After four largely underwhelming seasons, Stan Van Gundy’s tenure with the Detroit Pistons is over.
As first reported by Vincent Ellis of the Detroit Free Press and confirmed by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, the Pistons on Monday chose to “part ways” with Van Gundy, 58, one week shy of four years after hiring him to be their head coach and president of basketball operations. Van Gundy had one year and $7 million left on his five-year contract, but after compiling a record of 152-176 in four years at the helm — four years that included only one trip to the postseason, a brief stay in the spring of 2016, when they were swept out of the first round by the eventual NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers — he won’t see the end of his term as the Pistons’ on-court and front-office decision-maker.
The chance to assume both those roles played an integral part in Van Gundy taking the Detroit job in the summer of 2014, two years removed from the end of his time with the Orlando Magic. But after winning 44 games and making the playoffs in 2015-16, the Pistons have stagnated over the past two years. Despite Van Gundy and general manager Jeff Bowers dishing out high-priced deals that have Detroit ranked sixth in the NBA in total salary outlay this season, with nearly $112 million in guaranteed deals already on the books for next year and more than $100 million slated for the 2019-20 season, the Pistons have fallen short of .500 and finished out of the Eastern Conference’s playoff bracket two years running.
Wojnarowski reported last week that Pistons owner Tom Gores wanted Van Gundy to remain the team’s head coach, “but would prefer for that scenario to include structural changes to the franchise’s front office,” in which Van Gundy has had final say on all personnel matters. (The Los Angeles Clippers went through a similar reorganization last summer, with owner Steve Ballmer stripping Doc Rivers of his personnel role, but keeping him on the bench as the Clips’ head coach.) In a Monday statement announcing the move, Gores noted that Van Gundy wanted to stay on, but that the Pistons chose to let him go regardless.
“We have decided that this change is necessary to take our basketball organization to the next level,” Gores said. “This was a very difficult decision and we did not come to it lightly. I am grateful to Stan for everything he’s done for the Pistons and for the City of Detroit. He rebuilt the culture of our basketball team, re-instilled a winning attitude and work ethic, and took us to the playoffs two years ago. He went all-in from day one to positively impact this franchise and this community. But over the past two seasons our team has not progressed, and we decided that a change is necessary to regain our momentum.”
In the summer of 2008, then-Pistons president Joe Dumars fired head coach Flip Saunders, claiming that a team that had made three straight trips to the Eastern Conference finals needed a “new voice.” The Pistons would wind up with five new voices over the next five years — Michael Curry, John Kuester, Lawrence Frank, Maurice Cheeks and John Loyer — but hadn’t topped .500 since Saunders’ exit. They lacked both the star power to compete at the highest levels of the NBA and the fundamental identity required to rally a fan base that had lived and breathed the hard-nosed brand of Detroit basketball embodied once by Chuck Daly’s Bad Boys and the Ben Wallace, Richard Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince-led rosters of the 2000s.
Gores, who bought the team (after a fashion) in 2011, tapped Van Gundy to restore the Pistons to their former prominence after a half-decade of irrelevance. It was a popular hire: Van Gundy had rolled up a record of 371-208 during eight seasons with the Magic and Miami Heat, with his teams making the playoffs in every full season he spent on the bench.
Before it all went up in a hail of Diet Pepsi spume, Van Gundy was the architect of an ahead-of-its-time team in Orlando, one built around a four-out attack featuring Dwight Howard as the screening-and-diving hub of an offense featuring a floor-spacing power forward (Rashard Lewis) and a playmaking point forward (the 6-foot-10 Hedo Turkoglu). Years before pace-and-space and mobile bigs became all the rage, Van Gundy made a monster in central Florida that could spread the floor, shoot the lights out, defend the paint and the perimeter, and even keep the King from his impending coronation. Now, Gores was entrusting him with full basketball operations control in pursuit of a similar outcome for a Pistons team that featured a gigantic, athletic, rim-running center in Andre Drummond.
“Stan is a proven winner in our league,” Gores said at the time. “He instills his teams with passion, purpose and toughness. He is a great teacher who will help our players grow and develop.”
Drummond did develop under Van Gundy’s tutelage. He led the league in rebounding twice, earned a pair of All-Star appearances, advanced as a high-post passer and even seemed to conquer his historic free-throw-shooting woes. The Pistons on the whole, however, never quite broke through.
Some bold strokes produced on-court success. Van Gundy’s shocking decision to waive underperforming forward Josh Smith just 17 months into a four-year, $54 million deal helped kickstart a surge that briefly made Detroit one of the East’s most fearsome teams, one capable of playing the four-out style that Van Gundy preferred. The Pistons fell well short of the playoffs, but played .500 ball after Smith’s ouster, an indication that Van Gundy had them moving in the right direction.
When point guard Brandon Jennings, playing some of the best ball of his career, went down with a ruptured Achilles tendon, Van Gundy swung a deal to import Oklahoma City Thunder reserve Reggie Jackson to be his new starting point guard and Drummond’s new pick-and-roll partner. After some struggles to adjust to his new team, Jackson played well down the stretch of the 2014-15 season and in the Pistons’ run to the playoffs the following year, seeming to provide a long-term answer at a position that had been a problem ever since Billups left town.
And with Detroit stumbling midway through this season, thanks in part to a severe ankle sprain that sidelined Jackson for nearly three months to scuttle a promising start, Van Gundy again swung for the fences. He put together a blockbuster deal for Clippers power forward Blake Griffin — a five-time All-Star, a bona fide 20-plus-points-per-game scorer and one of the league’s top passing big men, the kind of NBA celebrity who just hasn’t seemed interested in signing in Detroit in free agency over the years, and one with a lengthy, troubling injury history — in hopes of propelling his flagging squad toward a return to the postseason.
