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Stan Van Gundy and the Death of Dual-Leadership Structures

The Pistons brought Stan Van Gundy in for a win-now role and win-now moves ensued. While his aggressive decisions might not have panned out in Detroit, the real question is whether dual-leadership structures need to become a thing of the past.

After four seasons at the helm and just one playoff trip, Stan Van Gundy and the Detroit Pistons parted ways on Monday. Van Gundy had served as head coach and president of basketball operations, steering the franchise to a 152–176 record. The Pistons announced that they will search to fill both positions separately, a structural and directional pivot as the organization moves forward. 

Van Gundy had one year remaining on his contract, which began in the 2014–15 season. While his reimagining of the franchise never quite panned out, the Pistons took a definite step forward during his tenure following a run of five seasons in which they won 30 or fewer games. Detroit sat perennially on the cusp, building around Andre Drummond, hampered by key injuries to point guard Reggie Jackson and a consistent lack of roster depth.

An aggressive mid-season trade for Blake Griffin that will in all likelihood cost Detroit its first-round pick stands in hindsight as a shortsighted gamble, with the injury-prone star due upwards of $142 million through the 2021–22 season. There’s no immediate respite for the Pistons, who have just a few smaller contracts set to come off the books and are committed financially to a talent core that may need more time to figure things out.

Reports indicated GM Jeff Bower was Van Gundy’s No. 2, and his contract along with that of many others on payroll was set to expire in June. Owner Tom Gores was reportedly willing to keep Van Gundy, but was met with resistance over potential changes to the front office’s structure. With all that in mind, the end of his Detroit tenure begs a glaring question as it comes to the value of coaches pulling double duty in the front office.

There’s a pattern around the league that would tell you it doesn’t work. In 2017, the Hawks shifted away from Mike Budenholzer as president of ops after two seasons and brought in Travis Schlenk as GM—a year later, Budenholzer was out as head coach. Last summer, the Clippers removed Doc Rivers’s president title and Lawrence Frank assumed shared responsibility. The jury is still out on Tom Thibodeau’s ongoing time in Minnesota. On some level it’s defensible—these guys were all brought in to win, and win-now moves ensued. But each man’s record stands, with moderate playoff success and rebuilds in the wake.

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Where the coach/president dynamic often comes into play is the draft. Van Gundy’s record in that arena was inarguably questionable. Scouting staffs will spend the entire year evaluating prospects, but those decisions then fall on someone who’s had little to no time to watch college games and understand the scope. Potential can be passed on in favor of more immediate help, but the nature of the draft is always a dice roll.

In 2015, the Pistons opted for Stanley Johnson at No, 8. He was perceived as a more NBA-ready player, but Devin Booker, Myles Turner, Justise Winslow and even Frank Kaminsky (all drafted in the five picks that followed) enjoy greater success for their teams. Though 2016 was a thinner draft, Detroit chose Henry Ellenson at No. 16, a player who has yet to man out. And while they were far from alone in their inclination, last year the Pistons passed on Donovan Mitchell to select Luke Kennard, who filled a more immediate need for three-point shooting.

Van Gundy’s decision-making record was aggressive in all facets, perhaps to a fault. Detroit shrewdly added Jackson, Tobias Harris and Reggie Bullock through trade and found Ish Smith on the scrap heap, but committed substantial money to players like Jon Leuer and Langston Galloway. Drummond is owed about $81.2 million for the next three years, and Jackson $25.1 million over the next two. Barring an unlikely leap into the top three of this year’s draft, Detroit has just the No. 42 selection as assets go. The numbers and circumstances shape up as an uphill battle for whoever inherits the team.

While the cash tied to their names may end up tying the franchise’s hands for the near future, it’s worth noting that Griffin, Drummond and Jackson have played just four games together as Pistons.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski has already tied Brent Barry to the team in some type of front-office role, with more names sure to trickle out in due time. Detroit moved into a new arena this season and has enough talent tied down to make the playoffs, if that’s the direction it chooses. In a year’s time, the situation could look more sunny, and while it’s not optimal, whoever steps in won’t find an empty cupboard. It would be remiss to label Van Gundy a failure, but it’s fair to view his time as a referendum on the dual-leadership structure that’s begun to prove less viable in practice.