IN JUNE, Stan Van Gundy watched the Warriors win the NBA title. Well, O.K.: A lot of us watched the Warriors win the title. The difference with Van Gundy is that he probably could have been their coach.
This is an article from the Oct. 26, 2015 issue
In the spring of 2014, Golden State was looking for a coach, and was widely believed to want Van Gundy. He was never officially offered the job, but that's probably because he pulled out when Pistons owner Tom Gores offered him full control of that franchise: a dual role as coach and team president.
What happened next?
Well, last year the Pistons started 5--23 and their season was essentially over by Christmas.
The Warriors finished 83--20.
So you could forgive Van Gundy if he watched the Finals with a mouth full of bile and a belly full of tequila. But he swears from Michigan to California he doesn't think that way.
"No, no, no," he said earlier this month inside the Pistons' practice facility. "Not at all. I love where I am. I love the people I'm working for. My owner is fabulous. Tremendous amount of support in every way imaginable.... I couldn't ask for a better situation."
We love what-if scenarios in sports, and the NBA is the ultimate what-if league. What if the Trail Blazers had drafted Michael Jordan instead of Sam Bowie, or Kevin Durant instead of Greg Oden? What if David Stern had allowed the Lakers to trade for Chris Paul? What if LeBron James had never left Cleveland?
Van Gundy's what-if is not his alone. When he chose Detroit, he started a chain reaction that could affect the league for a decade. Golden State turned to Steve Kerr, who had never coached before. Kerr was all set to coach the Knicks when the Warriors called. He chose Golden State. And so New York's new czar, Phil Jackson, turned to Derek Fisher.
This reminds me of an ancient Chinese proverb: Things usually work out for the best, unless you're the Knicks. Fisher struggled with a lousy roster and the demands of this country's media capital. Kerr did a "fabulous job"—those are Van Gundy's words—turning the Warriors into one of the great teams of the last 20 years.
"Steve did a great job there," Van Gundy says. "If I had it to do over, this is where I'd want to be."
Van Gundy's team missed the playoffs, but he got what he wanted anyway, because he is in charge. For Van Gundy—56 years old and coaching his third NBA team—"full control" is not about ego gratification. It isn't even about making all the decisions, because a coach doesn't really have time to do that. But he got to hire his general manager, Jeff Bower, and set a direction for an organization. Van Gundy can make sure everybody is on the same page—and he gets to choose the page.
If you watch the Pistons closely—and I'm guessing most of you don't—you'll see a promising young core of center Andre Drummond, rookie forward Stanley Johnson, shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and point guard Reggie Jackson. Nobody is handing out rings to that crew anytime soon. But at least when the Detroit fans look for reasons to believe, they can point to actual players, not just lottery Ping-Pong balls.
You'll also see that coaching is not just about the record at the end of the year. It's about how you get there. There are only 30 NBA teams. The opportunity to build one of them is irresistible to a coaching lifer like Van Gundy.
To most fans the lasting memory of Van Gundy is the image of him swigging Diet Pepsi while casually telling the media in 2012 that his star in Orlando, Dwight Howard, tried to get him fired. It was a moving picture of organizational dysfunction. Whatever happens in Detroit, you won't see that.
There are no guarantees with the Pistons, but then, there were no guarantees with the Warriors last year. Kerr was handed a very good team, and he helped make it a champion. Perhaps Stan Van Gundy would have done that too. He will never know. He doesn't seem to care.
The NBA is full of intriguing what-if scenarios. What if the Blazers drafted Jordan? What if LeBron never left Cleveland? What if Stan Van Gundy coached the Warriors?
Which of last season's losing NBA teams will make the playoffs? Join the discussion on Twitter by using #SIPointAfter and following @Rosenberg_Mike