“Our thinking was this: The hardest thing to do in this league is to get a proven star,” Van Gundy said at the time. “It’s just very hard to do. It’s hard to do in free agency. It’s hard to do in trades. You get very few opportunities to do it […] We know the injury history — that’s the risk on it. But that risk was worth it because of the talent we’re bringing back.”
Griffin and Drummond showed promise working together in the early going, giving Pistons fans reason for optimism that the on-court product could improve with more reps and better health. But that hoped-for revival didn’t come.
The Pistons were better with Griffin around, producing a positive point differential after his arrival and outscoring opponents by 3.4 points per 100 possessions during his floor time while getting outscored by 0.6 points-per-100 with him off the floor, according to NBA.com’s data. They weren’t good enough, though. Detroit went just 11-14 with Griffin in the lineup, with seven of those wins coming at home against teams who were playing on the second night of a back-to-back. The Pistons finished four games behind the Washington Wizards for the East’s final playoff spot.
The silver lining for the Pistons moving forward: the early returns on the Griffin-Drummond pairing were positive. Detroit scored an average of 108.8 points per 100 possessions in 602 minutes with the tandem on the floor, according to NBAwowy.com’s lineup data, a top-seven-caliber full-season mark. They outscored opponents by 2.7 points-per-100 in those minutes, a net rating snuggled right between those turned in during the full year by the Oklahoma City Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves, both of whom made the playoffs.
And the bulk of that floor time came with caretaker reserve point guard Ish Smith on the ball. Injuries limited the Griffin-Drummond-Jackson trio to only 45 shared minutes, preventing Van Gundy from seeing how the Pistons might’ve looked with his three top guns in the lineup for an extended stretch.
Injuries come for every team at some point or another, though. The best teams soldier on in spite of them because they’ve found and developed multiple contributors capable of stepping in and shouldering the load. Van Gundy never found enough of those guys during his four years in Detroit.
Whenever Van Gundy sought to stock Detroit’s roster, he seemed determined to pay retail prices for relatively underwhelming types who had little chance of overperforming their paychecks: $19.5 million for Jodie Meeks, $20 million for Aron Baynes, $18 million for Smith, $42 million for Jon Leuer, $21 million for Boban Marjanovic, $21 million for Langston Galloway. Stack up enough of those deals alongside the mega-buck contracts you hand to your expected foundational pieces — $80 million for Jackson, a nine-figure max for Drummond, the gargantuan $142 million owed to Griffin through 2022 — and you leave yourself precious little financial flexibility to meaningfully improve a middling-at-best roster.
That’s when you need to find significant production in the draft. You can’t really say with any sort of certainty, just three years after his first draft, that Van Gundy failed in that regard. But the instant-history view of the Pistons’ choices — defense-first forward Stanley Johnson at No. 8 in 2015, five picks before Devin Booker; ostensible stretch forward Henry Ellenson at No. 18 in 2016, two picks ahead of Caris LeVert and 11 before Dejounte Murray; shooting guard Luke Kennard (who had a perfectly fine rookie season!) at No. 12, one spot ahead of Donovan Mitchell — isn’t especially kind for a team that could really use some more answers in the backcourt, given Jackson’s injuries and the failed attempt to parlay Kentavious Caldwell-Pope into a stabilizing agent in Avery Bradley, who lasted half a season in Detroit before being flipped to L.A. in the Griffin deal.
Similarly unfortunate: having the foresight to take a shot on Spencer Dinwiddie in the second round in 2014, only to ship him out after two years of languishing on the bench and watch him become a Most Improved Player candidate in Brooklyn this season. In fairness, though, Van Gundy’s record in trades looks a lot sunnier than his work in free agency and the draft.
Caron Butler and Shawne Williams became Ersan Ilyasova, a stretch four who helped Detroit return to the postseason in 2016. A 2020 second-round draft pick netted Marcus Morris and Reggie Bullock from Phoenix; the former was the starting small forward on the playoff team, and the latter is currently Detroit’s best wing, a sharpshooter who can defend multiple positions.
Ilyasova and Jennings later turned into Tobias Harris, who blossomed into a legitimate go-to scorer in Detroit before being sent to L.A. for Griffin. It is reasonable to argue that, at their current ages and price tags, Harris might be a more valuable player than Griffin. But for an organization that’s been starved for stars for two decades, Griffin represented a shot at returning to relevance that Van Gundy and, crucially, Gores both preferred.
It remains possible that the all-in bet on Griffin pays out in a return to postseason contention. Van Gundy really liked the idea of a Drummond-Griffin-Bullock-Kennard-Jackson starting five — bruising up front, with athleticism and shooting on the wing, and a spread pick-and-roll point guard at the controls — and it’s possible that whoever comes next will, too. Get lucky with the health of Griffin, Jackson and eight-figure stretch big Leuer, get a leap forward from Johnson and Ellenson, still both just 21 years old, and maybe Detroit really does have the start of something pretty good. Four years ago removed from the start of what Gores expected to be an era much better than that, though, Van Gundy ran out of time.
He leaves his successors some interesting pieces to work with, but nearly no financial wiggle room with which to augment them, in a market that’s understandably not turning out in full force to support an iffy product, and in a conference still topped by a legend with a couple of excellent young teams nipping at his heels. Getting that sort of situation on track toward success isn’t easy. Just ask the last guy.
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