There are some people who will tell you that coaches have very little influence on the games that are played. A coach cannot get a rebound, or score a point, or set a pick, or do many other things that show up in the box score. However, as is stated about many players' performances, there are some things that are not seen in the box score that determine the outcome of a game. So far this season, Stan Van Gundy has negatively affected the Detroit Pistons' box scores.
Today will be the first day I will be a coach. I will be coaching my son's Upward Basketball team at our church. My team consists of K-5 and First Graders. As such, I am thinking of taking a page out of Vince Lombardi's playbook:
Everybody stop and gather around. [kneel down] Let's start at the beginning. This is a basketball. This is the court. I'm the coach. You are the players...
For most of this season, I have felt that Van Gundy should do the same thing. It has seemed like there were some very basic things that many of the players either just were not doing or could not do. That had to be the reason for the 3-19 start, right? I mean, how can a coach who has never had a losing season and never missed the playoffs take a team who has an up-and-coming possible superstar, another very good power forward, a young and defensively gifted player who has a beautiful stroke (at times), other young and efficiently productive players, and a couple of crab apples and only have one more win than the Philadelphia 76ers? It has to be what the players are doing on the court, right?
Well, yes, it is. What the players are doing on the court has been absolutely horrid to watch. Some of it has been explained away as not having everything that is needed. Cartier Martin, Gigi Datome, Brandon Jennings and Jodie Meeks have all missed games this year due to injuries. So, that is the reason why Josh Smith was playing so much at small forward (or so we have been told). Well, all but Meeks have returned from injury. Meeks, however, will possibly make his Pistons debut (other than preseason) on Friday. This means that Van Gundy is running out of excuses.
Now, Van Gundy knows this team is playing horribly. He is even willing to trade any and everyone. Problem is, that might not be the issue. Maybe it is some of the starters? With Meeks' return, one of those starters issues could be solved. However, many of us are 1) not expecting Meeks to start right away and 2) do not expect him to start out red hot. Meeks needs some time to get back into game rhythm, and that buys Van Gundy some time.
But what if Meeks not only starts out of the gate, but also comes out red hot? What if after eight games of Meeks shooting at 55-percent true shooting percentage, most of which from deep, the Pistons are still losing? Something else would have to change, right?
This is where coaches have the most influence on the game. They have the ability to sit any player they want and play any player they want for as long as that player can (efficiently). Stan Van Gundy has not been doing this.
If Van Gundy has advanced statistics people working for him, it is hard for me to imagine that they have been feeding him positive reports about Josh Smith. Though Greg Monroe has not been playing at a career level lately like he was to start the season, I am pretty sure the statisticians have informed Van Gundy that Monroe has been the better of the two. Now, Smith can get hot to begin the game, so part of me is okay with him starting. However, that does not mean Smith should play at all the rest of the game or that Monroe could not be as effective in the starting role. That is all on Van Gundy.
Am I suggesting that Van Gundy bench Josh Smith entirely? No, I am not. It is possible, though I do not think it likely, that Smith could be valuable in short times as long as his concentration is on low post defense and infrequent low post scoring. This means no jump shots outside of five feet from the basket and no need to guard anyone that will take him out of the paint. If Josh were two inches taller, I would suggest he be the backup center.
But Van Gundy needs to be willing to bench a player for a whole game, or multiple games if necessary, in order to teach a player a lesson. Van Gundy has said to the press on multiple occasions that Josh does not need to be shooting outside shots. You could see the frustration on Van Gundy's face at the end of the Oklahoma City Thunder game when Smith shot a potential game-winning three pointer (from a similar spot to the one he shot in Toronto last year). Maybe Van Gundy needs to sit Josh for a few games to show him the err of his ways, even if it means a few more losses.
But maybe Van Gundy has finally learned this. Yes, Smith got the start against the Trail Blazers but he only played 21 minutes. Looking deeper you can see that he played 17 of those minutes in the first half and was pulled with 8:28 left in the third and did not see the court the rest of the game. Looking at the play before he was pulled, I think Van Gundy was upset with Smith's effort. I mean, he was not pulled because of foul trouble (he only had one). He was not pulled because Monroe was playing better (they both played about the same in the first half). Also, I have seen no report of Josh being injured. So maybe a change is coming.
I have the "benefit" of coaching for a church league where every player gets equal time to play (a rotating roster by quarter). I have the "benefit" of playing games where every player must get a chance to score and stats are not kept (at least not at this level). I have the "benefit" of rules that say my age range cannot play defense until they get into the paint. Stan Van Gundy has the "benefit" of putting the team on the court in any fashion that he likes that has the chance to win the game. (He also has the benefit of being the President of Basketball Operations as well.) If that is what he has been doing so far, then he will soon have no more excuses for this 3-19 record.
Community question: If Meeks comes back and is playing efficiently (while starting), how long do you give Van Gundy before things need to change? (Or, have you been looking forward to lottery balls?)