Turning the Detroit Pistons around won't be easy, not after a disappointing season in which they struggled to a putrid 29-53 record despite playing in a historically weak conference. Yet, that's exactly what Stan Van Gundy is tasked with now that he's both the head coach and president of basketball operations.
Because of that second role, SVG is in a unique position to affect the future of this franchise. He can do more then come up with schematic advantages and maximize the talent of his roster; he can actively decide who's under his control, leaving no risk of a general manager screwing up his vision.
Nevertheless, there are many ways for Van Gundy himself to flop. These Pistons are a messy bunch, and the to-do list required to fix them is a rather long one.
That said, it's still possible to check off every entry on that list in just one season.
Work on the Troublesome Players
There's a lot of blame pie to be doled out after Detroit's massively disappointing 2013-14 season. A large portion was already served to the coaching staff and front office, seeing as SVG is taking over in such a large capacity, but there's plenty more.
During his first season in Motor City, Smith averaged 16.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game.
Impressive numbers, right?
They are, but they don't look quite so stellar when you remember that Smoove shot only 41.9 percent from the field, a number that was pulled down rather significantly by his proclivity for launching ill-fated three-point attempts.
According to Basketball-Reference, Antoine Walker is the only player in NBA history to average more than three triples per game and shoot a worse percentage than Smith's 26.4 percent clip. That's not a typo. Smith shot 26.4 percent from beyond the arc in 2013-14 while taking 3.4 attempts per game.
That's absolutely unacceptable, and it took Smith away from his strengths. The forward is athletic enough that he can thrive on the interior of an offensive set, so long as there's enough room for him to operate there.
Detroit didn't afford him that opportunity, though, instead basically asking him to fire away and try spacing the floor because the paint was already packed by the big bodies of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond.
Is it any wonder he played better when only one of them was on the court?
Here's the breakdown of how he fared in terms of player efficiency rating at power forward and small forward, per 82games.com:
|PER for||PER against||Net PER|
It's really not hard to look at that chart and figure out Smoove's ideal spot in the Detroit lineup. It's the one where he's significantly better on offense, to the point that he's actually a beneficial player as opposed to providing a net loss.
And that would be power forward.
Van Gundy must figure out a way to make that Smith's consistent—and ideally, his only—spot in the lineup (more on that later). Fortunately, he's at least aware of the problem.
But the new head coach must also work on Jennings' shot selection. And yes, he's aware of that problem as well. Once more via Mayo:
The questions are his decision-making ability—not so much that he's a high-turnover guy, but it's his shooting percentage you get concerned about. One of the things I like to do with guys in terms of shooting percentage is ask them why. Why 37 percent? I want to hear the answer on that. But I know he's a very, very talented guy.
Saying "37 percent" is not an exaggeration.
The southpaw point guard shot 37.3 percent from the field during the 2013-14 season, largely because he had two major issues that he blissfully ignored. His three-point percentage lagged behind where it should be, and the runners and floaters he attempted around the basket just weren't dropping.
It's up to Van Gundy to get those areas back on track, ideally by surrounding him with other offensive talents who are actually capable of subsuming the perimeter burden. Jennings has shown elite distributing talent in the past, even if that wasn't always readily apparent during his first season in Motown.
Figure Out Greg Monroe
The Smith problem and the Monroe conundrum go hand in hand.
After all, so long as one is in Detroit, the other one shouldn't be. Well, unless they're in different uniforms and playing one another.
The reason Detroit was pigeonholed into playing Smoove at the 3 was because it really didn't have any other choice, outside of using a strange rotation that never allowed the team to maximize the talent it had on the court at any one time.
Monroe, who's a natural center, was pushed to the 4, where he was less effective. And in turn, he pushed a natural power forward to the 3. That natural power forward, in case you haven't caught on, would be Smith.
Complicating the situation is the fact that Monroe is a restricted free agent this offseason. He could very well sign an offer sheet and force Detroit into a tough decision, choosing between whether it wants to match or to let him walk away for nothing. Ideally, a sign-and-trade is completed, but that's never a guarantee.
Even with barely any time lapsing since SVG was hired, there have already been conflicting reports about his plans with the man they call Moose.
