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Van Gundy Ready For Challenge in Detroit

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Stan Van Gundy, who was recently hired by the Detroit Pistons as head coach and president of basketball operations, is already busy assembling his new staff. While Van Gundy is an accomplished coach (48-39 in the postseason and a trip to the 2009 NBA Finals), he has never held a front office position. Despite the lack of experience, it seems the opportunity to create a culture, build a team and coach was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

“It would’ve taken a great job,” Van Gundy said at the 2014 NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. “I mean, my brother and I talk about it all of the time. I mean, it would have really taken something very, very good. You know there were some good opportunities that I wasn’t really interested in. It would have taken great, and this one, when it presented itself with the commitment of our owner to getting things turned around paired with the fact of the dual responsibilities, which the advantage to me is that it allows you to create a very unified culture where people are not pulling against each other and then the Pistons tradition, it became one that I got excited about pretty quickly.”

Recently, coaches have been able to take more active front office roles with their teams, like Doc Rivers with the Los Angeles Clippers. This team structure is rare, however, as teams traditionally prefer to keep front office and coaching roles separate. Nevertheless, Van Gundy is confident that he can put together a strong group of people to help him turn around the Pistons.

“I’m not going to do both roles, you can’t even coach a team in the NBA by yourself and if you try to, you’re not going to be very good,” Van Gundy said. “That’s why hiring a great, great, great staff is imperative, and it’s the same thing on the player personnel side. I think we are going to go out and hire a great player personnel staff and they’re going to take charge of that. Now am I going to be involved? Yeah. I’m going to be involved. I think my role mainly is set the vision, this is where we want to go, and this is how we want to do it. These are the processes, these are the objectives of the things we want to get done, now go do it. You’re great people, it’s almost what you do with players, you’ve got great players, you try to give them a vision, a system, get them to play with discipline and the whole thing. It’s really not a whole lot different and I’m very confident that I can hire great people.”

Van Gundy knows the magnitude of his responsibilities, and knows it will take time to get his team structure in place. Right now, Van Gundy is just taking his new job one day at a time.

“I think the thing I’ve got to do is, which I’m doing here, is spend some time talking to the people we have on staff and just trying to get my opinions in on where we need to move,” Van Gundy said. “But really rely on them to do it. I can’t get everything done right away. You’ve got to prioritize because I want to get out and see all of our players individually and talk to them and start sort of setting the vision and culture.

“I’ve got hiring of staff to do and I need to watch prospects here. I need to do film getting ready for free agency. I can’t do all of that in the first week. It’s just a little bit at a time. The biggest thing right now for us is probably our GM search, getting through that. Ownership’s going to be heavily involved in that one, in that search. And then at the same time, we’ll make some other hirings pretty quickly to get more people on board. But I’ve also got to deal with all of the people who have been in Detroit and sit down with them and tell them what we plan to do, so there’s a lot to be done. You just do as much as you can in each day and move on to the next one.”

Recent rumors suggest that Van Gundy may look to hire Otis Smith to be the new general manager in Detroit. Smith worked with Van Gundy in Orlando, and it seems there is mutual interest.

In regards to hiring assistant coaches, a lot of the assistants Van Gundy has previously worked with have jobs with other teams. In spite of this, Van Gundy has already put together a short list of people to bring in soon and others to consider later on.

“I don’t want to say anything now but I’ve got a couple of guys that we’ll get in pretty quickly and then from there, I have a short list of guys, five or six guys, that I really like but would need to talk to and do some homework with because I know them, but I haven’t actually coached with them,” Van Gundy said. “Now in some cases, those guys have played for us. So I’ve had them on teams. I know them as people but that’s different than knowing them as coaches so I’ve got some work to do on that. That’ll take a little longer. I want to get two or three guys in right away. And the other guys, quite honestly, I’m just going to meet with them and talk with them as I have time and make the decision whenever it is. I’d like to have them on for summer league but even if it’s not before that we’ll just sort of…when I find the guy I’m sure about, I’ll hire him.”

Van Gundy may be taking on a new role, but he is entering his new job with a plan. In the two years he was out of the league, Van Gundy thought about more than just X’s and O’s, including what sort of philosophy he would want to build in his next job.

