Stan Van Gundy says the things other coaches think but few verbalize. Sometimes that raises eyebrows or bruises feelings, not because what he says is outrageous – only that the fact he says it at all stands apart from convention.
And sometimes nuance gets lost in the eyebrow-raising surprise of his words, drowning out the underlying message.
What he said after Sunday's loss to arguably the NBA's best team of the moment, the Golden State Warriors, about the Pistons not getting back on defense – "ridiculous," he called it – is what he's been harping on since before training camp opened. Remember?
It came on media day, Sept. 29, and the question was whether he believed the Pistons could be a playoff team in his first season.
"I want to get them to run back on defense tomorrow in a scrimmage," he said. "That's it. That's my No. 1 priority tomorrow. If you want the team goals, that's it. That's on Tuesday, September 30th. We run back on defense consistently. Then we build from there. If you build the right habits and take care of the right things, then you're going to be in a position to perform at as a high a level as you can, because so many other things come into it that you have no control over."
It's the No. 1 item listed on Van Gundy's defensive principles board that hangs over the Pistons practice court.
Two weeks into the season, with the Pistons holding a 2-6 record going into their Nov. 14 game at Oklahoma City, he told me this regarding transition defense: "There's always going to be two or three, maybe five or six possessions, that are really difficult to convert back off of. Our problem is we're not converting back off of the ones that aren't hard to convert back off of."
And then, uninterrupted, he said this:
"I've been really honest with them. There's a laziness to our team. There is. It's not that guys won't work. They come out here and they work every day. So I'm not saying they're lazy people. But we have some lazy habits in our game that – until we correct them – we're going to have a hard time winning."
The Pistons won that game, in overtime, and played really well but lost at Memphis 24 hours later, then came home off a tough road trip with players feeling like they were close, or perhaps had even turned a corner. But they've lost eight straight since then, including home losses to teams like Orlando, Phoenix and Milwaukee – exactly the games you must win to take that next step, to even ponder playoff possibilities.
Fast forward to Saturday, the day before Golden State's well-oiled machine rolled into The Palace to complete a perfect five-game road trip. Here's what Van Gundy said to a question about whether he was satisfied with the pace of his offense and the number of possessions the Pistons got per game.
"Our energy level in general, at both ends – half court, full court – needs to improve. We've talked about that a lot as a team. It's probably the No. 1 priority and encompasses a lot of things. We've got to get a higher energy level, a better motor. I don't totally know how to do that. A lot of that is within you. If I could only change one thing and I could wave a magic wand and change it, that would be my thing. We have to play with higher energy because it would take care of a lot of things. We do a lot of walking and jogging."
Maybe not a lot, but against teams like Golden State, or many other NBA teams, really, a split second is enough to get beat for a fast-break layup or an uncontested transition 3-pointer. The Pistons are last in the NBA in shooting percentage, making 41.2 percent of their attempts, and so many of those are right around the rim. As Van Gundy said after Sunday's game, they're also last in the league at finishing in the restricted area, 3 feet and in, and those misses make teams especially vulnerable in transition.
The split second of head hanging that often accompanies those near misses is all the opening a semi-proficient team needs to exploit a defense on the move. Remember, a defense doesn't just have to get back at the same time as the offense, it has to get back in some semblance of position to adequately defend and match up.
"I think guys are trying," Greg Monroe said after Sunday's loss. "It's just more the communication aspect of it. Guys are getting back, but not it's about communicating and understanding, just taking the closest man until you can get back and we can settle into our half-court defense."
And let's put this in perspective: Golden State scored 15 transition points against the Pistons, the Pistons 13 against the Warriors. The Pistons are a very respectable 12th in the NBA in fast-break points allowed per game at 11.2 – essentially, one layup behind the league leaders, Atlanta, at 9.1, and are significantly better than last year's Pistons, who finished 23rd at 14.1 per game. They've moved up similarly in other defensive metrics, too, including a jump from 25th to 19th in defensive efficiency.
They just don't have much margin for error, not until Van Gundy can sort out the offense, making it more efficient with the roster he has and – eventually – moving pieces around until he gets the roster he desires.
He has no magic wand. But he does have an unshakeable belief that the process, properly administered and adhered to, will produce the desired results. And he has a track record – top 10 defenses consistently on his watch in both Miami and Orlando – that backs him up. It might not be coming as quickly as he'd hoped. But it almost certainly is coming.