An anonymous general manager told Sean Deveney of SportingNews.com that Monroe has likely played his last game with the Pistons:
There are two things that made that job better for Stan. One is the fact that he gets to make personnel decisions, that is a big deal of course. But the other is Andre Drummond. If you want to build your team around a young player, Drummond is the guy.
You’re not going to build around both him and Monroe, they had too much trouble making that work. You pick Drummond and move on from Monroe.
But then again, Vincent Ellis of the Detroit Free Press revealed that both SVG and the front office like Monroe's game:
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
Is that a smokescreen? Are they trying to drive up Monroe's value so they can complete that often elusive sign-and-trade deal?
No one knows.
But this will be the first personnel move of monumental importance, because it sets the tone for Detroit heading into the 2014 offseason and the ensuing campaign. Keeping Monroe sets the Pistons up for disaster, and while letting go of him will be painful, it's the right choice.
Correct decisions aren't always the easy ones, as SVG will soon learn.
Of course, the other option is keeping Monroe—even if he's better at center than power forward and can't play there thanks to the presence of his younger frontcourt counterpart—and finding a way to trade Smith. But based on the way Smith has played lately and the frustrating inability to keep himself from taking inefficient and ineffective shots, the Pistons might have better luck convincing Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Bill Laimbeer to come out of retirement.
Build Around Andre Drummond
Everything else—and I really do mean everything—needs to be tailored around Drummond.
Once Smith and Jennings are fixed, once the Drummond/Smith situation is remedied, then it all becomes about surrounding the most talented player on the roster with pieces conducive to success.
SVG doesn't have practice building a roster, but he does have plenty of experience shaping strategies around dominant bigs. He did so with the Miami Heat when he coached Shaquille O'Neal, and he built an undeniably impressive system around Dwight Howard while he was with the Magic.
It's unlikely that he'll utilize the same type of system he did in Orlando with the Pistons, though. The Pistons don't have enough potent shooters to leave space open for Drummond on the interior, nor is the young center a precocious offensive talent capable of beating teams that elect to focus on the perimeter at the expense of interior double-teams.
DetroitBadBoys.com's Mike Payne agrees, and his entire article is worth reading, given that it goes into much more detail about SVG's 1-in/4-out system and Detroit's plan:
The traditional recipe for championship contenders sticks to the 2-in/3-out formula that represents just about every winner in recent NBA history. The "2-in" usually includes a defensive specialist and a scorer, from Gasol to Bynum, Garnett to Perkins and Wallace to Wallace. Every once in a while, you get that one special player who can do both—guys like Shaq and Duncan. Around these guys, however, their frontcourt counterparts were largely traditional. Is there any good reason to try the 1-in/4-out in Detroit, given the outcome in Orlando and the traditional recipe for frontcourt success?
On a more cursory level, something different will be needed, and that's the ultimate goal of the offseason. Van Gundy must use the team's draft picks to fill in gaps, primarily at small forward, while gearing his free-agent signings around players who can complement Drummond.
Thing is, this team really isn't that far away from being one of the more competitive units in the Eastern Conference. Granted, that's the weaker conference, but even making the playoffs would be a massive step in the right direction for a franchise that hasn't advanced past the final regular-season game since 2008-09.
In 2013-14, the Pistons won only 29 games, leaving them in 11th place during a year in which the East was as bad as it's been in a long time. But still, they aren't too far away.
If Jennings and Smith play to their strengths rather than jacking up shot after shot, they'll be better. If Monroe is replaced by Smoove at power forward and the offseason is geared around getting a quality small forward, they'll be better still.
Letting go of Monroe will allow the Pistons to make big free-agency decisions, whether it's re-signing Rodney Stuckey and then adding another piece or going after one of the truly big names available on the open market. It's not inconceivable to imagine Detroit pursuing Lance Stephenson, or a wing player of similar caliber.
Will the Pistons make the playoffs in 2014-15?
And let's not forget that Drummond is only going to get better.
The pieces are there, and Detroit is now hoping it has the coach who can actually put them together into a puzzle that isn't a mismatched jumble of spare parts. Sure, SVG has a big to-do list now that he's in charge of this organization, or at least in charge of all the parts that directly manage the on-court product.
But at least every item on that checklist is manageable.