Don’t ever let it be said that Stan Van Gundy didn’t have a long-term plan. There are plenty of Pistons post-mortems floating around the internet right now in the wake of the dismissal of Stan Van Gundy as both president and head coach.
You’ll read a lot about his attempt to “save his job” by trading for Blake Griffin and his mega contract. You’ll also read a lot about Van Gundy’s free agency failures — particularly around the time the latest Donovan Mitchell viral highlight is spreading around Twitter. You’ll read about a “win now” attitude that goes with handing executive powers to a head coach.
It’s not really true, though. At least, it doesn’t get at the true failures of Van Gundy’s tenure — a lack of a check and balance to him trying to solve all his team’s problems on July 1 every season.
What is true is that the dual roles of executive and head coach should be good and buried. Kill it with fire. In this past calendar year you’ve seen three high-profile instances of those arrangements ending -- Doc Rivers in L.A., Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta and now Van Gundy in Detroit. Watch your back, Tom Thibodeau.
Van Gundy made some profound errors in Detroit but not having a long-term strategy was not really one of them. First, we have to remember that Van Gundy inherited a pile of junk. He had no first round pick and his three most high profile players all should have been playing center or not playing at all (Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith).
Second, for a coach who supposedly suffered from a constant win-now mentality, Van Gundy made several team-altering trades during the season. He was never afraid of sacrificing immediate results for possible long-term gain.
First he traded an effective DJ Augustin, his only healthy, effective point guard, and Kyle Singler for Reggie Jackson. He knew that he needed a long-term solution running point and, for better or worse, targeted Jackson. Detroit promptly lost 10 of the first 11 games Jackson played.
The next season, Van Gundy, always mindful of overall talent upgrades, stole Tobias Harris away from the Orlando Magic in exchange for Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova. Harris fit in seamlessly and Detroit won 44 games and went to the playoffs.
Then, of course, Detroit scuffled this year once Reggie Jackson went down. Instead of a marginal upgrade at the point, however, Detroit went for the home run and major talent upgrade in flipping Harris, Avery Bradley and a pick for Blake Griffin and all the money that came with him.
No, Van Gundy’s big issue was never a win-now mentality during the season. He made small, prudent investments in year one. He won just about every trade he took part in prior to the big Griffin gamble. His draft picks might be a combination of bad lack and bad evaluation, but you can’t reasonably argue that they are due to misplaced priorities. He also couldn’t be accused of overvaluing his own assets. He paid Andre Drummond, sure, but he also set a hard line on his two other quality young assets — Greg Monroe and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — and let them walk instead of overpaying them.
Van Gundy’s biggest failing every year was the same — July 1, the start of free agency. And July 1 is the real reason why the executive-coach model is destined to fail.
NBA head coaches by their nature, and this certainly applies to Van Gundy, knows everything their roster can’t do. Van Gundy knew all the flaws, all the limitations that prevented him from doing what he really wanted to do on both ends of the floor.
Van Gundy knew what Josh Smith couldn’t do and instead of trading him for other useless NBA players stretched his contract. He knew what Monroe couldn’t do on defense and his limited range on offense. Bye bye, Greg.
July 1, though, is magic. Is your team struggling from the perimeter? Sign Jodie Meeks! Have a center that can’t shoot free throws? Sign Aron Baynes! Looking for a change-of-pace point guard? Here is Ish Smith, just don’t pay attention to his 42 percent field goal percentage. Did your team get completely abused by Kevin Love playing small-ball center in the playoffs? Jon Leuer can be yours for four years!
Worst than his impulse to play roster wack-a-mole using his free agency dollars was that due to the institutional structure there was no proper check on his impulses. Van Gundy was in charge of everyone, including general manager Jeff Bower.
Bower could work in the background with his scouts and assess NBA rosters and probe for trade opportunities. Free agency, though, is more immediate. The clock strikes midnight and players start coming off the board immediately. The most Bower could do is identify talent and negotiate terms. Eventually it comes time to tell the boss what it will take to sign the player RIGHT NOW. A quality president knows when to say no and that it is better to lose out on a targeted player than it is to overpay guys.
Every bit of extra value allows your team to be more flexible, allows your assets to be that much more valuable in future trades, allows you to make additional moves. The Pistons never had that.
They had a roster of properly paid and overpaid guys.
And it is Van Gundy’s call when it is time to pull the trigger. The Pistons never had a roster of garbage players. But they sure as hell have a roster of overpaid players. Ish Smith works great as a reserve but he is making $6 million per season and because of his offensive limitations can’t reasonably step into a starting role.
Jon Leuer makes $10 million per year because he was a versatile power forward/center with some range. The Pistons knew they needed someone who fit that bill and weren’t willing to be patient and see if they could have Leuer for the $6 million per year he’s probably worth. Langston Galloway was a guard who could hit at a 40 percent clip from deep and Van Gundy was so desperate to fix a moribund offense that he didn’t want to wait for the tepid market to sort itself out and instead gave LG $21 million over three years.
It didn’t matter that Ish can’t start, Leuer’s range doesn’t actually stretch to the 3-point line or that Galloway can’t initiate an offense. Van Gundy wanted them and he was willing to pay a few extra million here or there to get “his guys.”
But that few million adds up quickly — and when you’ve got roughly $75 million tied up in Griffin, Drummond and Jackson next year it adds up real quick. Now the Pistons are in a mess.
They turned a roster of junk into quality pieces — Drummond, Griffin, Jackson, Smith, Reggie Bullock, Anthony Tolliver, James Ennis. There is talent there. But it doesn’t all fit together perfectly and they have few ways to make additional moves.
And it’s because Van Gundy always believed they were just one July 1 away from solving all their problems and finally making the roster work. now it will be someone else’s mess to clean up and it will have to be someone who realizes that free agency is almost never the solution.