Since being lured back to the NBA by Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores in May 2014, Van Gundy has not exactly followed the usual NBA blueprint in rebuilding the once-proud franchise, which has not been to the playoffs in six years.
Van Gundy has flat-out waived four veterans with fully guaranteed contracts, accumulating nearly $32 million in dead money to be paid over the next five seasons. He has allowed solid players – most notably Rodney Stuckey and Greg Monroe – to leave via free agency, getting nothing in return. He has not collected any extra draft picks, not even a second-rounder.
Van Gundy’s unconventional rebuilding plan produced an unconventional result last season. For the first time in his coaching career, he did not finish above .500 or in the playoffs. All of Van Gundy’s previous seven full seasons resulted in a winning record and a trip to the postseason.
This is Van Gundy’s first time pulling the personnel strings, and there were some whispers that the dual job of coach and GM – currently held by just four guys – may have been a bit beyond his scope. But Van Gundy the GM knew what Van Gundy the coach wanted on his roster, and he was going to get there, regardless of whether the path seemed “conventional.”
When Van Gundy surprisingly guided the Orlando Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals, he was ahead of the curve. The other three teams in the conference finals that season – the Denver Nuggets, Cleveland Cavaliers and eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers – all used lineups that included two big men. So did the defending champion Boston Celtics, whom Orlando eliminated in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
But Van Gundy and the Magic didn’t. Their starting forwards were Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu, who combined to shoot 930 3-pointers that season. They allowed Van Gundy to station four shooters around a 24-year-old Dwight Howard in the paint.
In case you haven’t noticed, this is how virtually every team plays now. It could almost be a children’s poem.
Don’t be a bore
Add a stretch-four
Then space the floor
And try to score more
But Van Gundy is doing more than just following the herd, which he was sort of leading six years ago. Since taking the reins in Detroit, he has been trying to replicate what he had in Orlando – and doing a pretty good job of it.
After Sunday’s spectacular fourth-quarter comeback win in Portland in which Detroit scored 41 points and held the Blazers to 11, the Pistons are off to a 5-1 start. They are one of just four teams unbeaten on the road going into tonight’s matchup with Golden State. They are the only team to defeat the East-leading Atlanta Hawks. They also have beaten Chicago.
“I think now that you’ve got five wins now and you’ve beaten good people … the confidence continues to build,” Van Gundy said.
And imagine how good the Pistons could be if they could actually shoot or pass. Detroit is 23rd in overall shooting (.421), 20th in 3-point shooting (.327) and dead last in free-throw shooting (.632). It is also 29th in assists (17.0).
Van Gundy has his new Howard in Andre Drummond, who is averaging better than 20 points and 20 rebounds. No one has done that for an entire season since 1968-69, when a guy named Wilt Chamberlain did it. Drummond already has an 18-19 game, a 20-20 game, a 25-29 game and a 29-27 game.
Drummond is the reason the Pistons have overcome their poor shooting. Detroit is second in rebound differential (8.3), second in total rebound percentage (.544 overall and second on both ends of the floor), first in total rebounds (51.0) and first in offensive rebounds (15.7).
“Andre’s numbers are phenomenal,” Van Gundy said. “If he didn’t get a rebound the rest of this trip, he’d (still) be in the top three or four in rebounding. What he’s doing on the boards is just phenomenal.”
Van Gundy also has his new Jameer Nelson in Reggie Jackson, who is becoming a quick study with the high pick-and-roll. After scoring 26 of his career-high 40 points in the fourth quarter at Portland, Jackson is ninth in the league in scoring at 23.2 points while adding 5.7 assists.
We won’t suggest that Marcus Morris and Ersan Ilyasova are replicating Lewis and Turkoglu. But Morris won the starting small forward job over ballyhooed lottery pick Stanley Johnson and is averaging career highs of 17.0 points and 6.5 rebounds. Not bad for a guy who initially grumbled about being separated from his twin brother in Phoenix and called being traded “a slap in the face.” And Ilyasova is shooting 42 percent from the arc, although he has to rebound better.
Meanwhile, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope continues his gradual improvement as a two-way shooting guard. He is not the shooter that Courtney Lee was for Van Gundy in Orlando, but he is a better scorer with better size and a better defender, as Portland found out. In the fourth quarter, Van Gundy switched Caldwell-Pope onto Damian Lillard and choked the life out of Portland’s offense.
The Pistons are far from flawless. In addition to the poor shooting and passing, they currently have by far the worst bench in the NBA by virtually any metric, which puts a lot of pressure on the starters to play well and makes any injury potentially devastating. In Detroit’s lone loss to Indiana, the bench was a combined 1-of-12 for two points with five boards and four turnovers in 48 minutes, prompting Van Gundy to say, “We definitely need to rethink the whole bench.”
And Van Gundy knows his work as a GM is nowhere near done. Why else would he and Drummond agree to revisit contract talks in the summer when the big man is obviously ticketed for a max deal? He knows he needs to add another piece or two to truly compete in the East, and the combination of Drummond waiting to sign, the expiring $8.3 million of Jennings and Ilyasova’s $8.4 million team option gives him the cap room to land a good one – even with all that dead money.
For now, Van Gundy and the Pistons take their flawed but fun act to Golden State for a showdown Monday night with the unbeaten defending champs, the third stop on a six-game trip. Drummond isn’t exactly frightened.
“We’re going to come in and put a stop to them,” he said.
TRIVIA: Who are the only two coaches in NBA history with multiple 60-loss seasons and multiple Finals appearances? Answer below.
