Pistons fire Stan Van Gundy: 'We just didn't win enough'
In many relationships, things just run their course and it’s not always a clean breakup. When Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores and Stan Van Gundy — who wore both hats as team president and head coach — had their end-of-season talk, they agreed to disagree.
In the end, the two sides wanted different things. There wasn’t enough common ground to move forward. Now, the two sides are moving in different directions.
After weeks of mulling their future, including meetings between Gores and Van Gundy, the two sides parted ways on Monday, with the Pistons firing Van Gundy.
The move comes on the heels of the Pistons’ disappointing 39-43 season and Gores’ assertion near the end of the season that he would plot out a path forward.
That path forward meant changes in the front office and coaching staff. General manager Jeff Bower remains, likely to represent the Pistons at next week’s draft combine, and to provide continuity in their transition to a new leadership team.
“We have decided that this change is necessary to take our basketball organization to the next level,” Gores said in a team statement. “This was a very difficult decision and we did not come to it lightly. I am grateful to Stan for everything he’s done for the Pistons and for the City of Detroit. He rebuilt the culture of our basketball team, re-instilled a winning attitude and work ethic, and took us to the playoffs two years ago. He went all-in from day one to positively impact this franchise and this community.
“But over the past two seasons our team has not progressed, and we decided that a change is necessary to regain our momentum.”
Van Gundy was one of the last remaining dual-role figures in the NBA with coaching and front-office responsibilities, and although Gores said he saw value in that synergy, it was one of the things that made assessing the progress in both roles difficult.
In four seasons at the helm, Van Gundy led the Pistons to a record of 152-176 and made the playoffs once, in 2016. The Pistons lost to the eventual-champion Cavaliers in a four-game sweep.
The last two seasons, which were derailed by injuries to starting point guard Reggie Jackson, were hard to overcome. Gores and Van Gundy discussed several options to proceed forward, but they couldn’t agree on one.
“We talked about a lot of different things but what it really comes down to is 37 wins and 39 wins and missing the playoffs twice,” Van Gundy told The Detroit News. “You can talk about a lot of other things, but if we’re in the playoffs, we’re not doing any of this and we’re moving on. We just didn’t win enough games.”
Van Gundy had one year remaining on his five-year deal worth $35 million but the impasse seemed to be that Gores and Van Gundy couldn’t agree on a structure that gave the Pistons a new voice and changed the structure.
Van Gundy said he was willing to be flexible on a potential role change, but there was more complexity that clouded the negotiation.
“When it came down to this, I was perfectly willing to only go in one role and to give up the front office and go into coaching,” Van Gundy said. “I didn’t fight to hang on to that at all. I was more than willing to just move over into the other role.”
Van Gundy took over a Pistons team that won 29 games in 2013-14 and he retooled the roster in his first two seasons, making gradual upgrades with each trade and free-agent acquisition. Two of his biggest moves were getting point guard Reggie Jackson from the Thunder and Tobias Harris from the Magic.
The Pistons made a bigger splash this season in the trade market this season, acquiring Blake Griffin at the deadline and making a push toward the playoffs, but falling short in the final weeks of a disappointing regular season, after a 14-6 start. Van Gundy had high expectations of his players and made an impression but it didn’t translate to enough wins.
After their hot start, they looked to be on the way back to the playoffs, but Jackson suffered a severe ankle sprain and missed 37 games, during which time the Pistons went 12-25, skidding out of contention. Jackson also suffered from knee tendinitis last season and missed 30 games, which derailed the Pistons’ season.
Jackson was shocked to find out about Van Gundy’s departure.
“I was stunned by the whole thing and taken aback,” Jackson told The Detroit News on Monday. “(Van Gundy) was somebody who truly believed in me and gave me my first opportunity.
“I wish I could have been more available and been better. I wish we could have kept growing as coach and player and made some lasting memories.”
Van Gundy’s four-year tenure will be marked by questionable draft picks and costly signings in free agency. Notably, the Pistons selected Luke Kennard over Donovan Mitchell — who is starring for the Utah Jazz in the playoffs — in last season’s draft. In the 2015 draft, they passed over the Suns’ Devin Booker to take Stanley Johnson, who has stagnated in his development.
The next team president won’t have much flexibility with the salary cap and in free agency, and their first-round draft pick — unless it’s in the top three — will go to the Clippers to complete the Griffin trade.
The coaching staff, with assistants Bob Beyer, Tim Hardaway Sr., Malik Allen, Charles Klask, Aaron Gray and Otis Smith, were on the final year of their contracts; it’s unclear how many of the front-office staff will remain and for how long, though Bower’s contract also expires in June.
The roster mostly will remain intact, with only Anthony Tolliver and James Ennis III as unrestricted free agents. The next head coach will inherit a roster with a mix of high-paid veterans and a few young prospects such as Johnson, Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard.
“I’m going to miss Stan; this is my second stint with him,” backup point guard Ish Smith told The News. “He was really instrumental to my growth as a player.”
Van Gundy said he was looking to try to complete the turnaround in his final season, looking for a full training camp to work with a healthy Jackson and Griffin and push forward with a trio that included Andre Drummond, the only holdover from the original roster Van Gundy inherited.
“Would like to take a minute to wish Stan the best and thank you for everything you’ve put into our team the last four years,” Drummond wrote on Twitter.
Gores, in the statement, said Van Gundy wanted to return to the Pistons, but the two sides could not come to a compromise on a path forward.
“Stan is a competitor and he wanted to finish the job,” Gores said. “He retooled a roster that we think can be very competitive in the East. I know he’s disappointed, and that he cares deeply about his players, his staff, this organization and this city. He’s also a professional who will make sure this is a seamless transition, and someone I hope will be a friend and adviser to me long after this transition is completed."