“I’ve had a lot of time in the last two years so I’ve had a lot of thoughts on the organizational part of it, the basketball operations,” Van Gundy said. “How I would want to structure it, how I would put the pieces in place, and so I was fairly well ready and then it just took some time to formalize it and put in on paper. Because I knew going into the interview, the interview wasn’t going to be about the coaching. The coaching, you can watch my teams play and see if you think I can coach or not and everybody will have a different opinion, but they would already have that opinion. The question would be, you’ve never done this other job, can you do it? And so I wanted to walk in and show them, not just try to tell them, ‘Yeah I think I can do it,’ but, ‘Here’s my plan, here’s my organizational structure, here would be the job descriptions, here’s the processes we would try to put in place, here’s the philosophy on what we’re doing’ and go from there. And so, I spent a lot of time on it. I spent a lot of time thinking about it and I got very fortunate that it worked out.”

There has been a lack of stability in Detroit for several seasons now, especially in regards to the head coach position. Van Gundy will be the sixth head coach in Detroit since the 2008-09 season. However, the Pistons have removed former president Joe Dumars, and have committed to Van Gundy with a large contract and control of the team. If Van Gundy can build a team as well as he can coach one, then things are likely to turn around in Detroit at some point soon. For now, Van Gundy is taking the job one day at a time.

More From Van Gundy:

How involved will Van Gundy be in the upcoming draft, considering the Magic’s picks over the last few years have not always worked out?

“The J.J. Redick pick, which was before me, ended up being very good. I think people tend to want to judge a draft in the first year always, but the J.J. pick was really good. Courtney Lee, that’s as good of a pick as you can make, you’re down at 20. They got Jameer Nelson, who has been a 10-year franchise cornerstone. The Dwight Howard pick was not a no-brainer at the time. As a matter of fact, they got criticized by a lot of people for not taking Emeka Okafor. So first of all I would argue the premise, I think the Magic’s drafts were good by-and-large. And then when you get good, it gets harder, you’re picking late, so how do you say Stanley Robinson didn’t work out? I thought DeAndre Liggins, he ran into a little bit of off the court problems. You got to look at that as a very good second round pick based on what he’s been able to do, so I guess I would argue with the premise on that. But as far as how much I was involved, I wasn’t because we were lucky enough to have good teams and we were going, at least for the first three years, deep into the playoffs, and by the time it’s over, what am I going to do, watch two or three days of film and voice an opinion? One of the things I really believe either on the coaching side or the front office side, you have to earn the right to have an opinion. Well I guess you can have an opinion, you need to earn the right to express an opinion and that means you have a lot of work. And I always knew in Miami or Orlando if I were a scout and I’d been out there all year watching games, breaking down film, doing all of that work and then a coach comes in and watches one workout, and says ‘Oh I think we should draft…’ I’d go crazy, and I never wanted to do that, I knew I didn’t have the knowledge, so I sat back and watched the draft. That was it. We got involved one year in Miami, the [Dwyane] Wade year, we were out of the playoffs, we were done early, and Randy Pfund had us watch a lot of film and stuff.”

Is Van Gundy nervous about taking on a new role?

“No, that doesn’t because I know I’ll get help on that. That doesn’t bother me. The thing, I don’t even know if to say it makes you nervous, it’s just right now there’s so many balls in the air and so many different things to do, that’s why I have the alarm set, that I’ll miss an interview or something that I’m supposed to do, because so much is going on that I’ll forget to do something. Once I get more people on board, once we’re set in place, look I think I know a lot of great people in this business, and there’s a lot of talent out there. Get the right people and I think I’ll be less nervous.”

Does Van Gundy look at Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford as a model to learn from?

“Yeah as a matter of fact I spent a couple of minutes with R.C. today, not much because he’s got work to do, but I would love to, if those guys would do it, sit down with them after the season. We’re in a good situation because right now no one is going to look upon as a threat, certainly not San Antonio. And they’re in the Western Conference, so maybe they’ll do it, maybe they’ll sit down with us. But yeah I’d love to, just how they structure things, but also just the dynamics of the relationship.”

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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