Van Gundy gives Pistons rare edge against LeBron and Cavs

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) Stan Van Gundy was given a mission when handed the keys to the Motor City's once-proud NBA franchise.

Win without sacrificing the future, Tom Gores told Van Gundy nearly two years ago when the relatively new owner of the Detroit Pistons hired a respected savant to be his coach and president of the basketball operations.

''He didn't want to tear it down, finish last and accumulate draft picks,'' Van Gundy recalled earlier this week in an interview with The Associated Press. ''He wanted us to get the franchise up and running without trading away a lot of young players or draft picks for veterans who might help us win quickly. With a lot of moves, each one of them significant in their own way, we've actually gotten younger and better at the same time.''

Van Gundy has helped the Pistons earn a spot in the playoffs for the first time since 2009, ending a drought that followed an eight-year run in which they were in the postseason every year, won an NBA title, almost repeated and advanced to six straight Eastern Conference finals.

LeBron James likely will end Detroit's feel-good story pretty quickly.

He and the Cleveland Cavaliers may very well sweep the Pistons in the first round, just as they did seven years ago with four lopsided victories.

Van Gundy, though, potentially gives Detroit a rare edge against the first-seeded Cavs.

The sturdy and seasoned Van Gundy has a ton of experience and Tyronn Lue does not as a head coach, especially in the NBA playoffs.

Lue will make his postseason debut as the leader of an NBA team on Sunday in Cleveland in Game 1, which will be Van Gundy's 88th playoff game.

Van Gundy is 48-39 in the playoffs. He led the Orlando Magic to the 2009 NBA finals - after eliminating the Cavs in the conference finals - and reached the 2005 Eastern Conference finals with the Miami Heat before losing to Detroit.

Dwyane Wade, whose rookie year was during Van Gundy's first season as Miami's head coach, is one of the many former players fond of him. Wade said he congratulated him on making it back to the playoffs during Tuesday night's game in Detroit.

''I know how hard he works,'' Wade said. ''I know how much he cares, so I'm happy for the guy.''

Van Gundy is a guy's guy, wearing white socks and sandals, comfortable clothes and sporting stubble on his face when he can. When Van Gundy is on the court for a game, he puts on a suit without a tie and has a clean-shaven look. Between games, he watches film relentlessly like an intern trying to impress the boss even though he's in charge of the entire operation on the basketball side of the business.

And when he doesn't like what he sees, behind the scenes at a practice or in public at the game, everyone can see it with his body language and hear it if they're within earshot.

''You've got to earn everything with him,'' guard Reggie Jackson said. ''He's on top of all of us. There's no easy way out. Sometimes it's tough to take, but you can because you understand he's just trying to get each of us to be the best we can be.''

Gores, who bought the downtrodden franchise near his troubled hometown of Flint, needed someone to get the franchise out of its rut of not being good enough to make the playoffs or bad enough to get one of the tops picks.

Van Gundy has done it, and Gores praises him for it.

''Stan deserves a lot of the credit,'' Gores said. ''He came in really quickly and changed the culture.''

The Pistons went through a series of coaches during good times and bad under Joe Dumars. They seemed to have figured out a way to stop the revolving door on the sideline by putting one person in charge of the front office and the coaching staff, potentially solving a problem Van Gundy noticed when he wasn't coaching an NBA team for two seasons.

''There are a lot of nightmares in the league in which the front office and the coaches are not on the same page,'' Van Gundy said. ''I had no interest in being part of that, so I was careful about where I ended up. There's not going to be in-fighting here, but I have half-jokingly said that there has been times that the team president hasn't been happy with the head coach.''

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Follow Larry Lage at http://www.twitter.com/larrylage and follow his work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/larry-lage

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