How much criticism does Stan Van Gundy really deserve?

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Wow. The first seven games of this Pistons season have been surprising, but not for the right reasons. As a die hard optimist, I'm probably more disappointed than a lot of Pistons fans here. I'm also frustrated… and I don't get frustrated very easily. So I wanted to take a minute and discuss the main problems that we've seen during these early-season games and ask the question that we've all been thinking (if not saying) - "What the hell, Stan?"

The Elephant in the Room is just so obvious to anyone who watches these games, one has to wonder if we devoted DBB fans are actually wiser (at least on a couple key issues) than the current head coach and GM of the team - a man who has never missed the playoffs, and who is generally regarded by his peers as one of the finest coaches in the NBA.

Some of you might be saying… "Well, duh!"

But in truth, I don't take such questions lightly. For years, my dad has watched Detroit sports from the couch while ranting and raving about how he would be a better coach than Sparky Anderson, Jim Leyland, Mike Babcock, and whatever poor soul was coaching the Lions (he's never been a huge basketball fan). I argued with and laughed at him. In no way am I one of those fans who thinks he knows better than most professional coaches.

Before the season began, when ESPN ranked the Pistons 11th in the East, I was indignant. I made a comment about how a great coach like SVG could make a huge difference on a team like the Pistons, and my "Adam Sandler Theory" comment received all the recs. I predicted 42-50 wins this season.

In brief, my theory was that a great coach will put players in position to succeed, thus maximizing their strengths and minimizing/hiding their weaknesses. Among other things, I thought that SVG would use Smith off the bench, and/or quickly bench him for straying from his strengths (i.e. shooting 3's and long 2's).

Well, as Obi-Wan once said about his ability to train a young Anakin Skywalker… "I was wrong." In fact, ESPN's prediction is looking more and more accurate as the young season progresses.

Now, we all know that "it's only been six games," so I'm not saying the sky is falling, but I am reassessing my optimistic appraisal from the preseason for several reasons.

  1. Josh Smith has started every game.
  2. Josh Smith leads the team in minutes (35.3) AND shot attempts (16.7).
  3. Josh Smith is shooting 35% FG and 9%(!) 3PT, and is still shooting 1.7 threes a game.
  4. Josh Smith often shoots early in the shot clock and inhibits ball movement.
  5. SVG has started "The Big Three" several games in a row.
  6. Greg Monroe has finished several close games on the bench.
  7. Jonas Jerebko, in spite of shooting 58% FG and 44%(!) 3PT, averages 14MPG and has 2 DNP's.

This list could be much longer, but the reason I'm focusing on these points is that these are not problems that could be attributed to a "learning curve" for either coach, team or player. Drummond's slow start can be at least partially attributed to learning a new system and trying to grow his offensive game (whether or not that's a wise move is another issue). Ball movement and offensive efficiency as a team can be attributed to players learning a new offensive system. The above problems, however, could easily be corrected - immediately - by a coach who has supposedly watched the entire 2013-14 Pistons season.

I've seen comments speculating that SVG is merely trying to figure out what he has in Smith, that he's trying to up his trade value with points and stats (or by keeping him in the starting lineup), but none of those explanations satisfy me.

We all know SVG's supposed tendency to surround inside bigs with outside shooters, but playing Smith extended minutes disrupts that entire scheme while keeping a true outside shooter on the bench. Thus, we have the same issues with Smith taking - and missing - the majority of the shots, while players like Monroe and Butler stand around and watch. Jonas Jerebko, a seemingly ideal PF with range who's hitting shots at a high percentage, does his watching from the bench.

This is only anecdotal evidence, as I don't have the time to dig through all the advanced stats, but my eyes and memory tell me that ball movement and shot selection improves noticeably when Smith is on the bench, and quickly sinks when he steps on the court. I noticed this specifically in the 2nd-3rd game of the season, and it's a pattern that's repeated more than once since. His occasional spurts of good play and nifty passing are always offset by mistakes and poor play at other times during the game.

In the key closing minutes against the Bulls, with Monroe on the bench, Smith takes an incredibly low-percentage shot that kills the team's momentum and effectively loses the game. This is where I thought SVG would be different. A wise coach who holds players accountable and knows their strengths/weaknesses would either:

A) Have an undisciplined player and poor FT shooter like Smith on the bench during crunch time, or
B) Immediately bench Smith after taking that shot.

This is particularly mind-boggling from a coach who spent his entire FA budget not on "Big Names" like Smith, but specifically on players who shoot a high-percentage from downtown.

Your greatest power as a coach (and especially as coach/GM) is to control players' minutes. You can't force them to make good decisions on the court, but you can keep them off the court if they don't comply.

There are still some good reasons for optimism. This team is not getting blown off the court as they were so often last season. The defense is absolutely improved. They are missing a couple good shooters in Meeks and Martin. KCP and Drummond are not yet performing as we'd hoped, but still (at times) inspire hope. Brandon Jennings is playing better and is much more disciplined; he seems to be making a sincere effort to improve his game.

Stan Van Gundy has an excellent track record as a coach, and for that, he deserves more than a little patience and respect. However, his early handling of Smith - minutes, shot attempts, role - is very troubling, and causes me to drastically reassess this team's potential in 2014-15.

Since he controls players' minutes… he controls the rotation… he controls the starting lineup… we can only conclude that he currently thinks Josh Smith deserves to start, deserves more minutes, and deserves more shots than Greg Monroe and Jonas Jerebko, even at the end of close games, even though those two players are incredibly more efficient.

That, my dear friends, is bad news… because that is the one key problem that is holding this team back from making true progress, and it's the one key problem that can't be attributed to "new coach, new system."

If Stan Van Gundy continues to use Smith this way, even (and especially) after the return of Jodie Meeks and Cartier Martin, this team is headed straight back to the lottery, and Greg Monroe is headed straight out of town.

And this is from a unabashed optimist.

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