Stan Van Gundy would’ve never acknowledged it a year ago, at least not publicly, but he knew when he took over the Detroit Pistons, he’d been handed a disaster.
The franchise hadn’t won a playoff game since 2008, and Van Gundy was about to become its sixth coach in seven years. In 2013-14, the Pistons went 29-53 and owner Tom Gores cleaned house, firing team president Joe Dumars, head coach Maurice Cheeks and interim coach John Loyer before handing the whole thing over to Van Gundy.
Before he could start coaching the team, Van Gundy had to try to patch up the dysfunctional roster left behind by Dumars. After building the 2004 championship team out of players who’d been cast off by other teams, Dumars started throwing big money at second-tier players without that chip on their shoulder.
For Van Gundy, both as coach and president, the problem was that Detroit’s roster was bad, expensive and built without any seeming purpose. Dumars had added Josh Smith to a team that already had two talented young post players in Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond.
The plan had been to use Smith at small forward, which only proved that he didn’t have the legs to play that position any more, and that being on the wing encouraged him to take more terrible three-point attempts. In 2013-14, Smith took 3.4 three-pointers a game, despite only hitting 26.4 percent.
Detroit did have one good three-point shooter in Kyle Singler, but he spent most of his time hanging out in the corner while Smith and Brandon Jennings futilely took over almost every game in the fourth quarter.
Not only was Van Gundy stuck with Smith’s contract, he didn’t have a 2014 first-round pick because Dumars had sent that to Charlotte in order to dump Ben Gordon’s horrible deal.
Van Gundy, also lacking cap space, did what he could. He brought in Caron Butler and Jodie Meeks to try to find an outside shooter. He tried bringing Monroe off the bench as part of a three-big rotation, but never found a go-to small forward and ended up having to move Smith back to the wing.
Nothing worked. The Pistons started 3-19, and after a Dec. 21 loss to the Nets, they were 5-24. With a five-day Christmas break looming, Van Gundy started the demolition process. He convinced Gores to eat Smith’s contract, then traded for the type of players Dumars used to love – Anthony Tolliver. The Pistons were his eighth team in seven seasons, but he was happy to be the backup power forward.
At that point, a few things happened that changed the future for the Pistons. It became incredibly obvious that, as good as Monroe is, his lack of deep range cramped defenses around Drummond. When Tolliver – a strong outside shooter – was on the floor, Drummond dominated the post.
That was the end of what Van Gundy calls the “first era” of 2014-15. The second was brief, and dominated by a new-look offense. With Smith off the floor, and the Pistons often using Tolliver as a stretch 4, Jennings and Drummond became a serious force. Detroit won 12 of its first 15 games after Christmas, finishing with a win over Orlando that saw Jennings put up 24 points and 21 assists while Drummond had 26 points and 17 rebounds.
In the next game, Jennings tore his Achilles’ tendon, and things changed all over again.
The Pistons lost four in a row, and their hopes of a shocking playoff berth faded out of sight. After watching the team scuffle with D.J. Augustin at point guard, Van Gundy made more big changes at the trading deadline. Augustin and Singler were sent to Oklahoma City for Reggie Jackson, while fringe players Gigi Datome and Jonas Jerebko went to Boston for, of all people, Tayshaun Prince.
The crowd loved Prince’s return, which gave them a link to the 2004 champs, but he’d hoped to go to a contender and didn’t provide much help down the stretch.
Jackson, though, made things happen. He averaged 17.6 points and 9.2 assists in his 27 games for the Pistons, and although they only went 10-17, Van Gundy had his point guard for the future. When the season ended, he guaranteed that, signing the restricted free agent to a five-year, $80 million contract.
Knowing that Detroit isn’t a hotbed for free agents, Van Gundy used trades to fill spots. Monroe left for Milwaukee, knowing both sides would be happier with him out of Detroit, and Van Gundy traded Butler and Shawne Williams for the player Monroe was replacing, Ersan Ilyasova.
Ilyasova, a career 37 percent three-point shooter, is exactly the type of player Drummond thrives with, and will have Tolliver behind him. Van Gundy then took advantage of a Phoenix front office desperate to dump salaries, picking up Marcus Morris, Danny Granger and Reggie Bullock for a future second-round pick.
Granger and Bullock aren’t part of Van Gundy’s plans, but Morris will be the starting small forward until first-round pick Stanley Johnson is ready to take over. The Pistons also picked up Aron Baynes to back up Drummond.
Suddenly, Van Gundy has a roster that looks like the one he took to the Finals in Orlando. A young star inside, with Drummond filling Dwight Howard’s role, surrounded by three-point shooters and a point guard who can get to the rim and turn the offense into a pick-and-roll machine.
There are no guarantees – Jackson’s contract is a huge gamble for someone who’s never spent an entire season as a starter, and the Pistons have little proven depth behind Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on the wings.
They’ll also have to figure out what to do with Jennings when he returns, because he and Jackson are too small to play major minutes together.
Van Gundy, though, is happy to figure those problems out. This time, he’s going to be coaching his kind of team.