he’s played in 85 games and missed 62 — and counting.
July 8, 2016: Signed Jon Leuer. For four years and $41 million, it was a big risk and it has fizzled, with Leuer’s second-half swoon last year and season-ending ankle injury this year. He’ll have a lot to prove in the final two years of the deal.
July 8, 2016: Signed Ish Smith. Signed for three years and $18 million, he’s been an adequate backup, but has struggled with extended use and in a starting role because of Jackson’s injuries.
July 12, 2016: Signed Boban Marjanovic. It initially was insurance for when the Pistons couldn’t keep Aron Baynes, who was heading to free agency. They may have overpaid for Marjanovic, but got out of the deal in the Griffin trade.
July 15, 2016: Retained Andre Drummond. After choosing between Drummond over Greg Monroe, the Pistons were pushed into this corner and had to pay market price: a max contract of $127 million over five years. He’s the league’s best rebounder and the face of the franchise, but there wasn’t any way around having to pay him and losing him for nothing would have been catastrophic.
July 6, 2017: Signed Langston Galloway. For three years and $21 million, it was a hefty price to pay, putting them perilously close to the luxury tax, before the Bradley deal.
July 14, 2017: Retained Reggie Bullock. At $2.5 million with a team option for next year, this might be one of the best contracts in the league, especially for a starting shooting guard.
2014: Spencer Dinwiddie (38th). Van Gundy’s first draft selection didn’t get much playing time with the Pistons, but he’s flourishing this year with the Nets at point guard, a position the Pistons could have used in Jackson’s absence.
2015: Stanley Johnson (8th) and Darrun Hilliard (38th). In the chronology, Johnson was a good pick, but he’ll always be linked with the Suns’ Devin Booker, who has All-Star potential. Johnson hasn’t found smooth sailing yet, which frustrates the fan base even more. Johnson was the starter to open the season, but since has settled in comfortably with the reserve unit.
2016: Henry Ellenson (18th) and Michael Gbinije (49th). Ellenson fell to the Pistons, who sought to develop him, but he has played in only 45 games in almost two seasons. He’s buried on the bench behind Blake Griffin and Anthony Tolliver.
2017: Luke Kennard (12th). The biggest need was 3-point shooting and the Pistons got the best one in the draft. Kennard has had lukewarm success, but the Pistons’ other option, Donovan Mitchell, is lighting up the league with the Utah Jazz — and the second-guessing is valid.