For every yard of excitement generated for Stan Van Gundy by the free-agent additions of Jon Leuer, Ish Smith and Boban Marjanovic, he’ll admit an inch of trepidation over losing the players they’re replacing.
In letting go of their own free agents Anthony Tolliver, Steve Blake and Joel Anthony, the Pistons lost a combined 30 years of NBA service and their only players 30 years or older. It was more than just their experience, though, but the way they carried themselves with thorough professionalism that leaves a void for the Pistons.
“Absolutely. Absolute concern,” Van Gundy admitted earlier this month. “If you look at what we did (over the off-season) and said, ‘OK, where’s the problem?’ – that would be it. We had three outstanding veteran leaders who were all about the right stuff.”
Van Gundy throws a fourth loss onto the pile – player development coach Quentin Richardson, who left the organization after two seasons to return to his family and business interests in Orlando. Not long removed from his own successful playing career, Richardson easily gained the trust of young players.
“Those guys provided a lot of leadership for the team in general and the younger guys in particular and now with all four of those guys gone, are these guys ready? Can they get themselves ready? Can they lead each other? Who’s going to emerge? Yeah, I think that there certainly is a concern,” Van Gundy said. “It’s a challenge for the guys on our team. I don’t know how many teams in the league there are that will not have a single guy over 30 years old.”
Backup center Aron Baynes, at 29, will be the oldest player on the Pistons 2016-17 roster as it stands today. He turns 30 in December. Smith turned 28 in July after agreeing on a three-year contract to back up Reggie Jackson at point guard. Marjanovic turns 28 next week.
Marcus Morris, who turns 27 in September is the oldest starter. Van Gundy expects that with Anthony, Blake and Tolliver departed, leaders from a group of players he believes has the right intent will organically emerge –a process he’ll monitor throughout training camp as surely as he looks for individual skills gains and strides in team chemistry he hopes will bolster Pistons defense.
While Tolliver was a part of the rotation virtually all of last season, Blake was in the playing group only before and after Brandon Jennings’ stint as Jackson’s backup and Anthony played only 96 minutes last season. It’s easier to lead from the front than the rear – tougher, in other words, to exert influence when your role is diminished. But the steadiness and daily examples all three put into evidence were a big part of the fabric of the Pistons in Van Gundy’s second season.
“One of the things we thought about in that regard is sort of, it’s time for some of these guys. It’s time,” Van Gundy said. “And if you keep putting other people in those situations, those guys don’t ever grow up. So we’ve got some guys who are veteran guys. They may not be the grizzled 10- and 12-year veterans, but they’ve been around long enough to know what this is all about now and they’re high-character guys and they’re going to have to take on bigger roles. So, yeah, I’m concerned. But I’m also sort of excited to see if they’ll step into those roles.”
And, in a sense, the presence of Anthony, Blake and Tolliver will still be felt for the impressions they left behind.
Anthony left an indelible mark on rookie Darrun Hilliard, among many of his teammates, for the way he stepped up when the Pistons won a four-overtime game at Chicago in December. After playing a total of 16 minutes spread across six of the team’s first 26 gamesj, Anthony got thrown into the rotation at the last minute that day when Baynes’ back stiffened on him before tipoff. He responded by giving the Pistons 14 rock-solid, error-free minutes to allow them the chance to win a critical game with a division rival against whom they wound up battling for the East’s final playoff spot.
“He’s sitting out. He’s not really playing a lot and when I’m in there working out, he’s right there, too,” Hilliard said two weeks later, recalling Anthony’s preparedness that night. “He motivates me because he won an NBA championship, man, and he’s not really playing much. And if he can do that, then there ain’t no freakin’ way a rookie can’t do that. You’ve just got to prepare and be ready, stay ready, and when your time comes, it comes. He was grateful for his opportunity and he made the most of it. Coach has confidence in him at any time to come and play. It was great to see.”
The lesson of that story isn’t lost on Van Gundy.
“That’s exactly right. And those guys – Joel Anthony, Anthony Tolliver, Steve Blake – those guys are great, great pros. And all of those decisions were very, very hard ones for us and especially for me, personally. All of ’em. Really hard because those guys are great and they were all different situations. Those guys are definitely going to be missed and not just by me – by players on our team. And we’ll need people to step up into those roles.”