Wojo: Uncertainty only thing that binds Pistons
Detroit — By record and by reasoning, Stan Van Gundy probably should be fired. The Pistons have veered direction multiple times in his four seasons, missed the playoffs three times and now tote a flawed roster with a top-heavy, inflexible payroll.
The problem is, owner Tom Gores added to the conundrum when he authorized the trade for Blake Griffin, a worthwhile gamble that came with consequences. Now the team is boxed in, committed to Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, with little room for change. In a strange way, that might save Van Gundy’s job, because a new coach (or new team president) would find it virtually impossible to start over.
It’s a conundrum that Gores says he won’t solve until he meets with Van Gundy next week. But during the Pistons’ home finale — a 108-98 loss to Toronto Monday night — the owner made one thing very clear.
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“I’m not afraid of change,” Gore said at halftime in his courtside suite. “Stan’s a very committed guy, he’s dedicated, this is not a situation where you make a change because somebody’s not dedicated. But if we have to change, Stan’s not afraid of change either. We will. But I would never make a change without talking to him.”
Speaking frankly for about 10 minutes, Gores reiterated previous statements and again offered no vote of confidence for Van Gundy. Gores said he still saw value in the coach having personnel control as president, but made no excuses for the team’s record. Obviously, everything is under consideration, presumably including a demand that Van Gundy relinquish some control. In that scenario, perhaps Pistons vice chairman Arn Tellem could take a more active role.
Gores said he’s not leaning any way, but made it apparent Van Gundy’s status remains in jeopardy.
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“We still have to make changes, we’re not winning, so that’s simple,” Gores said. “Whatever mistakes we’ve made, we have to evaluate that. I don’t want to pretend we’re going to the playoffs, we’re not. That’s just reality, and Stan and I have to talk about that.”
It’s a question of time and timing — how much time Van Gundy deserves, and how the timing of the Griffin trade and Jackson’s injury affected the Pistons’ performance. With one game remaining, the Pistons are 38-43, and Griffin, Drummond and Jackson have played precisely four games together. It’s a dilemma for a franchise that boldly opted to skip a rebuilding step and acquire a star in Griffin, and yet still has no idea if its unorthodox Big Three can work on a high level.
It’s fair to argue Van Gundy should be dismissed anyhow for personnel gaffes, notably in the draft. He probably wouldn’t even consider it unfair, and reiterated Monday night he wasn’t concerned about his job and was comfortable with whatever Gores decides.
It’s also fair to argue Jackson’s extended absence (out 37 games because of an ankle injury), Griffin’s late arrival, and Drummond’s continued development should buy Van Gundy the fifth year of his contract. With Jackson in the lineup this season, the Pistons are 26-18, and made the playoffs the one year he was healthy. With all three in the lineup, the Pistons are 3-1, the lone loss in overtime at Houston.
That’s too small a sample size to judge, which means firing Van Gundy would be rendering a final verdict without knowing whether his biggest move worked. Again, as cordial and respectful as the owner and coach are — “He’s been my partner for four years,” Gores said — it’s clear Gores won’t be shy in his assessment.
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While acknowledging Jackson’s lengthy absence partly derailed the season, Gores said that wasn’t a sufficient alibi. Every time he praised Van Gundy or noted misfortune, Gores added a caveat. The Pistons recently won eight of 10, and Jackson and Griffin played well together until Griffin (ankle contusion) missed the past seven games.
“It’s just a small sample, so we can’t get confused by that,” Gores said. “I think Blake’s been a great addition, a real leader. But I don’t think I’ll take this small sample the last 10-12 games and make it our future.”
Van Gundy hasn’t been inclined to campaign for anything, but he sounds like a coach eager to see exactly what the team can be. And if Gores can be swayed, Van Gundy does have the ample ammunition that the Pistons are much better with Jackson.
“The story of this year — people can paint it any way they want — is we struggled without Reggie Jackson, period, that’s it,” Van Gundy said. “Our record is what it is, and you have to accept the judgment that goes with it. The only thing I’ve said is, looking forward, I have great confidence this can be a good basketball team. Obviously, we have great size and strength — when you’ve got Andre and Blake up front, you’re gonna be able to battle anybody’s frontline. Reasonably healthy, it’s got a chance to be a really good team.”
Depends on how you define “really good,” of course. A 50-win team that can land a mid-seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs? Probably. A team that can challenge the upper echelon? Highly unlikely.
The Pistons did need a star, although the prudent path would be to draft and develop one. Van Gundy wasted that chance by bypassing Donovan Mitchell for Luke Kennard in the first round. But for those who wondered how much Griffin, 29, had left, and how engaged he would be after spending his career in Los Angeles, he’s answered impressively.
Griffin might not be the leaper and intimidator he once was, but his all-around game is even better than billed. In 25 games here, he’s averaging 19.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 6.2 assists, and is increasingly dependable from 3-point range. His passing and court vision are tremendous and his leadership is noteworthy, taking the focus off Drummond.
Griffin ‘very optimistic’
“I’m very, very optimistic,” Griffin said. “I think our ceiling is pretty high, having Reggie, Andre, having a full group healthy, ready to go. I like our squad, I think we have a pretty high ceiling to make a run at the East.”
Reggie Bullock proved he could be a decent wing player and Kennard showed signs of his touted shooting range. Ish Smith can be valuable back in his full-time role as backup point guard. But the Pistons need more pieces, and don’t have the salary-cap space or tradeable commodities to get it.
The contracts for Griffin and Jackson are prohibitive, but would Gores consider dealing Drummond, with three years and about $80 million remaining on his contract? Doubtful, although something to consider. Drummond is still only 24 and in the midst of a career year, leading the NBA in rebounds.
Those are issues for deep into the offseason. The first business will take place next week, probably near Gores’ Los Angeles home, where he’ll meet with Van Gundy and determine the future. Van Gundy can make an argument to stay, but it’s unclear whether the owner will buy it.