Stan’s the Man: Pistons tab Van Gundy for dual role

Stan Van Gundy will return to the sideline as coach and president of basketball operations for the Pistons
Fernando Medina (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

If it turns out we learn the search for new Pistons leadership ended at Stan Van Gundy’s doorstep in part because of glowing feedback from the vetting process, I’ll be less than surprised.

In the tight little world of basketball lifers, Stan Van Gundy is held in rare esteem. There’s an interesting subset of those basketball lifers, advance scouts. They’re the guys who live a life apart from the team that employs them, flying commercial and filing reports on upcoming opponents before their team comes to town.

Nobody has quite the perspective as advance scouts when it comes to gauging the qualities that make for a good NBA head coach. They study the sideline more than anyone, looking for play calls to chart, and they view the interaction of head coach and team through a very unique, highly educated lens.

I see a handful of them every week during the NBA season. And I feel thoroughly comfortable asserting that if you polled a room of advance scouts as to their top five coaches of the past decade, Stan Van Gundy would be on the vast majority of those lists.

Are the Pistons taking a leap of faith by handing over not only coaching reins but also control of basketball operations to Van Gundy? Well, sure. Almost every hire in the league – or anywhere else, for that matter – is a leap of faith. If Gregg Popovich became a free agent tomorrow, hiring him as your head coach would be a slam dunk. Short of that, it’s all a projection.

You formulate and enforce an organizational philosophy, do every ounce of due diligence decisions of such magnitude require and then … then you go with your very best instincts for who inspires the most confidence of a successful outcome.

The Pistons didn’t say much about the process of their job search, preferring to conduct their business out of the spotlight, but indicated they were open to a variety of possibilities. In the end, they committed to a man as opposed to a model.

They could have rigidly chosen to follow the traditional path by hiring a chief basketball executive who would then spearhead a coaching search. Instead, they saw in Van Gundy someone with whom they could share a vision and charge him with seeing it through.

In football or baseball, with sprawling rosters and an infinite personnel database required, that’s probably an ill-advised approach. In basketball, where every coach already has a solid grasp of every team’s roster down to the 15th man, it’s arguably preferable.

So much of basketball is about chemistry, a point underscored by a Pistons season just completed and notable mostly for its lack of same. And so much of chemistry is on the head coach. You can make a strong case that allowing the coach authority to shape his roster – even if it’s just bringing in one or two guys he knows will establish the desired tone – goes a long way toward fostering a winning chemistry.

As for his coaching chops, Van Gundy made the most of rosters in both Miami and Orlando. Seven seasons, seven winning records. The Pistons would have done well to land him under any circumstances, but it couldn’t have hurt that the guy who coached a team built around Dwight Howard now gets to build his own around Andre Drummond.

They might not be mirror images of each other, but Drummond has worn the Howard comparison since before stepping foot on UConn’s campus not quite three years ago. The bonus for Van Gundy: He now gets the chance to coach a team with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, still only 23 and a player whose many coaches have all felt had an All-Star future within him.

That Orlando roster that went to the NBA Finals in 2009 had its flaws – the starters were Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, rookie Courtney Lee and Jameer Nelson – yet the Magic played well at both ends of the floor.

That’s another thing those advance scouts who sing Van Gundy’s praises find remarkable. Most head coaches are known for their proficiency at one end or the other. Ask all those scouts if they think Van Gundy is a better offensive or defensive coach, you might get a 50-50 split.

Coaching can be an all-consuming job. So can running a team’s basketball operations. But surround yourself with good people and it’s all manageable.

A coach has to run great practices and manipulate games as the situation demands – essentially, fill up the room whenever he shares it with his team. His assistants do the vast majority of prep work leading to each game. A good chief executive has to have the vision and courage to make tough decisions on draft day, trades and free agency. Again, his assistants gather the vast majority of information and advance opinions that allow him to formulate those decisions.

Hire good people and consolidating jobs becomes a workable formula. And there will be no shortage of good people lining up to join forces with Stan Van Gundy, on his bench and in his front office. He’s earned that much on his reputation in the industry alone, but let’s not forget this, either: The unique job security that comes with landing the dual role and the presumably hefty contract that will accompany it will make it all the more appealing to come to work for Van Gundy’s Pistons.

All those advance scouts are going to take the Pistons that much more seriously next season. The rest of the basketball world might soon follow suit.