Why Stan Van Gundy sought total control of Pistons

Friday May 16th, 2014

Pistons owner Tom Gores (left) has given Stan Van Gundy a lot of authority to shape a struggling team.
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Stan Van Gundy chose the Detroit Pistons over the Golden State Warriors for one primary reason: He gets to run the front office. But he doesn't really want to run the front office. He wants to coach.

This doesn't make sense, does it?

Van Gundy has the freedom to trade anybody off a moderately talented but dysfunctional roster -- yet he said Thursday that he intends to bring back all the main players, unless he gets an offer that is too good to pass up.

This doesn't make sense either, does it?

And Van Gundy gets total control, but he knows: There is no such thing as total control. Nobody can do everything. A good general manager travels to college games and goes overseas in the winter, looking at prospects. Van Gundy can't do that job and also coach, so essentially, he took a job for "total control" so he can give big chunks of his power to other people.

This makes perfect sense.

To understand why Van Gundy just signed up for five years with Pistons owner Tom Gores, you need to look past his press-conference smile and find his scars.

Sure, it looks like Gores just wanted the biggest name he could find to fill his empty arena. Gores, after all, is one of the flashier owners in the NBA, a Michigander by birth but an Angeleno by choice, and he wants to be noticed. So it looks like he gave Van Gundy a dual role just to get him, and Van Gundy took it because it satisfied his ego.

But that's not what happened here. Gores recognizes his own impatience, and he sees talent on the team -- including future All-Star center Andre Drummond and potential All-Star power forward Greg Monroe. He made it clear to candidates: There are challenges here, but this will not be a tear-down. You can make trades, tweak the roster, do what you want. But there are legitimate NBA players, and your job is to help them win now.

Van Gundy, meanwhile, said it repeatedly Thursday: This was not about power for him. That sounds strange, considering the dual role is the main reason he ended up in Detroit instead of Golden State. But it's true: He didn't take the Pistons job because he wants power. He took it because he thinks the dual role gives him the best chance to succeed as a coach.

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It's a subtle distinction, and we can explain it with Van Gundy's history.

His first major head-coaching job was at the University of Wisconsin, where he replaced Stu Jackson in 1994. His team underachieved -- he had future NBA star Michael Finley and All-Big Ten center Rashard Griffith, but finished 13-14. There was no second team. Van Gundy was 35. Criticism of his coaching was warranted, but still, firing a college coach after one season is extremely unusual now and was even stranger then.

Van Gundy, speaking with the candor that would endear him to the media a decade later, said he was fired because Wisconsin needed to boost revenues.

"It's a money-driven business," he said then. "I knew that going in. I know that going out. Wisconsin's no different from any other place, whether it be Oklahoma, LSU or Michigan.

"The bottom line: For any of us in big-time college athletics, one of our biggest jobs is making sure that people out there don't find out what it's all about, because if they did, there wouldn't be the support for it that there is."

His second head-coaching job was in Miami, where he coaxed 42 wins out of a young, unheralded Heat team -- in Dwyane Wade's rookie year, his team won seven more games than LeBron James' team in Cleveland. The following season Van Gundy took the Shaquille O'Neal/Wade Heat to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, where they lost to the Pistons. Wade was hurt -- he missed Game 6 with a rib injury and was limited in Game 7 -- and we will never know who would have won the series if he had been healthy.

Anyway, what happened next is up for debate -- it is widely believed, within the NBA, that Van Gundy was forced out by Pat Riley, but he insists to this day that he resigned for personal reasons. Most likely, both are correct. Riley wanted to coach the title-ready team. Shaq wanted Riley, and he looked like he wouldn't play hard unless he got him. Van Gundy could see the walls closing in, so he quit 21 games into the 2005-06 season, before the situation got really ugly. His brother, Jeff, had made a similar decision with the Knicks four years earlier.

