A Tall Mountain to Climb: What Stan Van Gundy is Taking on in Detroit

Remember these guys? Yeah, that was five years ago.

Remember these guys? Yeah, that was five years ago.

It’s been five years since the 2008-09 season, the last time the Detroit Pistons reached the playoffs. Prior to that, however, the Pistons dynasty-of-sorts was very much alive and well, as Detroit reached the Eastern Conference Finals in six straight seasons from 2002-03 to 2007-08 including Conference Titles in 2003-04 and 2004-05 and an NBA Championship in 2003-04. Since that Conference Title in 2004-05, however, the Pistons have seen six coaching changes and a record of 355-367 (.491) including a losing record each of the last six seasons and a record of 179-297 (.376)  in that span (2008-2014).

The late Chuck Daly, back in some of the Pistons' glory days.

The late Chuck Daly, back in some of the Pistons’ glory days.

If you go as far back as the early 1980’s, an examination of the Pistons’ head coaches finds a lot of great coaches and big names that have led Detroit, none more notable than Chuck Daly who helped lead the Pistons to two NBA titles in 1988-89 and 1989-90. Since Daly, the Pistons have been coached by 13 different men including Doug Collins, Alvin Gentry, Rick Carlisle, Larry Brown, Flip Saunders, Michael Curry, John Kuester, Lawrence Frank and Maurice Cheeks.

You know that crazy/annoying guy dancing at the game? Apparently he owns the Pistons.

You know that crazy/annoying guy dancing at the game? Apparently he owns the Pistons.

Let’s take a quick look up the org chart in Detroit — all the way to the top. The Pistons are owned by Tom Gores, a 49-year old billionaire and Michigan State alum who purchased the team in the Summer of 2011 from Karen Davidson, wife of the late Bill Davidson. Gores is only the third owner in franchise history and at the time he took control, chose to keep former Pistons star and Basketball Hall of Famer Joe Dumars in place as the team’s President of Basketball Operations. Dumars resigned his position on April 14 of this year, announcing he would remain as an advisor to the organization and the ownership team. Dumars had served in the position since 2000 and had built the Pistons into a bit of a dynasty in the early 2000’s before watching the team crumble before him in recent years.

Throwback Style SVG

Throwback Style SVG

Enter Stan Van Gundy. Van Gundy, 54, is a SUNY-Brockport alumnus who played basketball for his father Bill in college until he graduated in 1981. Stan would work his way through the college basketball coaching ranks with stops along the way at Canisius, Fordham, UMass Lowell and Wisconsin before joining the Miami Heat as an assistant coach in 1995. Stan would serve as an assistant under Pat Riley for eight seasons – the first six of which saw the Heat finish with a winning record – before Van Gundy was named head coach prior to the start of the 2003-04 season after Riley abruptly resigned. Van Gundy would oversee the emergence of a shooting guard from Marquette University named Dwyane Wade and would help orchestrate the acquisition of Shaquille O’Neal from Los Angeles. 2003-04 saw the Heat finish 42-40 and fall to the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Van Gundy’s second season though was by all accounts a smashing success as the Heat finished 59-23 and fell to the Pistons in seven games in the conference finals. After an 11-10 start to the 2005-06 season, Van Gundy was relieved of his duties and Riley took over again. The Heat would win the NBA title over the Dallas Mavericks that season, but Van Gundy would have to watch from afar. He would not remain unemployed for long however as he began to receive offers after the end of the 2006-07 season. He turned down an offer to replace Rick Carlisle in Indianapolis and after the Billy Donovan fiasco, Stan was announced as head coach of the Orlando Magic in June of 2007.

Stan and the man who employed him and then replaced him, Pat Riley

Stan and the man who employed him and then replaced him, Pat Riley

Van Gundy’s first move upon arriving was acquiring Rashard Lewis via a sign-and-trade with Seattle. Lewis’ contract was a six-year/$118 million deal and he joined Dwight Howard, Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson as a team that would go 52-30 and win the Southeast Division before losing in the Eastern Conference Semifinals to…the Pistons.



2008-09 would be Stan’s best season as a head coach. The Magic would improve their regular season record by seven wins, finishing 59-23 with a trademark formula: Dwight Howard down low, Jameer Nelson/Rafer Alston running the point, and a bevy of three-point shooters on the perimeter in Rashard Lewis/Hedo Turkoglu/Mickael Pietrus/Keith Bogans/J.J. Redick/Courtney Lee. The Magic would finish the season second in the NBA in 3-pointers attempted (26.2 per game) and 6th in 3-point field goal percentage (38.1%). The Playoffs would see the Magic take down the 76ers in six games, the Celtics in seven games and then LeBron James’ Cavaliers in six to head to the NBA Finals. Their run would end there as the Magic would take only one game from the eventual NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers, but Dwight Howard was named Defensive Player of the Year as well as named to the All-NBA First Team. Howard’s teammates Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson joined him at the All-Star Game and the Magic had their best season since the mid-90’s.

Part of the cast of the late-2000's Magic. From Left: Jameer Nelson, Mickael Pietrus, Rashard Lewis and Dwight Howard.

Part of the cast of the late-2000’s Magic. From Left: Jameer Nelson, Mickael Pietrus, Rashard Lewis and Dwight Howard.

