Mutual trust, vision shared by SVG and Gores signals good things for Pistons future
The overriding concern of Tom Gores when he went looking to replace both his coach and chief executive of basketball operations last spring, as the Pistons owner made abundantly clear, was to make certain they could work compatibly and shared a vision for how to build a team for sustained success.
He found a virtually fail-safe way to ensure that part of his mission: put one person in charge of both ends of the operation. The tricky part of that solution is finding the rare individual capable of filling both roles.
Gores maintained confidence in Stan Van Gundy, publicly and privately, even in the depths of the 3-19 start to his tenure. Now he's seeing the first signs of what he's craved since buying the Pistons nearly four years ago – a team that not only wins games but energizes both its fan base and its community.
He took in the latest win, Wednesday's 128-118 scoring fest with Orlando, from courtside seats and afterward gave both the team and the coaching staff a pep talk.
"He's just really excited," Van Gundy said. "He talked to the guys about how proud he was of them, that they didn't quit, that they didn't give up on the season at 5 and 23. He was really proud of the way they're representing the organization and the way they're representing the city, that they've continued to fight through that. Really, just giving them a lot of respect for the way they handled the tough start of the season."
That tether connecting "the floor to the front office" – the phrase Gores often used to describe his aspiration for the Pistons on his watch – clearly extends to the owner's suite, as well. Van Gundy has circled answers back to praise for Gores to any number of questions during his pregame media scrums as out-of-town media probe him for explanations to the Pistons' turnaround.
The most graphic example was Gores signing off on the decision to waive Josh Smith with more than $35 million remaining on the four-year deal he signed with the Pistons in July 2013. Van Gundy can tick off another half-dozen quick examples of Gores' commitment and support, but understands the Smith waiving is the one that sends shock waves through the NBA universe.
It might have been mocked at the time and seen as an act of desperation, but with the Pistons going 12-3 since the move it's now being viewed through a different lens: Van Gundy knows what he's doing and Gores is putting his bankroll behind his stated faith in the man he entrusted with the franchise's future. Going forward, that perception can only benefit the Pistons on any number of levels, perhaps most tangibly as it applies to future player recruitment.
"He came in and did the same thing with the coaching staff," Van Gundy said of Gores' message after the Orlando win. "Tom's a great guy. He's been fully committed and unbelievably supportive and he was doing the same thing tonight. He's very unselfish. He was giving all the credit to everybody else where we know, as a coaching staff, that what he's been willing to do has really been the catalyst behind us getting started in the right direction."
Players grinned as they talked about seeing Gores' excitement. There's an appreciation in the locker room for what Gores' support for Van Gundy's plan has meant for the turnaround. Beyond that, there's admiration. Just as players respect other players for the work they have to put in to make it to the NBA, they respect that Gores' fortune wasn't inherited but self-made. It gives them a common language that transcends differences in age, culture or status.
"He does that all the time, win or lose," Andre Drummond said of Gores' pep talk. "The best thing about Tom, win or lose, he's always here to support. That's why I feel like he's a great owner."
Drummond scored 26 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in front of his owner, while Brandon Jennings let him witness the first 20-point, 20-assist game since Isiah Thomas did so in 1985, when Gores was a Michigan State undergrad and a long way from his first million, let alone his first billion.
"He was just really upbeat," Jennings said. "He said he's very proud of us, just the fact we're bringing a lot of excitement back to the city. The fans want to see us play. He's just excited about everybody else being excited, the way we've been playing, the way we rallied back and never quit."
One other, less glaring, example of Gores' commitment to winning and trusting Van Gundy's instincts to carry the Pistons there came a day after the Smith waiving. It didn't shake the ground nearly as much, but acquiring Anthony Tolliver from Phoenix cost the Pistons another million-plus dollars this season.
And despite the brilliance of Drummond, Jennings and Greg Monroe against the Magic, the game might not have been won without Tolliver's contributions – the nine points, the seven boards, the huge 3-pointer to put down Orlando's last-ditch rally.
On the day he bought the Pistons, Gores was peppered with questions about his willingness to spend to build a winner. His answer was layered, exactly as it should have been. It's not about cost, he said; it's about value.
With the Pistons now organized to his satisfaction and decision-makers in place he clearly trusts, compelling facts are being put into evidence. Fun years ahead, Pistons fans.