The Detroit Pistons had been dropping hints that their days of weak-contact coaching hires were finished. On a scale of home runs to strikeouts, Detroit's recent coaching carousel spun with the force of (at best) seeing-eye singes: Michael Curry, John Kuester, Lawrence Frank and Maurice Cheeks.
Perhaps spurred by the Tigers' $292 million commitment to slugger Miguel Cabrera, the Pistons went looking for a bopper. That search led them to former Miami Heat and Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, a heavy-hitter in every sense. If coaching success was measured in dingers, Van Gundy has flashed steroid-free 40-plus home run power:
Stan Van Gundy to coach Pistons. He's had 5 50-win seasons and no losing seasons as an NBA head coach— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 14, 2014
The question for the Pistons—and for Van Gundy himself—is whether he can also fill out a lineup card. The 54-year-old has been named Detroit's coach and president of basketball operations, the team announced Wednesday, via NBA.com.
Van Gundy has no front office experience, but Pistons owner Tom Gores expressed confidence in his ability to build this organization in his vision, per a release on Pistons.com:
Stan is a proven winner in our league. He instills his teams with passion, purpose and toughness. He is a great teacher who will help our players grow and develop. Stan is more than just a great coach, he’s a great leader. What I’m most excited about is how Stan can help us shape the franchise and instill what it means to be the best. He’s also a great communicator. My time with Stan has me convinced that he will bring our players, team and community to a very proud place.
Gores has 35 million reasons to believe Van Gundy can handle the two-pronged position. That's the dollar amount Detroit reportedly committed to Van Gundy on a five-year contract, as per ESPN's Marc Stein, giving him the same $7 million salary as Los Angeles Clippers coach and senior VP of basketball operations Doc Rivers.
Rivers took over a win-now roster with the expectation of delivering immediately. The team Van Gundy inherits is sitting on a five-year playoff drought (the franchise's longest since 1978-83) with a roster full of square pegs, round holes and the changing shape that is Josh Smith.
Van Gundy's challenge is different from Rivers', but the pressure is the same. The Pistons have been anxiously awaiting the arrivals of new coaching and business operations minds.
Van Gundy will have to satisfy on both fronts, a challenge that sounds extremely difficult—and is still easier said than done.
Talent Is There
Somewhere amid Detroit's pile of bad losses and worse shot selection, lies a deceptively deep talent pool. A lot of it is duplicated and hardly any of it fits, but it's there if you look hard enough.
Andre Drummond is the centerpiece, and even if he wouldn't admit it, probably the reason Van Gundy took over the post. The 20-year-old is a 6'10", 270-pound of jaw-dropping athleticism and untapped potential.
He's also, according to the numbers, developing at the same breakneck pace of a former freakish size-speed specimen who emerged under Van Gundy's watch: Dwight Howard.
The rest of the roster needs some serious attention, but Drummond's presence alone makes it worth the effort.
"If you want to build your team around a young player, Drummond is the guy," a general manager told Sean Deveney of Sporting News.
The rest of the roster has a certain best-player-available feel to it. The skill level is high, but there's no cohesion bringing those pieces together. Expect a link to shape up early in Van Gundy's watch, perhaps starting with the removal of either Smith (via trade) or restricted free agent Greg Monroe.
Getting anything of value in return for either player would be a major boost, but letting one go for nothing is far from a worst-case scenario. This oversized trio simply can't coexist in today's pace-and-space league, a fact driven home by the players' woeful minus-8.0 net rating during their shared floor time.
Monroe is incredibly skilled and only 23 years old. He's also limited offensively away from the basket (34.8 percent shooting outside of three feet) and has trouble defending the smaller, quicker power forwards cropping up across the NBA landscape.
He's young and talented enough to potentially command a significant offer, and Van Gundy's best move may be to let him walk.
"You’re not going to build around both him and Monroe, they had too much trouble making that work," the GM told Deveney. "You pick Drummond and move on from Monroe."
Then again, Monroe might be one great coach away from maximizing his strengths and minimizing his weaknesses. It sounds as if there's a decent chance Van Gundy will see himself as that coach:
League source: SVG is a big fan of Greg Monroe. Called Monroe last night when deal was final. Ownership group highly fond of Monroe.— Vincent Ellis (@Vincent_Ellis56) May 14, 2014
There are arguments to be made for keeping the Moose or moving on from him, but no player on the roster is more polarizing than Smith.
"At once Smith is the kind of tantalizing defensive talent that Van Gundy could build around and so problematic a shooter that he stands in the way of Detroit’s spacing," SI.com's Rob Mahoney wrote.
Smith, a career 27.9 percent three-point shooter, cannot survive on the wing. Moving steps inside the arc does nothing to improve his ruby red shot chart.
