In the one of the latest coaching changes in the NBA, one veteran coach was shown the door after being one of the most celebrated hires in the franchise’s recent history. When Stan Van Gundy was rumored to be associated with the Pistons’ opening back in 2014, many Detroit fans (myself and our staff included) were delighted by this idea. After many no-name flames out; such as Michael Curry, John Kuester and Maurice Cheeks, the Pistons had decided to go after a stable coach with a semi-successful past. Van Gundy was a part of the pre-LeBron Miami Heat greatness and was the architect to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic. He had over 370 wins to his credit before joining Detroit and looked like a man who could led this team out of the doldrums.
Unfortunately, if anything, SVG merely allowed the Pistons to tread the waters of mediocrity. Detroit averaged 28 wins a season in the four years before his arrival and only got above 40 wins in one season (2015-2016). Now, that is technically improvement over the previous regimes but it was not what Pistons fans were hoping for this this hire. When he was hired, many hoped he would be able to open the offense and potentially take Andre Drummond to new heights. After all, he is fairly responsible for helping mold Howard into what he became in Orlando (at least on the court). Drummond has taken some steps forward under Van Gundy but isn’t the superstar big man we had hoped for. It is yet to been seen what Drummond will become as his career progresses, but his time with SVG was largely a bust. But this is not the worst offense by Van Gundy.
One of the most damning and lasting memories of the SVG era will be the drafting and personnel blunders. When Van Gundy was hired, he was not only given head coaching responsibilities but also given the President of Basketball Operations handle as well. This gave him a tremendous amount of power over the organization. While he did have a cohort in Jeff Bower, it seemed like SVG would have a majority of the say-so in the organization. While this move has worked out for some organizations like the Spurs with Gregg Popovich (though he is the Vice President) and the Heat with Pat Riley, this move was disastrous for Detroit. Van Gundy’s choices in free agency/contract signing and drafting are a sight to be hold. On the surface, the selections of Spencer Dinwiddie, Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard all seem like defendable picks that shouldn’t have be mocked at the time. But, when you consider these guys were taken over the potentials of Justise Winslow/Devin Booker, Dejounte Murray and Donovan Mitchell, it seems far more egregious. Now, it is hard to fault a President/GM for making a draft mistake. This process is hard and miscalculations are part of the job. But when they are stacked one after another like that, it points to you and the way you are evaluating talent. Even if SVG had taken one of those players (or simply held on to Dinwiddie a moment longer), the whole outlook of this franchise and roster could be dramatically better. When you also weigh this with some of the contracts he has handed out, (like Jodie Meeks, Aron Baynes, Jon Leuer, Boban Marjanovic, and Langston Galloway) it makes his tenure look even worse. Van Gundy accomplished a lot in his coaching career, but his time as an executive are more than forgettable.
This debilitation of Detroit came to an apex with the Blake Griffin trade. It was a move that brought immediate life to the team as they were struggling to maintain a playoff position. Unfortunately, as we all know now, it did little in terms of helping keep Detroit’s postseason hopes alive. Griffin’s play diminished as the last half of the season went along and squashed much of the optimism that he brought to the Pistons. This is especially true when you consider his albatross contract. Griffin is on the books for over $102 million for the next four years including a $38 million player bonus in 2021-2022. His move to the Pistons has cap-strapped them for the next two years at least and there doesn’t seem to be an easy answer on how to solve them. It has been reported that this trade was not solely a Van Gundy decision but surely he was one of the first people in the organization to sign off on it. If he, or the rest of the Pistons staff, were to fully take into account what this contract does to Detroit in terms of the future, maybe they would have thought twice bout pulling it off.
All in all, the Van Gundy era was not all it was hoped to be. The Pistons did make some strides from a locker room culture perspective. He helped elevate Detroit basketball and gave the organization some direction. If Van Gundy had taken this team in the right direction however, he may still be employed. SVG will have a lot of options to persue post-Pistons but it may be safe to say his NBA head coaching and executive days are behind him. An unfortunate end to what has been a great career for Van Gundy. But hey, he always could find an opening in the construction industry.