THE END OF CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT: Yeah, uh, no. There is nobody on the Pistons named Stanley Jackson.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler, after his team allowed 130 points to Charlotte:
“We ain’t been playing no defense. Other teams have just been missing shots, to tell you the truth, to be honest. (Bleep), we score enough points, that’s not the problem. But when you don’t stop nobody, they put up 130 or whatever they did, we got to nip that in the bud now because that’s not winning basketball. It will never be winning basketball here and it never has been winning basketball here. We’ve always prided ourself on playing hard and not being pretty. Tonight, we were pretty, we were soft. Got our asses whipped.”
TANKS A LOT!: Four more losses dropped the Philadelphia 76ers to 0-6, which should be the worst record in the NBA but isn’t even the worst on the I-95 corridor thanks to the hapless Brooklyn Nets (0-7). Things are looking up a bit, however, as the four losses were by an average of 6.3 points and undrafted free agent T.J. McConnell has emerged as the starting point guard, at least until Tony Wroten and Kendall Marshall return. “There is nothing like giving NBA minutes out to anybody,” coach Brett Brown said. “It is the greatest job interview anybody will ever have.”
LINE OF THE WEEK: James Harden, Houston at Sacramento, Nov. 6: 42 minutes, 13-23 FGs, 4-10 3-pointers, 13-16 FTs, six rebounds, 13 assists, two steals, seven turnovers, 43 points in a 116-110 win. Eight of Harden’s assists led to 3-pointers, meaning he was directly responsible for 77 points. Given that he had a season-high 46 the next night against the LA Clippers, I guess the Kardashian Kurse is over.
LINE OF THE WEAK: Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler, Chicago vs. Minnesota, Nov. 7: Combined 79 minutes, 7-28 FGs, 1-11 3-pointers, 7-11 FTs, 11 rebounds, seven assists, two steals, two blocks, 10 turnovers, 22 points in a 102-93 overtime loss. This sort of game has almost become customary for Rose but was by far the worst of the young season for Butler. The backcourt duo was a collective minus-30 and 0-of-5 with two turnovers in overtime, when the Bulls were shut out for the first time in franchise history.
GAME OF THE WEEK: Oklahoma City at Washington, Nov. 10. Can’t believe the hype for this one hasn’t already begun, so we will get the ball rolling. DC native Kevin Durant is off to see the Wizards in what amounts to a media-driven NBA recruiting trip for his 2016 free agency. It would be something if Wizards forward Otto Porter sabotaged the whole thing by elbowing Durant in the head.
GAME OF THE WEAK: Brooklyn at Sacramento, Nov. 13. These teams have one win between them and appear headed for the lottery unless they get things turned around quickly, which doesn’t seem likely with both DeMarcus Cousins and Brook Lopez fighting injuries. And that is not good news for the Kings or Nets because Brooklyn’s pick belongs to Boston and Philadelphia has the right to swap with Sacramento.
TWO MINUTES: Warriors guard Stephen Curry’s 3-point streak was in danger Saturday night in Sacramento, when he missed his first seven before finally draining one with 5:43 to play. That ran Curry’s streak to 80 games, moving him past Michael Adams into sole possession on third place on the all-time list. Up next is Dana Barros with 89. If Curry doesn’t sit out any games, he could tie Barros on Nov. 24 vs. the Lakers and surpass him on Nov. 27 at Phoenix. … Four of the league’s top nine scorers have played for Oklahoma City. I don’t know if that says more about Sam Presti’s ability to draft or Clay Bennett’s unwillingness to spend. … Since the arrival of Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio in 2011, Manu Ginobili’s minutes per game have dropped from 30.3 to 20.2 and Tony Parker’s minutes from 32.4 to 27.0. “I think it’s an understanding,” said Spurs forward Tim Duncan, whose minutes already were being reduced when Leonard arrived. “Guys are starting to come around and stop worrying about the machismo part of it, where you just want to be out there and grind it out. Bottom line is you want your team to get into the playoffs and when that time comes, you want to be as fresh as possible.” … An early candidate for Most Improved Player is Bulls forward Doug McDermott, who had 13 3-pointers in 321 minutes last season and already has 16 in 143 minutes this season. At 10.1 points per game, he is tripling his average of 3.0 from a season ago. … It is hard to argue thus far with anything that the Timberwolves are doing; they are 3-2 overall, including 3-0 on the road for the first time since 2001. But starting 39-year-old Kevin Garnett and 35-year-old Tayshaun Prince at the forward slots doesn’t seem like the best course of action. They are combining to average 5.2 points and 6.8 rebounds in 38 minutes with PERs in the single digits. Right now, their smarts, savvy and leadership seem to reinforce an otherwise young lineup and outweigh their lack of production. Minnesota owns slight scoring edges this season in the first and third quarters, when Garnett and Prince play the majority of their minutes. But their presence also forces Andrew Wiggins to play out of position at shooting guard and limits the minutes of Shabazz Muhammad. It will be interesting to see if coach Sam Mitchell’s strategy is sustainable. … We all took note when slumping Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis erupted for 43 points Friday vs. Atlanta. But in the same game, Hawks forward Kyle Korver didn’t miss a shot, going 8-of-8 overall, 4-of-4 from the arc and 2-of-2 from the line while adding seven rebounds, five assists, three steals, a block and not committing a turnover. You can’t play much cleaner than that, and more important, the Hawks won. … Kentucky has a league-high 21 players in the NBA, including four – Devin Booker, Eric Bledsoe, Archie Goodwin and Brandon Knight – on the Phoenix Suns. The quartet has played together this season. But they were trumped in the random oddity department by the Miami Heat, who last week used a lineup of five left-handers – Josh McRoberts, Chris Bosh, Tyler Johnson, Justise Winslow and Goran Dragic.
Trivia Answer: Byron Scott and Bill Fitch. … Happy 65th Birthday, Mel “Killer” Davis, the pride of Boys High in Brooklyn. … Just 29 days until high school basketball season.
Chris Bernucca is the managing editor of SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Monday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.