Sometime next week, if all goes according to plan – and it’s all gone according to plan so far as Stan Van Gundy nears the traditional 100-day milepost of any new administration – he’ll complete the transition from president to coach.
The heavy lifting of the off-season is nearly finished. There might be a few more hires to make, but the legwork that went into them – all the networking and interviewing and screening – is behind them.
“I need one more assistant coach. That’s going to come this week,” Van Gundy told me in a lengthy Wednesday morning interview before the Pistons announced on Thursday the hiring of Tim Hardaway to join Malik Allen on the assistant coaching staff and Quentin Richardson in player development – three players with rich NBA playing resumes.
“We’ve also got to hire one more video person, but we’ve interviewed everybody. I think (general manager) Jeff (Bower) is adding one more scout and one more person upstairs working with analytics and strategic planning. But in all of those, the decisions are imminent. I think we’ll have them within a week, probably.”
Among the other hires announced Thursday is assistant general manager Jeff Nix, who spent 15 years with the Knicks in a variety of roles including assistant GM.
Van Gundy quickly hired enough of a staff to get through draft workouts and Summer League and prepare for free agency, but he wanted to take a few months after his mid-May start to evaluate what he had and plot the most efficient organizational structure. An example of the process he undertook is found in the way Van Gundy overhauled the medical and training staff.
He rapidly came to value and admire the contributions of longtime Pistons employees Arnie Kander and Mike Abdenour. Their titles – strength and conditioning coach for Kander, trainer for Abdenour – barely hinted at the breadth of their contributions. That now changes.
“We’ve restructured the medical area so that Arnie won’t be stretched as thin,” Van Gundy said. “He can concentrate on his a role as a therapist. We’ve moved Mike into an administrative role. We just hired a strength coach, Anthony Harvey (recently assistant strength coach with the Orlando Magic), a week ago – he’ll start Monday – and a director of sports medicine. Those are really the last things.”
Kander will focus on helping players recover from injuries and spend more time studying their movements to increase efficiency that can help in the prevention of injuries. He’s done a deep dive this summer into the running patterns of two groups – one Mexican, one Native American – of what he considers the world’s greatest runners, for instance, and how stride patterns change in going from jogging to sprinting and vice versa.
“Arnie takes on the physical therapist role,” Van Gundy said. “Not only in getting people back, but in making biomechanical assessments of guys and moving us forward preventively. I think it fits together well. It gives us two guys devoting all their time to the health care of our players. It gives us a strength coach devoting all of his time to getting our guys stronger and in better shape. And it gives Mike the time to devote all of his day to making all these things work better.”
Abdenour’s province as director of team operations is to make sure all of the organization’s logistical needs are met with as little disruption or inconvenience to players and staff as possible. It’s what he’s done remarkably well, in addition to his duties as trainer, for years – there’s not a hotel general manager or concierge in the NBA’s 28 cities whose name isn’t in his directory – and it’s not a role Van Gundy takes lightly. The last thing a coach wants is a bus not showing up on time after a 3 a.m. airport arrival or finding out there’s no practice gym available on an off-day on the road.
“For me as a head coach, the two most important positions are guys who do what Mike is going to do and the video people, because the video people – if they do their job really well – save you a lot of time in terms of your preparation as a head coach. A guy like Mike, doing what he does, you don’t have to think about any of those things. You show up every night and we’re ready to go. Those things are invaluable. I know not everybody sees it that way, but to me they translate into wins and losses because you’re saving so much time and mental energy. It’s a stressful job and those guys take the stress out so you can keep your mind on what we need to do.”
Van Gundy described the newly created director of sports medicine position, to be filled by Jon Ishop who held the job with New Orleans most recently, like this: “It’ll be an athletic trainer, so they’ll have the diagnostic element, dealing with injuries, diagnosing injuries. It’s all the administration of the training room, dealing with the doctors, setting up physicals, the recordkeeping, reporting to the league, treating athletes one on one, the day-to-day treatment of injuries and preventive stuff.”
That was all part of Van Gundy’s thick organizational playbook that so impressed Pistons owner Tom Gores at their early May meeting at Platinum Equity headquarters, but he first needed to immerse himself in the organization for a reasonable time to judge the best means of implementation.
“Coming in and evaluating it for a couple of months before we decided to restructure it, we had two really good people in Mike and Arnie who’d been here a long time, but the expectations on them were so high,” he said. “We had asked them to do too many things, so we were not taking advantage of their greatest strengths so they could really focus in an area and just do that and be great at it.”
It’s the same approach he’s taken to other areas of the front office, including the scouting and personnel departments. Now, with less than two months to go before training camp and the roster largely set with 16 players under contract, it’s time to start thinking about the playbook and a training camp itinerary.
“Jeff and I will talk every day all year, but certainly from a player personnel standpoint – once we got the roster sort of set – now in terms of talking to other teams and exploring what’s going on in the league, starting to get prepared for next year in terms of the draft, that’s all Jeff.
“I’m starting to spend time with the coaches on a daily basis, getting ready for the season, system and style and all of this stuff. How are we going to guard pick and rolls, what are we going to run offensively and what are we going to do in training camp? I’m transitioned to that, predominantly. If I can get through this week and get the rest of the staff hired, I can go full time in that direction. The other thing that’s always a part of it and more important than all the Xs and Os is trying to stay in contact with our players and know what’s going on with them and developing relationships going into camp.”
He took on two big jobs – president of basketball operations and head coach – but Van Gundy is as mindful of stretching himself too thin as he’s been of others. That’s why he’s focused on hiring so many good people. With that process nearly wrapped up, now he gets to coach basketball.