Are Pistons playoff bound? That's not the only question looming in Detroit

After a mega-trade, struggles continue for Stan Van Gundy's roster

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

If he weren’t coaching the Pistons, Stan Van Gundy could run for office in Detroit and probably win. His personality, his nature, his political leanings and his connection with the everyday man and woman meshes with a no-nonsense city that deserves strong leadership but rarely gets it.

Pull up a chair and Van Gundy, approachable and magnetic, will sermonize on the evils and hypocrisy of society as well as sports, delivering with a common-sense style that will make you wonder why all people in authority aren’t this free of agendas and conflicts of interest.

The problem is, Van Gundy does coach the plummeting Pistons, and as team president, he drives them as well. His approval rating therefore is slippery, along with his grip on both jobs based on the dire circumstances that he and the Pistons currently find themselves in. They’re running out of time and excuses for not making the playoffs, a real possibility with 18 games left in the regular season. The man responsible for this is hearing the music in Detroit and it isn’t Smokey Robinson.

Of all the playoff contenders in the NBA, is anyone on skates quite like the Pistons? At one point they were 14-6, now they’re nearly five games out of the eighth and final spot in the East. Also, they’ve won just one road game since mid-December and, uh-oh, there’s a six-game Western trip starting next week.

They’re backpedaling here in the stretch run and fumbling to stop the slide, losing to the likes of the Magic and Hornets and fresh from a 22-point lashing courtesy of the Cavaliers, who have their own issues. The Pistons’ play has often looked lethargic and uninspiring and other than Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, the performances are lacking.

Speaking of Griffin, his arrival from last month’s blockbuster trade was supposed to awaken the club and a skeptical fan base that’s not exactly stampeding through the doors of the new Little Caesars Arena. Yet, after an initial splash, the opposite has happened; the Pistons have lost nine out of 11 games, and six of seven since the All-Star break. They’re lost.

“I know we’re better and have better players than what’s happening right now,” Van Gundy said.

Overall, this presents a murky picture for a team created and coached by Van Gundy, who’s in the fourth of a five-year deal. It could also spell the end of coaches doubling as grand pooh-bahs, with Van Gundy dangerously on pace to copy the fate of Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who was stripped of his front office stripes last summer. Actually, if the Pistons keep this up, losing one job but not both would be a victory of sorts for Van Gundy. And so you’re compelled to ask: What in the heck happened?

What began as an uplifting and bold hire by new owner Tom Gores in 2014 is in jeopardy of collapsing. At the time, Van Gundy was out of the game, healing from an awkward and public fallout with Dwight Howard in Orlando, yet still held a degree of leverage. His coaching chops were very much intact and respected and the view around the league was Van Gundy received a raw deal from the Magic, who reached the NBA Finals on his Rolex. Therefore, he was in demand with each opening. But there was a catch.

I’ve got confidence in those guys and they should be able to play better than they are, and that’s what gets you as a coach.”

Pistons’ Stan Van Gundy

Van Gundy sought power, if only to avoid any repeat of the Howard fiasco. This was understandable from a guy who felt burned by the higher-ups at his old gig. He could build his team in his vision, without interference from above, without worrying about the resident star player pulling rank and going over his head in the event of a beef.

Well, the Pistons were desperate when Gores bought the team and ousted Joe Dumars, who struggled to piece together a solid roster in his final few years. The Pistons had Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva and Josh Smith, all making big money, none making a big difference. Once the pride of the Eastern Conference, they hadn’t won a playoff game in six years, hadn’t made the playoffs in five. Gores dangled both jobs and Van Gundy jumped at the chance. He was hailed as a savior the moment the ink dried.

Van Gundy inherited a wreck and needed time to open the windows and let the stink out. With the help of trusty GM Jeff Bower, he scrubbed the Pistons clean of Dumars’ moves quickly, salvaging only Drummond. But the results and the decisions have since been a mixed bag, at best.

He hasn’t yet taken advantage of the surest way to find a franchise player, through the draft, and whiffed on two golden opportunities. Van Gundy took Stanley Johnson and Luke Kennard over Devin Booker and Donovan Mitchell. Those are lopsided decisions that haunt teams and set them back or stagnate them.

Free agency hasn’t been much better. Van Gundy gave $42 million to Jon Leuer, a role player when healthy. Another $21 million went to Boban Marjanovic; Van Gundy mostly kept him benched before tossing him into the Griffin deal.

The trades are keeping the Pistons afloat, most notably getting Tobias Harris for virtually nothing, same for Reggie Jackson, and finally Griffin, a certified star and crowd pleaser who cost the Pistons a first-rounder, Harris and Avery Bradley. Collectively, Van Gundy received more than what he spent in those deals.

Jackson’s time in Detroit is marked by solid play and plenty of pain. It’s possible they wouldn’t be in this bind if Jackson were healthy; he’s working his way back from an ankle sprain that felled him during the holidays. Once he returns, and the timetable remains unclear, he’ll give the Pistons a third wheel next to Drummond and Griffin.

About Griffin: His efficiency is falling and feeding hints that he probably left his best years in Los Angeles. In his first five years with the Clippers, Griffin shot nearly 53 percent and was a fixture in the paint. Since then, he’s had injuries and also stretched his shooting range, which certainly contributes to what we see now. Griffin’s down to 42 percent this year, and while he’s more confident from 18 feet and beyond, he needs more shots, too.

He’s only 28 and still someone who commands the respect of a double team. Also, he and Drummond are pairing up nicely so far and already developing on the same wavelength. The only potential worry lies more with his contract. His salaries the next four seasons, in millions: 31.8, 34, 36, 39. The Pistons are on the hook for that. For a player with a history of injuries (most were freakish in nature), that future money could be problematic.

Also: Will Griffin fulfill another promise and help fill the empty seats in Detroit? That’s partly why Van Gundy pulled off the deal, to give the Pistons someone worth the price of admission. Well: The Pistons are operating at 82 percent capacity, second-lowest to the Hawks. A team with the eighth-highest payroll is currently on the outside of the playoff bubble and struggles to sell tickets.

Here’s what’s in Van Gundy’s favor: He hasn’t had a full season with Griffin and perhaps deserves one. Also, Gores likes him. Gores is a different kind of owner; he lives in Los Angeles and spends time with his private equity firm. He’s mainly a ghost in Detroit and hands-off with the basketball operation.

There is, however, Arn Tellem, the former ace agent who’s now the Pistons’ vice chairman. Surely, Gores will huddle up with Tellem this summer before weighing in on Van Gundy. It’s possible Tellem could assume control of the basketball operation, much like other agents who’ve made the jump to the other side with the Suns, Lakers and Warriors.

Because Van Gundy has only one year left on the deal, and teams rarely allow coaches or executives to reach lame-duck status, something’s bound to happen one way or another this offseason.

There’s still hope for the playoffs, however faint. Jackson will eventually return to form Lob (Motor) City, fortunes can change abruptly, and if they find themselves back in the mix, the Pistons close out with three of four games against lightweights. They need to make the playoffs to raise the possibility of zero happening to Van Gundy.

Not surprisingly, Van Gundy isn’t feeding speculation by even addressing the topic of his future. He’s busy scratching his head and just trying to comprehend the present, much like everyone else. And like any responsible man in charge, he owns up.

“I’ve got confidence in those guys and they should be able to play better than they are, and that’s what gets you as a coach,” Van Gundy said. “I got to take the responsibility. I’m obviously not getting us the right shots for the right people and I’m not finding the answers. I’m not leaving it on them.”

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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