When things go wrong, the word “accountability” gets thrown around a lot. It’s a word we’ve been reading and hearing numerous times for the past few months in reference to the Detroit Pistons struggles. Now that the disappointing 2016-17 campaign has finally come to a (merciful) end, we can begin analyzing where it all went wrong in the hopes of finding the holes that need to be plugged. This task has to start at the top of the Pistons organization and most notably at Stan Van Gundy’s disappointing performance as a head coach this past year.
Coming into this season, the Pistons roster was largely unchanged from the one that made a playoff appearance in 2015-16. Last summer, notable holes in the roster were filled accordingly and it seemed like a fairly safe and formulaic offseason. A more than competent backup point guard was signed in Ish Smith and front court flexibility was shored up in signing Jon Leuer and Boban Marjanović. But it was largely understood that the Pistons ultimate success this season would be in how the starters and core franchise players would be able to progress their game and take a step forward.
Obviously that plan didn’t work out. In fact, guys took a step backward. A fact SVG has been conceding in the press the past couple days. Well to get a better idea of how far backwards, I wanted to look at comparing our core players performances over the past two years. For the sake of this analysis, I used ESPN’s Real Plus Minus to give us a singular performance number and a wins contributed number to measure against the two season records. Using this, we can see a singular players progression from season to season and illustrate the change from 2015-16 playoff run to this season’s disappointment. So first, lets look at the playoff team from 2015-16:
2015-16 RPM Numbers
The 10.20 wins contributed number for Andre Drummond is notable. Remember that this was Drummond’s first season making the All Star team, despite posting the highest “Coach Killing” rating out of any player in the NBA (remember this number in June). Also, Reggie’s RPM being second highest among the group is of note. Him and Andre were in perfect sync and according to this measurement, their play was the most impactful in getting the Pistons enough victories to grab that eighth seed.
Now look at the same players 2016-17 RPM numbers:
2016-17 RPM Numbers
The drop offs from Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond are the most eye-popping. Obviously Reggie’s knee not being 100 percent affected his play, but in turn, it also brought everyone else on the team down, most notably Andre Drummond. Drummond’s impact dropped over six wins. To put that in perspective, if Drummond’s number stays the same as last season, the Pistons are a 4-5 seed in the East.
Which brings me back to Stan Van Gundy. For a team that relied so heavily on player development, it’s a major red flag to see the volatile differences between the two years with largely the same roster. Sure, health played a role, but you can point to numerous other teams that were dealt major blows and still managed to overcome.
The reality is this: Reggie Jackson’s recovery and re-insertion into the system was mismanaged and that falls on no one else but Stan. This failure looks to be the lynchpin that affected almost every other player minus a few exceptions. Like Tobias Harris, who managed to stay consistent and in fact actually improved his wins contributed number this year. Stanley Johnson posted a disastrous -2.70 RPM in 2015-16 and somehow eked its way to a -2.52 for this year, a result I will attribute to his improved defensive play. So it’s at least moving the right way for some players.
I also suspect that Stan’s coaching style started to wear on players this year. We all know Stan isn’t afraid to put players on front street in the media. His stance is that these players are professional athletes, regardless of their young age, and need to act as such. He said as much earlier this week in discussing the need for leadership on this team moving forward.
It’s a very Popovich stance to take but the Spurs have two things working in their favor with this approach: veteran leadership and a history of winning. Unfortunately Stan’s approach doesn’t have either luxury in Detroit, and as such, probably doesn’t hold the same amount of impact with players just yet. And I’m sure it doesn’t help that Stan is the last name getting dragged in the mud by media because of how good his relationship is with the press. He gives them gold every single night, whether it’s a Pistons win or loss, and the media in turn rewards him with critical immunity.
And for that matter, so do we as fans. I would say it is safe to assume that Pistons fans have largely felt spoiled since SVG graced our organization by accepting the job offer in the summer of 2014. The guy had a chance to coach the Warriors and chose us (thank you NBA 2K17 for reminding me of this every single time I play). The Pistons were coming off a seven year run of disappointing head coaches, all of whom had glaring flaws and not much of a winning pedigree to help cover the issues up. Stan Van Gundy is different. He is well respected almost unanimously in the NBA and the hire instantly changed the league wide perception of the Piston’s franchise.
Stan is no saint though. I would be remiss to not remind us of Stan’s issues with players in the past. Most notably, how he was forced out of not one but two franchises because of a toxic or deteriorating relationship with star players. Shaq famously kicked him out of Miami before a title run and we all know the well-documented Dwight Howard situation in Orlando. If history tells us anything with Stan, it’s that he may eventually burn out his players, potentially to the point of a franchise-altering roster collapse (hi Magic fans).
Now before this goes careening off a cliff, let me just say that this isn’t a “fire SVG” post. Stan has owned up to the fact that he didn’t do as good of a job this year, and is saying all the right things in terms of how urgently he wants to turn this around.
The Pistons still have options and opportunity to make this team better in the offseason, and as Stan Van Gundy continues his exit interviews today, I hope that he keeps his poor performance in mind and holds himself accountable.