The Detroit Pistons are missing the playoffs again. The Pistons will not have a winning record for the ninth time in the past 10 years.
And the shame of it all is that it felt so damn familiar.
It wasn’t that Andre Drummond didn’t step up — he had his most effective season as a pro. It’s not that Stan Van Gundy didn’t instill defense and accountability among his team. Somehow Detroit has the 10th ranked defense and considering their personnel I’m not sure how it has been possible.
The most common refrain during the Stan Van Gundy era has nothing to do with Van Gundy, really. It’s certainly not “form a f*cking wall” like we all hoped. Instead it involves the most fateful decision of his Detroit tenure — as Reggie Jackson goes, so goes the Pistons.
Sadly, this year, Jackson went out with a nasty ankle sprain and the Pistons season went with it. So it goes.
Two years ago it was different. Jackson was healthy and in his first full season as the lead dog. He played well and the Pistons won 44 games. They were good. Some called them an up-and-coming team. They were for real.
Maybe it was a mirage.
Last year it was a knee problem that forced Jackson to miss the first 20 games of the season. He came back a shell of himself, but Van Gundy allowed him to play more than 1,400 disastrous minutes and the Pistons season was lost.
This year, it was much the same. Detroit had the fourth-best record in the East at 19-14 when Jackson was lost to injury. On the year, the team is 25-16 when Jackson plays and 12-25 without him.
The team has won seven of nine games since he returned from injury — losing only to the NBA-best Houston Rockets in overtime and a Sixers team currently on a 12-game winning streak.
It makes you wonder what this team would have accomplished had Reggie Jackson stayed healthy. He’s certainly been the most consequential Piston. Not double-double machine Andre Drummond. Not hyper-efficient Tobias Harris. Not superstar Blake Griffin.
It’s been Reggie from day 1. So it goes.
Van Gundy will walk into Tom Gores office this offseason and talk about what this team could have accomplished with a healthy Jackson. He will point to their record and how it all fits together. It might even save his job as head coach in Detroit as he embarks on the final year of his lucrative contract.
However, Van Gundy’s first major move as a basketball executive — trading for and signing Jackson to a big deal — might also be the thing that gets him booted out of the front office.
The fact that this team couldn’t survive an injury to its good but not great point guard is a huge indictment on Van Gundy the executive and his ability to construct a roster and respond to challenges in real time.
It was Van Gundy the executive who looked past Jackson’s history of injury issues and breathing problems and decided it was a good idea to hand him the keys to the offense ona four-year deal. It was Van Gundy the executive who decided that three years and $18 million was the right price for the light-shooting Ish Smith. Ish has been a pleasant surprise as a backup point guard but only one person determined it was an acceptable risk to face the possibility of a spacing nightmare like Smith, Stanley Johnson and Drummond trio in the starting lineup — Van Gundy the exec.
With a green light to build the team exactly how he wanted, Van Gundy spent loads of cash up and down the roster but he never signed Reggie Jackson insurance even in the face of a chronic knee condition and stamina issues. The closest he came was signing Langston Galloway — a player who can stroke it from deep. Of course, he’s also a player who quickly entered Van Gundy’s doghouse. It took Stan about five minutes to determine Galloway couldn’t play point guard, and now LG is out of the rotation entirely.
You’d think that Van Gundy the executive would consult with Van Gundy the coach to make sure the team signs players the coach will actually trust and play. That’s $21 million poorly spent.
And then, of course, it was Van Gundy the executive who decided something needed to change. The team was anxious for a playoff appearance and were down a starting point guard. Jackson’s absence created a cascading effect that hurt everyone’s individual games and decimated the production of the bench.
Van Gundy the executive’s answer was to ship out the team’s most effective offensive player in Tobias Harris and in return they didn’t get a point guard, they got Blake Griffin and the $150 million left on his deal.
Still without a point guard, Detroit’s freefall continued. That is a failure of Stan Van Gundy the executive. And that is why he most assuredly will soon be known as Stan Van Gundy the former executive.
Jackson is back and the Pistons are playing better. They are beating (mostly bad) teams, but will finish with a solidly mediocre record in spite of a major injury to their point guard. Coach Van Gundy did the best with what he had on hand. Unfortunately, executive Van Gundy didn’t give him nearly enough.