The following offseason, Hedo Turkoglu was sent off to the Raptors in a salary dump while Brandon Bass and Matt Barnes were added via free agency. 2009-10 would see the Magic finish 59-23 yet again, winning the Southeast Division and rolling over the Bobcats and Hawks in consecutive four game sweeps before being cut down by the Boston Celtics in six games. Van Gundy’s last two seasons in Orlando would see the Magic fail to win the division – finishing second in 2010-11 and third in 2011-12 – and fail to win a playoff series as well. Stan was fired in May of 2012 and now heads to Detroit with a career record of 371-208 (.641) as well as a 48-39 (.552) record in the postseason.

I mean yeah, on paper this made some sense. I guess...

I mean yeah, on paper this made some sense. I guess…

Back to the Pistons, who finished this past season 29-53, 4th in the Central Division, and generally stunk it up something fierce, or so I’ve been told by a member of the fanbase. Things were bad enough that Mo Cheeks was fired on February 9 and John Loyer was appointed on an interim basis. The Pistons would finish the season 8-24 under Loyer and ended the season with the 5th-worst record in the Eastern Conference. There is at least some reason to hope, however, and this has got to be why Stan Van Gundy accepted the Pistons offer to be head coach and President of Basketball Operations over the next five years:

  • Andre Drummond. Drummond’s 22.65 PER was the 5th highest mark in the Eastern Conference. The 6’10” 270 lbs. big man is only 20 years old and finished the season averaging 13.5 ppg, 13.2 rpg (2nd in NBA), 62.3% from the field (2nd in NBA) and 1.6 bpg (10th in NBA) in 32.3 mpg. Drummond is one of the best young big men in the game, which brings me to something I’ve noticed. When observing the most efficient players by PER on each of Stan Van Gundy’s teams, a trend emerges; big men. His first season? Lamar Odom (18.5). Year two in Miami? Shaq, with three of the top four most efficient being big men (Wang, Laettner included). Year Three, in which Van Gundy was ousted quickly? D-Wade was tops, but 2 and 3 were Shaq (24.5) and Alonzo Mourning (19.5) respectively. His first season in Orlando? No guard in the Top 5 in PER. Year two? Four of the top five players were big men. 2009-10? Three of the top four – this time Dwight Howard was joined by Ryan Anderson and Brandon Bass – were big men. 2010-11 was a repeat of the same and 2011-12 had Dwight and Anderson 1-2 in PER on the Magic. Why did I go through this long-winded exercise? To remind you that Stan places a huge importance on big men. They have Andre Drummond. He’s not there only big men though, but he’s the only great one who is also young.

    My bad, guys. I almost forgot about Greg Monroe.

    My bad, guys. I almost forgot about Greg Monroe.

  • Okay fine, I won’t pretend they only have Andre Drummond. Greg Monroe also exists. Monroe finished the season with a still above-average 18.16 PER mark and averages of 15.2 ppg and 9.3 rpg in 32.8 mpg. That said, his per 36 minute averages are down from both 2012-13 and 2011-12, seasons in which he was more efficient. Monroe is still only 23 and at 6’11” 253 lbs, the partnership of him and Drummond sounds phenomenal. In theory, at least. Only time will tell if Van Gundy is able to get the most out of his new young toys at big man.
  • On July 10, 2013, the Pistons signed Josh Smith to a 4 year, $54 million deal. Smith just completed his 10th season in the league and in 2013-14 the 6’9″ 225 lbs. man posted a line of 16.4 ppg (lowest since 2009-10), 6.8 rpg (lowest since 2005-06, his second season in the league) and 41.9% from the field (career low) in 35.5 minutes per game. His 14.10 PER was below league average and was also the lowest of his career and that isn’t the end of the bad news in regards to Smith. He attempted a career high 3.4 3-point field goals per game this season but shot only 26.4% on those shots.

    Also (may not be as bad as Rashard/the Magic, but...) NEVER WAS THIS A GOOD IDEA

    Also (may not be as bad as Rashard/the Magic, but…) NEVER WAS THIS A GOOD IDEA

  • For more on the Pistons struggles, look no further than Zach Lowe’s piece on Grantland back in January. Problem: the Pistons didn’t follow his advice in the subsequent months.
  • We’ll examine one more asset – or lack thereof – of the Pistons: their draft history/future draft picks. The Pistons have had three draft picks in each of the last three drafts with notable selections including Brandon Knight (1st round, 8th overall in 2011), Kyle Singler (2nd round, 33rd overall in 2011) and Andre Drummond (1st round, 9th overall in 2012). The Pistons do not have a first round pick this year, having dealt it to the Charlotte Bobcats Hornets in June of 2012 along with Ben Gordon for Corey Maggette. Their only selection will be in the 2nd round, 38th overall.

Woof I mean…that’s it? Good lord what is Stan Van Gundy thinking? Generally speaking, in almost any sport, I always talk to people about building long-term, and then as your team is getting successful, building for the short-term and long-term. When it comes to building long-term in the NBA, it’s important to build your team around the 2-5 best young, talented players on your roster and begin stockpiling assets and draft picks. The Pistons have one second round pick this season which is to say that it could take SVG a little while to get things going. But, if they are able to deal some of their bigger salaries and, as I mentioned, acquire young talent/assets and draft picks, and if Stan can develop his young big men, the Pistons could be one of the top teams in the East again soon. Those are some big “ifs,” though.

– Dylan


About Dylan Jenkins

I'm a proud Seattlite currently living in Queens, NY. Outside of sports, I enjoy crime dramas - specifically police procedurals - as well as a wide range of music, everything from Top 40 to Iron & Wine, Bob Dylan & Rogue Wave. I am a cat person, which is to say I'm a human who enjoys felines. I have a tremendous sweet tooth that isn't very discerning, and I refuse to observe a number of unwritten social rules.
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