Stan Van Gundy's Pistons Experiment Will Be NBA's Most Entertaining Sideshow

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistAugust 29, 2014

All the way back in June, new Detroit Pistons president and head coach Stan Van Gundy made it clear he was thoroughly preoccupied by restricted free agent Greg Monroe's contract situation.

"Even with free agency and the draft and everything else," Van Gundy told reporters (h/t's Keith Langlois). "I’ve spent well over half my time on that whole situation."

He added, "The fair thing to say is we either want him back or we want good value for him. We absolutely control whether Greg is back here next year. But we can’t necessarily control after next year, and so you have to put that into consideration, too."

As it turns out, the organization apparently won't have any control over what happens to Monroe in 2015.

In August, USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt reported that, "Monroe has informed the Detroit Pistons he will accept the qualifying offer, play for Detroit in 2014-15 and become an unrestricted free agent next summer, two people familiar with Monroe's plan told USA TODAY Sports."

Suffice it to say that didn't quite go as Van Gundy might have hoped.

That's probably an appropriate introduction to a job in which many things probably won't go how Van Gundy envisioned when he signed up.

The Pistons hired Van Gundy this summer to orchestrate a turnaround. According to's Marc Stein, "Sources told Van Gundy and the Pistons had verbally agreed to a five-year pact worth an estimated $35 million."

"Stan is more than just a great coach, he's a great leader," Pistons owner Tom Gores said in a statement at the time, per Stein. "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."

The coaching, leadership and communication alike are all desperately needed in Detroit.

The club suffered through a 29-53 record last season, a campaign that was supposed to restore the franchise to its once prominent heights—or at least take a significant first step in that direction.

Instead, the Pistons missed the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season.

Detroit's last trip to the postseason resulted in a sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2008-09.

The organization has subsequently dealt with a revolving door of head coaches that includes John Kuester, Lawrence Frank, Maurice Cheeks and John Loyer—who finished out the remainder of the 2013-14 season on an interim basis after Cheeks was dismissed.

Ostensibly, Van Gundy becomes a more permanent solution. Detroit has invested a lot of money and responsibility in the veteran coach, and for good reason. The 55-year-old reached the postseason in each of his five seasons with the Orlando Magic, reaching the conference finals in 2009-10 and the NBA Finals the year before that.'s Matt Moore credits Van Gundy with, "turning [Orlando] from laughingstock into powerhouse and transforming Dwight Howard from raw, undisciplined big man into a Defensive Player of the Year."

Put simply, the guy can coach.

At least when he gets around to it. Much of his summer has been spent dealing with Monroe and other personnel issues.

"I haven't spent much time being a coach so far," Van Gundy explained back in July, per's Michael Wallace. "It's still good to be around and see guys and see how they work. Hopefully, when we get the bulk of our business done, in terms of free agency and roster being put together and a staff being hired and all those things, then I'll come a lot more to the coaching side."

That transition can't come soon enough, and it promises to be an entertaining one.

While Gores and Co. got themselves a first-rate coach, they may have also acquired something they didn't bargain for. Van Gundy, you see, is an honest broker—perhaps as honest as they come.

That's a virtue in most circles and an absolute gold mine for media types, but it can also translate into some combustible internal affairs.

Exhibit A.

Back in 2012, Van Gundy very publicly confirmed that Dwight Howard was trying to get him fired.

"I was told it was true by people in our management," Van Gundy told reporters (h/t ESPN) at the time.

All hilarity broke loose when Howard himself subsequently wandered into the conversation with reporters, embraced Van Gundy (who quickly vanished from the scene) and proceeded to incredulously deny any claims that he was trying to oust his coach.

While still speaking with media, Van Gundy added, "I'm the coach right now, and I'm the coach until they decide I'm not the coach. It's 12:02 right now. If they want to fire me at 12:05, I'll go home and find something to do. I'll have a good day."

Perhaps the Pistons struck a more muzzled arrangement with Van Gundy, but that would frankly be tragic.

He's at his very best telling it like it is, and Detroit could probably use some brutal truths. Even as Van Gundy aims to revitalize his team's locker-room culture, he'll invariably have to confront his roster's youth, bad habits and questionable composition.

As Basketball Insiders' John Zitzler contends, "Despite the return of Monroe and the continued development of [Andre] Drummond, the team is still littered with question marks—the most glaring being Josh Smith. Smith is the team’s highest-paid player at $13.5 million per year and is signed through the 2016-17 season."

Smith is also a power forward. He doesn't have the range to consistently man the wing. So of course Detroit signed him a summer ago so that he could play the 3-spot alongside Monroe and Drummond (at the 4 and 5, respectively).

Predictably, things didn't work out. While positions increasingly mean little in this league, skill-sets still mean quite a bit. Smith's aren't a fit next to a couple of bigs.

The 28-year-old made a career-low 41.9 percent of his field-goal attempts. His rebounding averaged dipped from 8.4 boards per contest in 2012-13 to an average of just 6.8. And for good measure, Smith's 1.4 blocks per game were also a career low.

Unless Van Gundy moonlights as a magician, these kinds of problems could be impossible to resolve without resorting to a much-needed trade.

In the meantime, prepare for Van Gundy's frustration to be palpable—if not hysterical.

As's Brett Pollakoff put it, "Unless you’re a Pistons fan, the best part of having Stan Van Gundy back in the league as the team’s president of basketball operations and head coach is the unabashed way in which he gives his opinions."

Indeed, they're the kind of opinions that provoked some what-might-have-been musings from Grantland's Zach Lowe, who noted that Van Gundy, "was never able to nab a full-time spot as an NBA analyst on national TV."

"He would have been fantastic, alternating X’s-and-O’s education with hilarious rants about stupid arena giveaways and other NBA minutiae," writes Lowe. "He would have left a cranky void in the TV landscape whenever some smart team finally hired him back into the league."

And sure enough, the Pistons have hired him back into the league—but they still have plenty to prove before we start labeling them a "smart team."

In time, Van Gundy may be the right person to guide Detroit back to respectability.

But it may take a while to get there. Until then, Pistons fans will have to live with the growing pains of a young team trying to live up to their storied coach.

Fortunately—and thanks to Van Gundy—every minute of it should be plenty entertaining.


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