SVG’s transformation of Pistons changing how NBA teams view organizational structure
Gregory Shamus (NBAE/Getty)
The Minnesota Timberwolves fired coach Sam Mitchell and general manager Milt Newton at season’s end, replacing both with one man, Tom Thibodeau. Whatever Stan Van Gundy was doing at the moment – preparing the Pistons for their playoff series with Cleveland is the sure bet – here’s hoping he allowed himself a second of self congratulation.
When Pistons owner Tom Gores decided a change in the franchise’s course was necessary two years ago, he went into the search for a coach and general manager with an open mind. He wasn’t fixated on merging the jobs, necessarily, but its overriding appeal to him was the way it would address his unease with the way his previous front office and coaching staffs operated on different wavelengths.
The downside is the concentration of power in one hands and all the ways that could go wrong in every walk of life, never mind a professional basketball franchise.
There are 30 NBA teams and there probably aren’t 30 people in the world who can ably do both jobs, just as the number of championship-worthy quarterbacks is always less than the number of NFL franchises in need of one.
But the eyebrows that were raised around the NBA when the Van Gundy move was announced by the Pistons barely fluttered when Minnesota installed Thibodeau in the same capacity. And for that, Van Gundy himself gets much of the credit.
There simply wasn’t much in the way of a sample size when Gores boldly entrusted care of the franchise he purchased in June 2011 to Van Gundy. Gregg Popovich had control in San Antonio, more or less, though he and R.C. Buford have worked in concert so long it’s hard to tell where one stops and the other begins.
Doc Rivers would get that sort of control with the Clippers after the fallout of Donald Sterling’s self-immolation settled. Mike Budenholzer similarly rose to dual-role power in Atlanta after a scandal cost Danny Ferry his job as general manager.
But the only franchise other than the Pistons that had deliberately engineered the dual-role model prior to Minnesota’s hiring of Thibodeau was, in fact, Minnesota. Even that was done in stages. First Timberwolves owner Glenn Taylor brought back franchise pillar Flip Saunders to straighten out an organizational mess as head of the front office; Saunders, after striking out in trying to attract a coach of his liking, named himself to the job about a month after Van Gundy came to the Pistons.
And in Van Gundy’s second game as Pistons coach, on Oct. 30, 2014 – at Minnesota, no less, opposing Saunders – I asked him before the game if he felt a responsibility to his peers in the coaching profession to get it right so that doors to a similar opportunity might open for them.
“Yeah, I think that’s fair to say. Actually, yeah,” he said after a thoughtful pause. “I don’t know about pressure, but you certainly feel – I don’t want to say the word obligation, either. I don’t know what the word would be. But you do feel a responsibility to do well and to show that coaches can do these things.”
Not all of them can, certainly. There are inherent and legitimate concerns in centralizing power. It stands to reason anyone with the ability to handle both roles comes with an outsized personality. That type of person often suffocates those around him. If the people he puts in place don’t feel empowered and encouraged to do the jobs they were hired to perform, the same type of organizational stagnation that afflicts those with a coach and GM chasing competing objectives likely ensues.
That hasn’t happened with Van Gundy’s Pistons because he brings intelligence and a common touch in equal parts. The people working under him, both on the coaching and administrative sides, are fiercely loyal and appreciative of the culture he’s created. Jeff Bower has proven a star as general manager, made possible only because Van Gundy has in deed proven every bit as trusting of his abilities as he expressed in word at the time of his hiring.
He’s given Bower the latitude to do everything a conventional general manager would do but for the veto power Van Gundy – by all evidence, at least – rarely invokes. Bower, in keeping with the example set by Van Gundy, is equally egoless and encouraging of the assistant general managers, scouts and various other administrators on his watch. It’s a grownup approach missing in dysfunctional organizations inside and beyond the world of pro sports: Hire good people, then let them do the jobs they were assigned.
The Pistons have gone from 29 wins and little in the way of an assets cache to 44 wins and a core of six players, 26 or younger, under long-term team control in two years. That’s a tribute to the vast body of work put in by a team of sharp, hard-working basketball lifers. Above all, it’s a tribute to Stan Van Gundy and the calculated brilliance of Tom Gores in identifying a problem and finding a solution. They’ve changed the way the basketball world views an NBA organizational flow chart.