His third head-coaching job was in Orlando, where he won 52, 59, 59 and 52 games in his four 82-game seasons with Magic teams that had one star, Dwight Howard. Then Howard decided he was unhappy because he couldn't find his teddy bear or something, and Howard would make trade requests, rescind them and ask for them again, and somewhere in there, Howard told the front office that he wanted Van Gundy fired. Van Gundy shared that bombshell in his famous April 2012 media session where he kept drinking Diet Pepsi and saying his star player wanted him canned. Soon after that, he was fired.

That's three firings, and every one of them could be traced to something other than basketball.

Now: Do you see why he wanted total control?

"In other situations when he was fired, it sort of happened through channels, not directly from ownership -- or at the college level, it would come through channels," his wife, Kim, said Thursday. "There probably is some element of his comfort level with being able to control some of those things that in the past have been out of his control.

"I think he feels really great, like he is on the same page with Tom. He feels that is really, really important. He likes the fact he is going to be at the top, [talking] directly to Tom. Before, there was always somebody in between him and the owner. Sometimes messages get mixed. Somebody is saying one thing, but they have a different agenda."

Kim said she could see "the wheels turning, the basketball wheels," in her husband's head before he even left for his interview with Gores. She thought there was something about the roster that he really liked. It wasn't the roster, though. It was the structure.

Now if players want to go to the front office to complain about Van Gundy, they have a problem, because Van Gundy is the front office. The general manager can't complain that the coach is underachieving, because he works for him.

And the situation that just happened in Golden State, with Mark Jackson getting fired largely because he didn't get along with front-office people ... well, maybe that wouldn't have happened to Van Gundy, because he is a better people person than Jackson. But now he won't have to find out.

Meanwhile, in Detroit, Van Gundy will not actually be the general manager on a day-to-day basis. He will hire one, and "that will be the primary person talking to agents, general managers, all of that," Van Gundy said. He told me that, for the upcoming draft, the opinions of holdover assistant general manager George David and analytics expert Ken Catanella will hold more weight than his own, even though he doesn't know if he will keep them past the summer.

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"They're very thorough, very detailed," Van Gundy said. "I'm certainly going to watch these prospects for the draft, think about free agents. But it's not like I'm walking in and saying, 'I'm going to take over and this is the guy we're going to get.' Those people have put in more time [on] that, and they're very smart people. I'm listening to them.

"I'll throw my opinion in, but my opinion's not going to be worth more than anybody else's opinion. ... Now, at the end of the day, you're going to have a lot of different opinions, and somebody has to take all those opinions and say, 'Here's what we're doing.' That's gotta be me. But those guys will have far more input than I will."

Like any NBA coach who didn't play in the league, Van Gundy has always had to fight the perception that he is just a guy who watches tape. It probably doomed him with Shaq. But now Van Gundy has the credibility that he couldn't earn on the court, and he gets to do something he does as well as almost anybody in the league: mold talent.

In Orlando, he stuck shooters around Howard to give him space, leading some to speculate that there is no place for Monroe next to Drummond, and that the Pistons will let Monroe leave as a restricted free agent this summer. That's silly. Smart teams don't give up assets like Monroe for nothing, and Van Gundy is savvy enough to figure out how to use two big guys. The Pistons' problem this season was that they had three -- Monroe, Drummond and Josh Smith.

Van Gundy can play them each 32 minutes a night without asking them to play out of position, because Monroe can play center, too. He can get Smith to be the player he was in Atlanta, restoring his value. And then, if his general manager finds a Smith trade that gives him better roster flexibility, Van Gundy can authorize it.

Can this model work? It's already working. Look at San Antonio. Coach Gregg Popovich is in charge and everybody knows it. But when the league handed out its Executive of the Year award recently, it went to general manager R.C. Buford.

It would be nice if Drummond turns into Tim Duncan. But even if he doesn't, understand this: Stan Van Gundy did not make an ego-driven decision. He made an adult decision, choosing his vision for basketball heaven now over his childhood image of it in Northern California.

As he once said between swigs of Diet Pepsi: "The only thing I'm ever uncomfortable with is bull----." He just cleaned it up before anybody could smell it.

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