If the five-year, $35 million deal recently given to him by the Detroit Pistons says anything about Stan Van Gundy, it’s that he’s very, very smart and very, very good at what he does.
Which makes his recent comments about Greg Monroe all the more intriguing.
In a recent interview with Pistons.com, Van Gundy had this to say about how he envisions Monroe and Andre Drummond—Detroit’s All-Star center in waiting—working together (h/t to Pro Basketball Talk’s Kurt Helin):
I think it is an ideal pairing. If I look at just the film I’ve watched now and looking at the numbers, you would say that Greg and Andre together were great offensively. That was a great combination on the offensive end of the floor, especially when the three guys around them were shooters—more conventional perimeter types. That worked very, very well. Now, it didn’t work very well defensively. I think it puts a lot of responsibility on Greg Monroe to have to guard out on the perimeter.
But I think there are things we can do in terms of schemes and things that would make it a little easier on Greg to make that unit better defensively and then take advantage of the offensive end of the floor.
In the things we’ve studied—when you look at our three frontline guys, there’s your strength—but when you study it, when you play two of those three guys together, the Pistons were a very good team, at least last year. When you played all three of them together, they really struggled.
There’s a lot to chew on here. The first, rather meaty morsel being the noted lack of a mention—at least in name—of Josh Smith, Detroit’s presumed starting small forward.
Now, Van Gundy acknowledges that the Piston’s frontcourt troika didn’t exactly set the NBA world alight last season. This is due, at least in part, to Smith being regularly shoehorned at said small forward position.
With Monroe’s $5.5 million qualifying offer expected to be matched and then some this offseason, Detroit has a tough decision to make: Match any offer for Monroe, thereby hamstringing its future financial flexibility, or double down on the eminently talented—and deeply flawed—J-Smoove.
At the same time, there’s definitely a strategic bent to Van Gundy’s comments. For by suggesting to the rest of the NBA that you’re willing to match any offer, you put teams in an unenviable position of overpaying, only to have Detroit not match.
If, however, Detroit is serious about matching any offer, what is the resulting strategy vis-à-vis the Big Three? Trade Drummond? That’s not happening. Deal Smith? Good luck finding a team willing to foot the bill.
Make it work? Even if it entails bringing Smith off the bench?
There are more than a few moving parts in this whole scenario. But I guess that’s why you pay a guy $35 million to run your franchise.
As for Van Gundy’s reluctance to mention Smith specifically, this May 16 dispatch from Detroit Bad Boys’ Matt Watson proves this is by no means a coincidence:
Am I reading too much into things to point out that he didn't name Josh Smith, last year's 'prized' free agent, the owner of the most lucrative contract in franchise history and last year's leader in minutes played and field-goals attempted? Perhaps, especially since he talked about how Smith would be used differently in a separate interview later that day. But during his introductory press conference, his first official meeting with Detroit's media, he seemed reluctant to even mention Smith—even if everyone in the room was thinking about him when he continued his thought.
With regards to the above-cited reference to Smith (from a Van Gundy press conference), there wasn’t much in the way of hints or tells, aside from this mostly pedestrian line:
"It's about us putting him in spots that play to his strengths and don't maybe give him the opportunity to play to his weaknesses a little bit," Van Gundy said. "And it's about him making better decisions and being more efficient than he was last year."
Take that how you will—and one could take in any number of ways.
Here’s what we know: If there’s a short list of coaches capable of making Detroit’s frontcourt work, Van Gundy’s most certainly on it.
Couple that with the fact that the oldest among them (Smith) is only 28, banking on growth and development to bridge a mere year’s worth of damning evidence doesn’t seem so outlandish.