Brandon Jennings isn't a bad decision-maker (7.6 assists against 2.7 turnovers) until it comes to shot selection (37.3 field-goal percentage). The Pistons struggle as a team converting long-range looks (32.1 three-point percentage, 29th), which crowds the floor on Monroe's post-ups and Drummond's rolls to the rim.
Van Gundy needs shooters and perimeter defenders, but everything else is in place. It just needs to be better positioned.
Whether the coach wants to spread the floor with athletes and shooters or pack the paint with intimidating presences is his call. As long as he puts some plan into action, which the Pistons seemingly haven't in years, he'll be able to make something good out of the talent on hand.
Patience Is Thin for a Reason
It seems like an eternity since the Pistons were playing for something of substance, but they aren't that far removed from perennial Eastern Conference Finals appearances. The team's last playoff appearance (2009) was preceded by six consecutive conference finals berths, two NBA Finals runs and the 2004 world title.
Detroit never planned on being this far out of the limelight.
Heavy financial commitments were made to Ben Gordon (five years, $55 million) and Charlie Villanueva (five years, $35 million) in 2009. Tracy McGrady came to Motown the following summer. After staying quiet for a few seasons, the Pistons spent heavily again in 2013 on Smith (four years, $54 million) and Jennings (three years, $24 million).
All that spending, yet never any payoff. Not even with a playoffs-or-else edict flying above the franchise all season.
Gores is anxious for a reason. He's spending enough for this to compete, particularly in a historically anemic conference. Yet, at the end of the day he can't field a team that's even competitive.
The fans can see everything that's transpired, each abbreviated step of the Pistons' rapid fall from grace. This team went from eighth in attendance during the 2009-10 season to 28th by 2011-12. The mild buzz from their summer spending lifted this team to 25th this season.
Detroit is beyond the point of invigorating the fanbase with flashy free agents. These fans need to see more, and Van Gundy now stands out as a sign of organizational change.
"The Pistons are desperate to be regarded as relevant in the Motor City - where they've become an afterthought - and hiring Van Gundy seems to be a splashy move they needed to make," the Associated Press wrote (via NBA.com).
The East's playoff picture is wide open, and the Pistons' core is aged right to strike. There's a balance of youth and experience that should help raise this team's ceiling without lowering its basement.
Van Gundy apparently has a vision for what this team needs. It was his ability to communicate that picture to Detroit's ownership group that reportedly landed him such a lucrative, powerful position, per Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press:
First contact between the parties was established two weeks ago, but Van Gundy emerged as 'the guy' after that meeting in L.A. He broke down every player on the Pistons’ roster. He had a detailed plan for his first 100 days running the team. And he convinced ownership that he will be able to curb the emotions associated with coaching and make the cool, calm decisions required of front-office executives on a daily basis.
He sold the image of a savior to a franchise in dire need of one. Now, he'll have to find the tools to make good on any promises made during those meetings.
He should have a mid-level lottery pick, although it will go to the Charlotte Bobcats if it lands at No. 9 or higher. He should have decent spending money thanks to the expiring contracts of Villanueva and Rodney Stuckey ($17 million combined), but a lot of it could be lost if he re-signs Monroe.
The potential for success is present, but it's been there before. Van Gundy needs to give himself a roster worth leading and elevate that group of players to new heights.
Even though he's yet to have his initial press conference, the clock is already ticking.
Complete Control of his Fate
This is the blessing and the curse of this position.
If the roster pieces can't fit on paper, that's on Van Gundy. If the on-paper talent doesn't translate to the hardwood, that's on him, too.
He'll be stretched incredibly thin by the demands of this work, but no one will let him use that as an excuse. He'll have to figure out a new job without skipping a beat at his old one, as Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press detailed:
There really isn’t any down period in a basketball presidency. It doesn’t matter how many basketball eyes Van Gundy trusts as his subordinates out there in collegiate outposts on wintry nights attempting to find that raw diamond in the next draft. Van Gundy himself must be directly involved.
Both the coaching and franchise supervision could suffer under those conditions.
So much of this challenge is about finding balance, a challenge that could be made easier with the help of the right support staff. No matter the caliber of basketball minds he surrounds himself with, though, it will be his name attached to every move this team makes on and off the floor.
There's no real way to hasten the learning curve in front of him, but he's already under the gun. The Pistons have waited for years to get someone capable of leading them back down the road to relevance, and clearly they feel this is the guy.
They'll need to see results to validate that belief. Like, yesterday.
Credit Van Gundy for taking on a challenge of this magnitude. He could have inherited a deeper, far more talented roster with the Golden State Warriors and not had to concern himself with personnel decisions, but he didn't.
He chose the Pistons. He chose this power. He chose these expectations.
Van Gundy needs to be this team's five-tool star, plus the talent scout who discovered him and the brilliant mind who unleashed his full potential. An entire franchise is counting him to be all three at once.
How's that for pressure?