Detroit Retools Its Engine With Stan Van Gundy

It’s almost a relief now that Stan Van Gundy, for whatever silly reason, 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. He would have left a cranky void in the TV landscape whenever some smart team finally hired him back into the league.

Detroit became that team on Tuesday after Van Gundy blew away franchise higher-ups with his preparation — his vision for the team, his evaluation of each player, and his plan for overhauling the Pistons’ moribund culture, according to a high-level team source. Detroit got the jump on Van Gundy ahead of Golden State, and by the time he met with the Warriors, he had the Detroit option in the bag, according to several league sources. The Pistons had hired a search firm to spit out a list of candidates, but in the end, they disregarded that list when it became clear they had a shot at SVG.

The Pistons are paying Van Gundy $35 million over five seasons to act as both coach and the team’s top front-office decision-maker, according to both Yahoo (which broke the news) and ESPN.com. The salary cap does not apply to head coaches, and there are only a half-dozen or so guys who really move the needle. If you can get one of them, you should do it, even if it’s pricey. Van Gundy is one of those guys.

The dual role Van Gundy will play is tricky. Lots of high-profile guys have officially had both the coach and GM titles, including Don Nelson, Larry Brown, Gregg Popovich, Pat Riley, and Doc Rivers right now in Los Angeles. Popovich relinquished the official GM role in San Antonio but still shares final say in every personnel decision. The lines can be blurry, especially with powerful and long-tenured coaches. Doug Collins didn’t have the GM title in Philly, but he was calling most of the shots, which made it doubly hilarious when he ripped his own players after a frustrating loss in 2013 — as if Collins the coach had been unfamiliar with the limitations of the players Collins the de facto GM had picked.

Guys who wear both hats must be wary of chasing short-term wins over long-term health. Brown was the top power broker during his time in Charlotte, and he loaded the Bobcats with aging vets on bloated long-term deals in pursuit of fleeting mediocrity. Rivers the GM signed players Rivers the coach liked and/or feared in Boston five years ago.

But Van Gundy should be insulated from these dangers. The team will hire a full-time front-office steward, and Van Gundy has reportedly pushed for Otis Smith, his former GM in Orlando, to snag that role. Smith’s track record in Orlando is discouraging, though it’s hard to tell who made the final call on a desperate series of expensive moves the team made in a candy-addled attempt to win Dwight Howard’s schoolgirl affection. The dynamic will be different this time around if Van Gundy has veto power over Smith, and with a very capable front-office staff below those two.

The five-year deal also gives Van Gundy security to think big-picture for a franchise that badly needs that kind of thinking. No team has had a more miserable last half-decade. Detroit is about to make its fifth straight appearance on the lottery dais, and the Pistons have been at or near the bottom of the NBA in attendance since the breakup of their championship core. They are the only team to rank below the league’s average in both points scored and allowed per possession in each of the last five seasons, per NBA.com. In short, they have been bad at almost everything.

Joe Dumars, the team’s deposed GM and architect of that title team, cycled through a gazillion coaches as the Pistons flailed around; the recent expiration of Lawrence Frank’s old contract barely saved the Pistons the indignity of paying four head coaches at once next season — Frank, Maurice Cheeks, John Loyer, and now Van Gundy. (Side note: Could another team besides the Lakers and Cavs send Mike Brown a $1 check, just so we can say three different teams are paying Mike Brown not to coach them? Seriously: If Brown is back in the league next season as an assistant, he needs to check into coaching rehab. He would officially love coaching too much. Just collect those checks and spend a year on the beach.)

And yet, the Pistons are not a total shit show — not even close. They are actually pretty lean going forward, and they have a potential franchise centerpiece in Andre Drummond. The idea of Van Gundy doing for Drummond what he did for a young Dwight Howard should terrify the league. They could have as much as $22.5 million in cap room this summer, and still about $12 million once you account for Greg Monroe’s cap hold. In other words: Detroit could search the market for some badly needed shooting while Monroe hangs in restricted free agency, and then move on Monroe when the market dictates its path.

Detroit could have a pile of cap room next summer even if it re-signs Monroe to a maximum deal, while big contracts for Josh Smith, Monroe, and Drummond are set to overlap for only one season — and that is after the expiration of Brandon Jennings’s current deal. One more move to consider: Detroit owes Charlotte a first-round pick, but the Pistons will keep that pick this year if it falls within the top eight. Detroit enters next week’s lottery snugly in that no. 8 spot.

Monroe and his agent, David Falk, will want a max contract, and the Pistons are right to play hardball. That’s how you use restricted free agency, especially for a strange player like Monroe, who has not proven worthy of what would be a $15 million–per-year commitment. He’s a low-post behemoth with quick feet, a hungry appetite for rebounds, and good passing skills for his position. Throw this dude the ball on the low block and he’ll get buckets and double-teams.

The knock on Monroe is that he has struggled badly on defense, his midrange shot is bricky, and his development stalled out this season as Cheeks and Loyer juggled an incongruous mix of three bigs in Monroe, Drummond, and Smith. Opponents outscored Detroit by nearly 6.5 points per 48 minutes when those three played together, making for one of the worst heavy-usage trios in the league among teams that were actually trying to win games — something the Pistons weren’t really trying to do once it became clear they would miss the playoffs. Detroit just never developed any coherence on that end. Monroe is slow traversing large spaces and low to the ground, Drummond is (like most young players) out of sorts, Smith can’t chase wing players anymore, and Jennings is the James Harden of point guards.

The Pistons did not appear to have much of a scheme. They changed the way they defended the pick-and-roll almost on a game-to-game basis, sometimes asking Monroe to jump way out to corral ball handlers — something he’s just not equipped to do. There was no five-man coordination among players. Nobody helped the helper, and defenders on the weak side had no clue what to do against a pick-and-roll or in response to a double-team on the block. The Pistons were the opposite of “on a string.” They just lit the string on fire.

