Can Stan Van Gundy Fix The Detroit Pistons?

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In today’s NBA, teams need to be one of two things – either really bad or a title contender. The Philadelphia 76ers right now are the perfect example of a team that’s willing to sacrifice wins in order to land high lottery picks, stockpile talent and ideally build a contender down the road. This approach may be somewhat off putting and hard to accept for fans, but if they’re willing to be patient they will likely be rewarded. The Oklahoma City Thunder are a perfect example of a team that successfully developed their young assets into stars over time and now is a perennial contender in the ultra competitive Western Conference. Of course, not every team executes a rebuild as well as the Thunder but that is the model.

It takes patience, discipline and great talent evaluation to properly construct a roster that can develop into a contender. One bad lottery pick can set a franchise back for years. However, without fail, every season there will be a few teams stuck in the middle, whether it’s due to poor spending in free agency, disappointing draft picks or ‘win-now’ trades that jeopardize the team’s future. Look at the Milwaukee Bucks from the 2008-09 season up until the 2012-13 season – the team never won more than 46 games, never advanced out of the first round of the playoffs, but also never picked higher than 10th in the draft. After lacking direction for years, the team finally (and unintentionally) bottomed out, winning only 15 games and landing the number two pick in the draft. That allowed them to snag Jabari Parker to pair alongside Giannis Antetkounmpo. The future in Milwaukee is brighter than it has been in years.

This brings us to the 2013-14 Detroit Pistons, a team that has seemingly found itself in the NBA’s no man’s land. This upcoming coming season they’ll have enough talent to compete; in fact, it wouldn’t be that surprising to see them sneak into the playoffs. Greg Monroe, after a summer of uncertainty, seems poised to accept the team’s qualifying offer and will be back for at least one more season and Andre Drummond has quickly proven to be one of the most promising young big men in the game today.

Despite the return of Monroe and the continued development of Drummond, the team is still littered with question marks –  the most glaring being Josh Smith. Smith is the team’s highest-paid player at $13.5 million per year and is signed through the 2016-17 season. The Pistons signed Smith last summer after he had spent the previous nine seasons with the Atlanta Hawks. After signing with the Pistons, Smith said all of the right things and said he envisioned Detroit becoming an elite team in the Eastern Conference.

However, last season the Pistons were far from an elite basketball team and fell short of the playoffs. The team’s prized piece in free agency, Smith, severely underperformed considering his pay grade. In his first season with the Pistons, Smith had a lower win-share than Jonas Jerebko (1.1 and 1.4, respectively), and his true shooting percentage (46.3 percent) was the worst on the team among the players who played in over 40 games.

Smith may have been the team’s biggest weakness, but he certainly wasn’t the only problem. Newly acquired guard Brandon Jennings was inconsistent throughout the season and, like Smith, his shot selection left a lot to be desired. The team never seemed to mesh as a group and the players weren’t able to come close to their preseason expectations.

Following the team’s disappointing season, the Pistons made significant changes to the front office. Former Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy was brought in to coach the team, while also replacing Joe Dumars as the president of basketball operations.

Van Gundy will now be tasked with changing the direction of a franchise that appears dangerously close to falling into NBA purgatory.

The team was again active this summer in free agency, signing Jodie Meeks to a three-year deal that will pay him over $18 million, Caron Butler to a two-year deal worth $9 million (with the second year non-guaranteed), D.J. Augustin to a two-year deal worth $6 million, Cartier Martin to a two-year minimum deal worth $2.4 million (with the second year non-guaranteed) and agreeing to terms on a multi-year contract with Aaron Gray.

Judging by these roster moves, it appears that the Pistons are ready to make another playoff push. The free-agent signings along with the addition of Van Gundy should certainly improve the team’s postseason odds.

The problem is that even with the veteran players they have brought in, the Pistons lack the fire-power to compete against the upper-level teams in the conference. Fortunately, the free agents added this summer are signed to short-term, relatively cheap deals.

The contract of Smith, paired with his play, remains the biggest concern as the team looks toward the future. If the Pistons can’t find a way to move him and he continues to significantly under perform, the team will be handcuffed by his contract until it expires. If possible, it appears the best course of action would be for the Pistons to move Smith but that may be easier said than done considering his play.

Following this upcoming season, Monroe will hit free agency again, this time as an unrestricted free agent. Both the team and Monroe will have a big decision to make. However, making those important decisions is exactly why the team brought Van Gundy in and gave him so much control. The roster will almost certainly have to be reconstructed for the team to build a contender, and it will be interesting to see how Van Gundy goes about changing the course of the franchise.