Van Gundy was willing to give up front-office role to stay

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Stan Van Gundy went 152-176 in four seasons with the Pistons.

For four seasons, Stan Van Gundy had all the control he wanted as Pistons president and head coach. He was able to pick the players he wanted and coach them to his liking, with the blessing of team owner Tom Gores.

The ranks of those who wield that much power in the NBA are thinning out, with only two dual-role figures remaining after Van Gundy and the Pistons decided to part ways on Monday.

Van Gundy had one year left on his five-year contract and after going 152-176 during his tenure, he was willing to cede some of that control, giving up the reins of the front office, in a bid to finish out his deal as just the head coach.

“Tom was looking to make change and I was willing to make pretty significant changes but even that wasn’t going to be enough. Tom decided at the end of the day that he needed to change the structure and the leadership,” Van Gundy told The Detroit News. “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.

“I didn’t fight to hang on to (the president role) at all. I was more than willing to just move over into the (coaching) role.”

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Gores and Van Gundy had been in discussions for the past three weeks, likely to try to figure out a configuration that would allow a shakeup in the front office but also keep Van Gundy on as head coach. When the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement on what that structure looked like, it was time to move in a different direction.

The Pistons seem locked into their current roster with not much wiggle room to make a big splash in free agency and they’re not likely to make a big trade in the offseason. Van Gundy was looking forward to returning for his final season of the deal, but he won’t get that opportunity to see a fully healthy roster with the players he assembled, including getting Blake Griffin before the trade deadline.

“That disappointed me to be quite honest. It was a push and tuck with Tom and inside our offices for four years to get one of those high-level offensive players, one of the top 10 or 12 guys in the league and we were finally able to do that with Blake,” Van Gundy said. “I’m disappointed that I don’t go a full year and coach them with Blake and hopefully with better health.

“To me, that was the most disappointing thing from a coaching standpoint. I really wanted to see that group together and wanted the opportunity to coach them. That’s the way this business is so I didn’t get that opportunity.”

By all accounts, having Van Gundy work in both roles was a desire from the beginning, with Gores looking to align the president of basketball operations with the general manager and the coach.

It wasn’t something that Van Gundy sought out initially when he was hired in 2014, but it worked out that way in Gores’ vision for the new regime. Having one person control multiple roles seems to be a lesson Gores has learned and the next front office likely won’t have that construction.

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Van Gundy learned from talking to colleagues that he needed to be careful of potential conflicts in the executive ranks and there were ways to avoid bumping heads and having to worry about other issues: combining the roles.

“When I came, I had never in my life thought about wanting both roles,” Van Gundy said. “The two years I was out of coaching and talking to other guys who are in it and coaches, there are just a lot of situations in the league where there are far more bad ones than good ones, with conflict between the front office and the coaching staff, where people are at odds and don’t agree. I didn’t want to be in one of those situations.

“The issue for me was not power or being able to have more control to impact change or any of that. I wanted to work in an organization where everybody was on the same page and pulling in the same direction.”

With Van Gundy at the helm, he hired Jeff Bower as his general manager, charged with doing most of the operational and front-office duties while Van Gundy maintained final veto power on trades but could put most of the focus on coaching. Bower was Van Gundy’s trusted general — and it’s likely that Bower will remain on the staff, at least through June 30, when his contract expires.

“As I always said, Jeff did 95 percent of the front-office job,” Van Gundy said. “I had the final say on personnel moves, but from a day-to-day process, Jeff did all of that work.”

Even during the press conferences to announce the trade for Griffin and signing Andre Drummond to a long-term deal, Van Gundy pushed Bower to the forefront, as Bower negotiated those deals and pulled together the details.

With Van Gundy gone, the Pistons most likely will revert back to a traditional front office structure, with three different people in the top three positions. It’s unclear how many holdovers could come from the current staff, but it’s likely there will be a few, to maintain some level of continuity.

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard