Stan Van Gundy has done a lot in his first two years with the Pistons. Only two players remain from those that Van Gundy inherited. For the first time in the better part of a decade the Pistons made the playoffs. Pistons players and office executives alike have stated that one of the biggest reasons for the improvement is the environment that Van Gundy and Pistons owner Tom Gores are creating around the organization. Looking back in Detroit Pistons history, we can see evidence of how important that environment is.
I don't know how many times I have watched it, but I love watching ESPN's 30 for 30: Bad Boys (which is available on Netflix if you have not seen it). As I was watching it recently, I started wondering what the cause was for the Pistons going from title winners to consecutive 30-win seasons within four seasons. At first, I thought it may have to do with Isiah Thomas retiring at the young age of 32, Dennis Rodman traded for Sean Elliott, and Chuck Daly leaving. In part, all of them had an effect on the organization. But the biggest of them could have very likely been Daly leaving when "the 61-year-old Daly acknowledged some differences this past season with the team's general manager, Jack McCloskey" (The New York Times - Daly Resigns as Pistons Coach).
For continued success, a balance of continuity and needed change must be found. Take for instance the San Antonio Spurs. For the last 19 years, the Spurs have made the playoffs, won five championships, and won no less than 50 games per season. One constant is Tim Duncan, and while he was a superstar for a lot of that run, he has been less productive in the last couple of years (comparatively). The other constant during that time has been Gregg Popovich and the environment he has instituted.
Duncan and Popovich have had help in the forms of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, but those players, and the others throughout the years, accepted, followed, and persisted Popovich's environment. It's an environment that has helped some role players excel more than they may have with other teams. The difference between Popovich with the Spurs and Daly with the Pistons is the fact that Popovich is judge, jury and executioner.
Popovich named himself coach in the 1995-96 season while he was already the general manager and Vice President of Basketball Operations. He would eventually relinquish his general manager title in 2002, promoting R.C. Buford who had been the team's lead scout. But for 19 seasons, Popovich has had final say. The only person that could have fired Popovich or caused him to leave would be the owner of the Spurs, Peter Holt. Unfortunately, Daly did not have that same power in Detroit and when he did not see eye-to-eye with his boss, McCloskey, he resigned.
Daly resigned as Pistons head coach in May 1992. Having already explored "greener" pastures a la Larry Brown, McCloskey would also leave a month later, heading to the Minnesota Timberwolves. This was a week after signing Daly's replacement, Ron Rothstein, to a four-year contract (who was fired after one). So the coach leaves because (maybe) he doesn't agree with his boss on how to rebuild the team (or maybe because he was interested in becoming a GM) and then that boss leaves within a month. What would the Pistons had been like had McCloskey left first?
In the Mitch Albom piece linked above, Albom makes the following statement:
It is no secret that Daly, the Pistons' coach, is interested in moving into a GM's position. He has said so everywhere in Detroit, and on network TV. [...]
Let him do both [coach and GM], you say? Well. That seems to me the kind of idea that sounds fine in theory, then blows up in your face. I watched Daly sweat through this past season, the best in Detroit history, and you must understand, coaching the Pistons is no dream cruise. You have a number of divergent personalities — from Isiah Thomas to Bill Laimbeer to Dantley — and keeping all of them content and at peak performance is a job that, at times, looks big enough for six people, let alone one. Daly has done as well as anyone could imagine. But saddle him with the responsibilities of coach and GM, and common sense suggests that both would suffer.
What would have happened to the Pistons if that happened? Would he have been willing to hold both positions? Considering the winning environment he already created, I can only imagine a form of sustained success. Not the beginning of the coaching carousel that ensued from the time of Daly's departure to that of Van Gundy's hiring. There's no guarantee that they would have been able to overcome Michael Jordan and the Bulls, but possibly strong enough to stay competitive and avoid that wretched teal era.
It is doubtful that Van Gundy will be the coach of the Pistons for 19 seasons. He promised his wife that Detroit will be his last stop in the NBA, but he's already 56. 19 years with the Pistons would make him 73 when he's done. But 10 years are not out of the question. He still has three left on his current contract, and if the Pistons continue to improve and there's a window to win a championship, I doubt he leaves when his contract is up unless Tom Gores seeks a change.
Will that be enough time for the Pistons to win a championship? Too soon to tell. But if they can keep the environment that they've created strong, then they should have a good shot at it.