After four years in which the Detroit Pistons missed the playoffs three times and failed to win a single game in their lone playoff appearance against Cleveland in 2016, coach Stan Van Gundy is out as head coach and president of basketball operations.
Pistons owner Tom Gores made it clear that Van Gundy’s performance was not up to the standard expected of him in a city with a championship pedigree that just opened the new Little Caesars Arena and needs to put fans in the seats.
“We have decided that this change is necessary to take our basketball organization to the next level,” Gores said in a statement. “This was a very difficult decision and we did not come to it lightly. I am grateful to Stan for everything he’s done for the Pistons and for the City of Detroit. He rebuilt the culture of our basketball team, re-instilled a winning attitude and work ethic, and took us to the playoffs two years ago. He went all-in from day one to positively impact this franchise and this community.”
Which, considering the reality, is quite the whitewash; an NBA team too good to tank and not good enough to make the playoffs is in the worst position in all of professional sports.
As for the community, Van Gundy’s vocal opposition to Donald Trump — he called the president “openly and brazenly racist and misogynistic” — might play well in Detroit’s urban Democratic core, but the city is still broke and remains one of America’s most dangerous, crime-ridden nightmares.
Outspoken political critics in red states tend to forget that, as Michael Jordan famously put it, “Republicans buy sneakers too.”
Van Gundy’s lasting contribution to the Pistons might well be the disastrous trade he made at the 2018 deadline for Blake Griffin, in which the Pistons shipped off Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley and Boban Marjanovic to the Clippers for Griffin, Willie Reed and Brice Johnson.
Bradley, once a defensive wizard in Boston, floundered under Van Gundy and became one of the worst players in the league.
Harris is exactly the kind of outside shooter that Van Gundy’s four-out offense needs; a similar offense in Houston uses guys like Trevor Ariza in the same role in order to keep the ball moving and the defense guessing.
And Marjanovic is either a joke character or a folk hero depending entirely on who you ask; in San Antonio in 2015-16, he had more win shares per 48 minutes, a common catch-all advanced stat, than MVP Stephen Curry, and in 2016-17, he repeated the feat by garnering more WS/48 than league leader Kevin Durant. Sure, he plays limited minutes and doesn’t qualify for the leaderboard, but the Pistons were paying him $7 million a year to basically be a mascot.
In other words, Van Gundy the coach may be excellent; after all, he led the Orlando Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals and beat LeBron James’ Cavaliers in the second round along the way — and that Cavs team, which went 66-16, was LeBron’s best in a Cleveland uniform during the regular season.
But Van Gundy the executive is terrible.
The Griffin trade has left the Pistons in a capped-out nightmare situation.
Stan Van Gundy's parting gift to the Pistons –
Blake Griffin's salary in each of the next four seasons:
2021-22: $38,957,028 https://t.co/HOfaQ23PQt
— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) May 7, 2018
ESPN noted that Detroit has been the fifth-worst team in the Eastern Conference since Van Gundy took over, and the four teams ahead of the Pistons include a team that was openly trying to lose games, another that had been stripped naked in the draft by Danny Ainge, and two sad-sack franchises in New York and Orlando plagued by front office ineptitude and terrible injury luck respectively:
Worst Win Pct in Eastern Conference – Last 4 Seasons
*Under Stan Van Gundy https://t.co/7dmwOxtG98
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 7, 2018
The Pistons chose interesting timing on this one; the best available coaching candidates, including the plum prize in David Fizdale, have already been hired away by other teams. The pool of coaches is shallower than it would have been had Detroit simply fired Van Gundy on the day it was eliminated from the playoffs in April.
Which means the Pistons might just have to settle on a stopgap, just like they’ve done on an almost constant basis since parting ways with Larry Brown a year after their 2004 championship run.
Pistons head coaches since Larry Brown:
•Flip Saunders (2005-08)
•Michael Curry (2008-09)
•John Kuester (2009-2011)
•Lawrence Frank (2011-2013)
•Maurice Cheeks (2013-14)
•John Loyer (2014)
•Stan Van Gundy (2014-18)
Seven coaches in 13 seasons.
— Brad Galli (@BradGalli) May 7, 2018
While the best franchises have had coaching stability, Detroit continues to try and chase the next level, all while being capped out, its highest-paid player an injury-prone stretch 4 who can’t shoot, and the team’s situation looking an awful lot like the mid-aughts Knicks.
New York is still a mess in 2018. Time will tell whether Detroit is still a mess in 2030 in the same fashion.
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