AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Stan Van Gundy believes that being a basketball lifer qualifies him to be his own boss in Detroit.
Van Gundy would not have left the warmth of his Florida home just to coach the downtrodden Pistons. He wanted control of personnel decisions and found an owner who was willing to give him that authority as its president of basketball operations.
“I’ve grown up around basketball. It’s all I’ve done,” said Van Gundy, who received a five-year, $35 million contract to turn the Pistons’ fortunes around. “My dad coached. It’s all I’ve done and I think I know what it takes to be successful. I think I know what it takes to build successful teams.”
Van Gundy saw a similar structure work for Pat Riley in Miami and also for Gregg Popovich in San Antonio and Doc Rivers in Los Angeles. He plans to talk with Popovich and Rivers at some point to see how they have made it work, but he already has a detailed vision of how to make Detroit relevant again.
That was apparent when he interviewed with Pistons owner Tom Gores during what turned into a 6 1/2-hour meeting.
“He came in with a huge book and a huge plan,” Gores said Thursday. “It’s as prepared as I’ve seen anybody come in. He had this big playbook that he would not let me touch.”
That plan has center Andre Drummond as its cornerstone, much like his playbook in Orlando where he built around Dwight Howard and guided the Magic in the NBA Finals in 2009. Drummond emerged as one of the league’s most prolific rebounders in his first two seasons and Van Gundy has ideas on how to develop the rest of his game.
“We’ve got two responsibilities to Andre Drummond that will help our team,” Van Gundy said. “One, to do everything we can to develop him as a player, not just his skills, but the way he prepares for games and his knowledge of what’s going on. And then, secondly, we have a responsibility to put a system and personnel around him that will allow him to thrive.”
One way to do that is to break up the ill-conceived jumbo frontline with Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith playing together. Smith played mostly small forward last season after former team president Joe Dumars signed him as a free agent.
Van Gundy wants to keep the offensively gifted Monroe, who will be a restricted free agent in July. That puts Smith in limbo.
Van Gundy will likely try hard to move Smith’s contract, which has three years remaining. Otherwise, he will have to convince Smith to come off the bench. Neither option will be easy.
Smith’s woeful 3-point shooting does not fit into his vision of creating space in the post for Drummond and Monroe to operate. Finding a quality perimeter or two will be high on Van Gundy’s agenda.
He also has to decide whether point guard Brandon Jennings, a major disappointment after he was traded from Milwaukee last season, is the guy he wants distributing the ball. Jennings sulked after Mo Cheeks was fired as coach in February and it affected his play.
“There’s talent here,” Van Gundy said. “Do we need to do things differently and add to it? Absolutely. But there’s talent here. When you’re talking about Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, in a league where it is getting increasingly hard to find quality big guys, you’ve got two of the elite big guys in the NBA.”
Van Gundy likes the idea of having only himself to blame if he does not find the right pieces. He was not going to take a rebuilding project like Detroit, which has not had a winning record in six seasons, unless he was laying the foundation himself.
“There’s no excuses now,” he said. “What happens a lot of times in this thing is — and I know because I talk to coaches all the time — coaches say I’m doing a great job, but this guy is not getting me good enough players, and the front office is telling ownership we put together a great roster and the coach is screwing it up. There’s none of that anymore. It’s on us to get it done.”
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