Amid uncertain future, one certainty for SVG: ‘This is a good team if we’re healthy’

Stan Van Gundy thinks having a full season of Blake Griffin – and good health – will make the Pistons a formidable team in 2018-19.
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

CHICAGO – Stan Van Gundy has only reluctantly discussed next season’s possibilities for the Pistons, loath to create the impression he was focused on anything beyond the next game on the schedule.

Now no games remain. Van Gundy will meet next week with Pistons owner Tom Gores to discuss the future – in broad terms as to the state of the organization and in narrower terms in regard to his role.

But whether he’s back to coach the final season of the five-year contract signed in May 2014 or not, he believes to his core that the pieces are in place for more than just a run at a bottom-tier playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.

“I’ve seen enough from our team in terms of results and the way guys have played that I know this is a good team if we’re healthy,” he said outside the Pistons locker room at the United Center following their 32-point win over the Bulls in the finale. “If it’s a healthy roster, this is a good team.”

Van Gundy will take the weekend to catch up on the sleep that so often gets sacrificed over the grind of the 82-game schedule. He said Gores hadn’t yet given him a meeting date for next week as of Wednesday night, but Thursday he’ll hold exit interviews with players and then go about business as usual for the off-season.

“I’m under contract, so until he tells us anything different we’ll move ahead,” he said. “It’ll be seven to 10 days before I’ll get back to work. Probably a little bit next week – that’ll be more cleanup from the season – and then the week after I’ll start putting some thoughts on paper. I’ve already put some on paper. You want some things fresh in your mind.”

Dominating his thoughts is this: If Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson line up together far more often than not next season, the ingredients for a season a level or two beyond the 44 wins his last healthy team turned in two years ago is in the cards.

In early February at the trade deadline, the Pistons swung two minor deals – a week after the blockbuster than netted Griffin – to add Jameer Nelson and James Ennis. Nelson was to serve as a bridge until Jackson’s expected return a few weeks down the road. It took six weeks and the Pistons were all but out of playoff reach when it came.

“Those moves were made in anticipation of getting Reggie back and having Reggie and Blake together for 20 games,” Van Gundy said Wednesday morning. “And we got four. If we had everybody together, I think (the trade for Ennis) would have helped us make a run.”

If Van Gundy returns, he and general manager Jeff Bower will look to use the tools at their disposal to add depth on the wings this off-season. They’ll have the mid-level exception, all manner of trade possibilities given an unusual number of players under contract, plus a $7 million trade exception as part of the trade that brought Griffin from the Clippers. But in Griffin and Drummond, Van Gundy knows he starts from strength up front.

“We have great size and strength,” he said earlier in the week. “When you’ve got Andre and Blake up front, you’re going to be able to battle anybody’s front line. You’ve also got more size at point guard with Reggie that helps you defensively in terms of things you can do, switching and things like that. All of our guys in that lineup can move their feet, so defensively – and I think if you look at the games, even though we didn’t have Reggie and Blake together – if you look at the games where we had Blake and got into a roll the last 10, 15 games we had him, we were really good defensively.”

At the other end, Jackson’s ability to make passes with either hand and get in the paint coupled with Griffin’s unique vision and passing at his position will give the Pistons their most versatile offense by a degree of magnitude of the Van Gundy era.

“Offensively, you’ve got two guys in Reggie and Blake who both can not only score the ball but create shots for other people,” he said. “Blake’s passing adds a lot.”

The bright spots for the season – aside from the acquisition of Griffin – were the emergence of Bullock in his fifth season and of Kennard as a rookie to give the Pistons two 40-plus percent 3-point shooters on the wings. If Stanley Johnson can avoid the nagging core muscle injuries that cost him 14 games over three stretches of the season to stall his progress with every interruption – and if he can break through to approach becoming a league-average 3-point shooter – the Pistons will have three weapons with diverse skill sets on the wings to complement the Griffin-Drummond-Jackson core.

Flesh it out with Ish Smith – whose markedly improved shooting range over the final third of the season makes him a different player – and Jon Leuer returning from an ankle injury that cost him the season’s final 72 games and then add Eric Moreland, Henry Ellenson and Langston Galloway for further depth and there aren’t any obvious holes.

“If it’s a healthy roster, this is a good team,” Van Gundy said. “We’ll get development out of Luke and Henry and Stanley. And then we’ve got a great core with Reggie, Blake, Andre, Reggie Bullock. I think that this is a team that can play very well. But we’ve got to be healthy still. I think that’s true for most teams.”