The difference this time is the “all our eggs broke in that basket” aspect of Van Gundy’s tenure. A time that was at worst destructive and at best a wave of picks, deals and moves derailed by injury and circumstance.
Van Gundy excelled as a coach in Detroit, becoming the 43rd head coach to win 400 games, by developing sub-star-level talent and squeezing the most out of sparse rosters full of overpaid and/or overplayed athletes — both problems perpetuated by his wheel-and-deal approach to free agency.
By the end of his time with the Pistons, the roster had improved, along with a grossly inflated payroll, while results remained stagnant. The Clippers trade for Blake Griffin was the culmination — an exciting move for a big-name player with no regard for monetary concerns or the future of the franchise. It left the team with a playoff roster half relegated to the bench and no cap space for signing backups.
In 2014, after two failed coaching hires under new owner Tom Gores, Van Gundy was brought on as a potential savior.
With well-reported locker room issues, five straight sub-.400 seasons and no playoff wins since the team’s eighth straight Eastern Conference Finals appearance in 2008, Van Gundy was given the keys to the former automobile capital of the world and tasked with dragging it back up a cliff.
The task proved tough, as Van Gundy’s only winning season with the team resulted in a first-round sweep by LeBron James and the title-bound Cleveland Cavaliers. The fate is familiar for Eastern teams, as LeBron has topped the conference in each of the past seven seasons.
But, other teams bound to LeBron’s blight have improved by adding big-time free agents from the west, poaching point guards from title teams, or by amortizing their poor performance with positive draft picks and procedurally preparing for a postseason run.
The Pistons tried to follow suit, but couldn’t find the right fit. Third-string guards were awarded starter-level money (Langston Galloway, $21 million), draft selections reflected the needs of a team one piece away from contention (spot-up rotation shooter Luke Kennard), rather than seeking the best athletes available (Donovan Mitchell) and a consistently developing franchise player in Andre Drummond was backed up with a ludicrous contract ($41 million for Jon Leuer).
All the while, the Pistons’ true hopes for wins in the future were paid their dues ($127 million for Drummond and $80 million for Reggie Jackson, who Van Gundy signed in 2015) — large contracts that a franchise flush with cap space could afford, but not one that still owes Josh Smith $10 million to not play.
Injuries further complicated Van Gundy’s tenure, relegating hundreds of millions of dollars of salary to the bench for extended periods and triggering more puzzling signings.
The trade for Griffin serves as a microcosm of Van Gundy’s career with Detroit. A failed project was shipped off in Avery Bradley, along with a capable offensive centerpiece in Tobias Harris and lovable big man Boban Marjanovic, in return for former All-Star power forward Griffin.
Griffin meshed with Drummond and the rest of the team immediately, turning an eight-game skid into a five-game winning streak. Griffin recorded a triple-double in his first week as a Piston and became the first player with at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in a debut with the Pistons since Grant Hill.
Before long, though, Griffin was sidelined with a bone bruise, along with Jackson, and the Pistons ended the season with $45.5 million on the bench. Drummond, the league’s second best-paid center, was left on the court, crediting Van Gundy with his development into a late-add All-Star.
The future? Griffin’s contract balloons over the coming years, peaking at $39.9 million in 2021-22. The good news is the Piston payroll is slated to drop, freeing up space by 2020 for another solid rookie contract — which is appropriate because the Griffin trade also robbed Detroit of their 2018 first-round pick.
All the money is not wasted, if an injury-plagued roster can stay healthy for an entire season, or even just piece together a good month at the end, it is plenty good enough to force a playoff appearance. The question now is with the keys back in the hands of Gores, who will drive them there?
The Pistons are officially in scramble mode.
With the NBA Draft combine starting in a week, the organization doesn't have any sense of direction or leadership during a critical time in scouting, player evaluation and contract negotiations.
The Pistons won't have a first-round selection in the draft due to the Blake Griffin trade, but the four-day stretch allows many front offices to discuss potential draft-day trades with other teams, scout the incoming class of rookies for possible future free agent signings and potentially find a second-round gem in the draft that could make an immediate impact on the team (i.e., Draymond Green, Manu Ginobili, Isaiah Thomas).
Gores' hands-off approach likely means vice chairman Arn Tellem will be pulling the strings of the organization moving forward. The former agent has a lot of clout in NBA circles and it wouldn't be shocking to see the Pistons hire one of his clients as the next head coach.
If Gores hadn't waited three weeks to fire Stan Van Gundy, the ideal GM-head coach combo would have been Chauncey Billups as general manager and David Fizdale as the next head coach of the Pistons.
Instead, weeks of indecision have led to several head-coaching candidates landing elsewhere with better-looking options like the Milwaukee Bucks' head coaching job still vacant.
Former Cleveland Cavaliers' general manager David Griffin has been rumored to be a front-runner for the front office vacancy within the organization, while recycled veteran head coaches like Mark Jackson, Mike Brown and Mike Budenholzer are rumored to be in consideration for the head coaching vacancies.
If the Pistons are going to turn the corner and get out of the purgatory that is the middle-of-the-road in the NBA, they need to hit the refresh button.
That means cleaning house in the scouting department and allowing the new president of basketball ops to call the shots and hire his or her own people. One choice would be current Boston Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren, who has been at the center of the team's recent resurgence and has a track record of making smart decisions, as far as player contracts and draft selections.
As far as a head-coaching candidate, I think the team should either bring in a young G-League coach such as former Pistons player Jerry Stackhouse (now with the Raptors G-League team) or a college coach that could attract free agents, such as John Calipari out of Kentucky or Jay Wright out of Villanova.
Those options seem less and less likely, as the franchise showcases its ability to be a directionless ship, lost at sea as it capsizes in its own mediocrity.
A new captain with a new crew will be the only way to save the USS Pistons from its own demise. However, recent history shows that solution would be too bold for an owner who doesn't want to rock the boat.