Detroit had more success playing two of the three bigs and sitting the other. Counting only lineups that logged at least 25 minutes, the Pistons actually managed a positive scoring margin with the Smith-Monroe and Monroe-Drummond pairings, per NBA.com. But that last one, so important to Detroit’s future, didn’t play enough minutes together — and when they did it was it was interrupted by Smith hoisting awful midrange jumpers.

Detroit nudged Smith toward his worst habits by shoehorning him in at small forward, where he had to spend time away from the basket in an attempt to “space the floor.” But the team let him jack up shots with no accountability, and Smith bricked his way to one of the worst perimeter shooting seasons in modern league history. With the exception of a couple early-season benchings under Cheeks, the coaches did nothing.

That will change with Van Gundy working under a five-year deal. He prizes shot selection, on both ends. If you violate his rules repeatedly, you are coming out of the game. He doesn’t care about your status or salary.

And there will be rules. Van Gundy has historically stressed packing the paint on defense, protecting the 3-point line, avoiding gambles, and forcing midrange jumpers — analytically savvy tenets he implemented before analytics were cool. His teams typically force very few turnovers and clean the defensive glass; he stops scrimmages to point out when players gamble out of scheme for steals.

He’ll likely have Monroe and especially Drummond hang back near the paint, as Howard mostly did in Orlando. There will be a strict system the team uses night-to-night, with only minor tweaks for each opponent. The team will be insanely well prepared.

Van Gundy’s Orlando teams were ahead of the curve in chucking lots of 3s, and he has been pigeonholed as a 3-point zealot. That’s not exactly true. In Orlando, Van Gundy molded his offense around Howard’s pick-and-roll gravity and the skill set of Rashard Lewis (playing under a massive contract Van Gundy likely would not have approved). His Miami teams with Shaquille O’Neal played a bigger brand of ball, with more of the inside-out game you’d expect from a Shaq team. Still, Van Gundy gets the importance of the 3, and finding more outside shooting will be his first priority. Detroit over the last two seasons has already shown it can be an enormously powerful offensive force running Drummond on the pick-and-roll with shooting around him. Expect more of that.

Even Van Gundy’s Miami teams ranked poorly in offensive rebounding, and Van Gundy has always emphasized getting back on defense over crashing the glass.

“Stan studies the game, and he found offensive rebounding just isn’t important to winning,” says Steve Clifford, the Bobcats head coach and a Van Gundy assistant in Orlando. “Stealing the ball and creating turnovers are not usually factors in winning big.”

It will be interesting to see how that works in Detroit, which led the league in offensive rebounding rate last season and forced a decent amount of turnovers. It’s possible the roster is the rare sort that could excel at both transition defense and on the offensive glass: Let Drummond and Monroe go wild while everyone else gets back.

Van Gundy is malleable, to a degree, and much more analytics-friendly than people think. That misconception is partly Van Gundy’s fault. He has made himself into a friendly sort of cartoon character, mocking the silly fringes of analytics with a mustachioed old-school gruffness. But he’s really just suspicious of blind trust in numbers generated by people who don’t know the nuances of the game — the responsibilities of each player in his scheme, how an opponent’s system works, and how a particular player fits within a particular roster. It’s hard to credit and blame players accurately if you don’t know that stuff.

That does not make Van Gundy hostile toward analytics. He has told the Pistons he would like to expand the use of analytics for both coaching and personnel evaluation, a team source says. As previously mentioned, his teams have naturally played an analytically friendly style, and Van Gundy is a smart, curious guy who wants to know what the numbers say.

He has famously clashed with two behemoth centers in O’Neal and Howard. O’Neal called Van Gundy a “master of panic,” and Howard suggested Van Gundy maintain a sunnier disposition on the sideline. He has gained a reputation as a grating type. But most of his players, at least the ones I’ve talked to, don’t feel that way. A lot of guys loved playing for Van Gundy, even with his pouting perfectionism. If you’re a pro, devoted to your craft, Van Gundy can be a godsend.

Look, there’s a ton of work to be done here. Drummond is still very young. Jennings hasn’t worked out, and has just two years left on his deal at an affordable price. If he’s not the answer at point guard, he’s not unmovable, either. Monroe’s free agency is a massive organizational moment, especially since he’s so much closer in age to Drummond than Smith. The Monroe-Drummond pairing is a more natural long-term foundation than Drummond and Smith, with Smith being eight years older than Drummond.

But Smith’s trade value has never been lower. Still, the Pistons should be targeting teams with room to spend, their own trade pieces and/or cap room, and foolish motivation to win right now — the Lakers, Knicks, and Nets come to mind. The Pelicans have a couple of ugly contracts linked to perimeter players, but they’ve expressed no real interest in Smith, according to league sources. Detroit might be stuck.

That would complicate the Monroe equation. A max-level deal might be an overpay, but with the cap set to skyrocket over the next three or four years, maybe it’s on overpay you make if the alternative is losing Monroe for nothing or dumping him in a blah sign-and-trade. But it’s possible Van Gundy, so interesting in perfect spacing, might view Drummond as the only keeper here.

Detroit is in the early stages of legitimate rebuilding, which says a lot about how bad the past five years have been. But Van Gundy is the kind of guy a team should trust with that process.

Filed Under: NBA, Detroit Pistons, Stan Van Gundy, Golden State Warriors, Zach Lowe, Charlotte Bobcats, Otis Smith, Orlando Magic, maurice cheeks, Mike Brown, Josh Smith, greg monroe, Brandon Jennings, Andre Drummond

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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