The final destination grabs the headlines but the journey is the fun part….
During the summer of 2000, in a sign and trade deal, the Detroit Pistons traded all-star forward Grant Hill to the Orlando Magic. In return, the services of Chucky Atkins and Ben Wallace were acquired. This was the start of the "Going to Work" era that culminated with a championship run in 2004. Looking back, it’s easy to pinpoint that trade as the start of something special but in real time, it’s impossible to determine.
That championship roster was seemingly a team of spare parts and leftovers but that’s what made it so special. Ben Wallace was undersized, Chauncey Billups was on his fifth team in six years, Rasheed Wallace was talented but deemed a head case and even coach Larry Brown was looked at as a coaching nomad. Each player had a unique story on how they ended up with the Pistons and in turn, that team will forever have a place in Detroit sports lore.
Fast forward to the 2015-16 preseason; is this the start of something?
After the "Going to Work" Pistons, the team suffered to find an identity. Throwing big time money at small time free agents seemed like a desperation move rather than concrete building blocks. Joe Dumars couldn't recreate that 2004 magic and resigned in the summer of 2014 leaving the team in shambles. For all his free agency wrongs, he did leave Detroit with a single selling point: Andre Drummond. Again, it’s easy to look back at the 2012 draft and conclude Drummond to be the obvious choice with the ninth pick but heading in, he was labeled "raw", "project" all with a questionable work ethic. At the tender age of 19, he was tasked with being the face of the franchise. This could take a while….
In the summer of 2011, Tom Gores (and Platinum Equity) became owner of Palace Sports and Entertainment and therefore, owning the wayward Piston franchise. Gores named Lawrence Frank head coach. That didn't work. From there, he turned to Maurice Cheeks. Strike two as Cheeks was let go midway through the 2013-14 season; interim head coach John Loyer finished the season but was in over his head. Instead of making a quick decision on a head coach, Gores waited to make the right decision: Stan Van Gundy.
Van Gundy came to Detroit after head coaching stops at both Florida schools. He found success in Miami and Orlando but the rationale behind his departure at each organization is a little murky. Van Gundy will be the first to describe himself as hard headed. In Miami, he nurtured a young Dwyane Wade and with Miami as a viable contender in the East, SVG stepped down as coach just 21 games into the 2005-06 season. His reasoning was centered around spending more time with family but speculation was the stubborn coach clashed with Heat President Pat Riley. Van Gundy rejoined the coaching ranks in 2007 as HC of the Orlando Magic and made it the NBA finals in 2009. Again though, rumors swirled that SVG didn't get along with Magic superstar Dwight Howard and thus, he was let go in 2012. Essentially, he took two years off before accepting Gores' offer.
Coaching professional basketball is an art more than a science. Van Gundy made mistakes at both stops but it's only a mistake if you don't learn from it. With accepting the Pistons offer, Van Gundy ensured the coaching staff and front office would be on the same page as he was also named Team President. Detroit would be his team, ran his way. Inheriting Drummond was a piece of the puzzle already in play, now it was time to build around him starting with the acquisition of Reggie Jackson.
Jackson was stuck in Oklahoma City behind all world point guard Russell Westbrook. He showed flashes of all-star play but as long as Westbrook was around, Jackson was always going to be second fiddle. He was labeled disgruntled (a charge that's hard to shake) in OKC and a change of scenery was needed. He saw himself as a lead guard but needed a team who felt the same. Van Gundy pulled the trigger to bring Jackson to Detroit right before the 2015 trade deadline. Most thought the Pistons were simply kicking the tires to see if Jackson fit but Van Gundy knew exactly what he was getting himself into. In his eyes, Jackson was the Piston point guard of the foreseeable future.
5-23. That’s the infamous record to the start of the Van Gundy era. After a brief, albeit fun, run in January, the team finished with a dismal 32-50 record and headed straight back to the lottery, an all too familiar landing spot. The organization could have gone in a handful of different directions in the eighth pick but when Justise Winslow slipped to into drafting distance, it was clear the Pistons would address their small forward need with the Duke freshmen. Only they didn’t.
To the surprise of many, Van Gundy stuck to his guns and selected Stanley Johnson. The early return on Johnson is positive to say the least. He introduced himself to Piston nation with a solid summer league and after a largely successful preseason opener, Piston fans find themselves tiptoeing around the streets and suburbs of Detroit carefully trying not to jinx the potential that is so clearly visible. Johnson seems tailor-made to be a fan favorite; the energy is contagious and cruise control doesn’t seem to be in his vocabulary. On top of it all, the dude can ball.
Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Stanley Johnson and Stan Van Gundy. There is no promise that this is the start of a championship run but you don’t have to squint hard to see the outline of a functional, competitive organization. As we enter the 2015-16 season, spirits and expectations are high in Auburn Hills. Talk is cheap and for Piston fans to take this team seriously, those spirits and expectations must translate into wins on the court. No Piston fan in their right mind is expecting a championship this season. What we want to see is progress and direction. If you subscribe to the theory that this is the start, enjoy the ride. Andre is still working on his post game, Reggie is going to turn the ball over and Stanley Johnson will surly do rookie things. But remember….
…..the journey is the fun part.