By Ashley Dunkak
AUBURN HILLS (CBS DETROIT) – The Detroit Pistons need this time to be different, and yet the start of this next chapter felt familiar.
Just as it happened less than a year ago when the Pistons hired Maurice Cheeks, seemingly every staff member in the Palace of Auburn Hills came out Thursday to the atrium, its dramatic mirrored ceiling magnifying the moment, as cameras lined up, TV lights glittered and dozens of media members waited for the introduction of a new head coach for the Pistons. This time, of course, the fanfare centered around Stan Van Gundy, who will take on the roles of head coach and president of basketball operations.
On Thursday, the group at the Palace waited half an hour past the scheduled start time for introduction to begin. Pistons fans have been waiting much longer – season after season after season after season after season – for Detroit basketball to be relevant again.
Athletes everywhere will tell you that when a team is winning, everything else generally falls into place. The Pistons have not won in a while. The short-lived tenure of Cheeks eventually gave way to the team’s fifth straight year of missing the playoffs. Many perceived that the Pistons looked unenthusiastic, almost despondent, like they had given up. Certainly, losing is no fun. Take away winning, and playing pro basketball is a lucrative job that involves lots of scrutiny, lots of travel, lots of hours.
Still not a bad gig if you can get it, of course, but no picnic for the fans. The last few years have also been tough on owner Tom Gores.
“I’m sorry to disappoint the fans the last couple years,” Gores said, looking bothered and contrite at the same time. “I’m not very happy about it, I’ll tell you that emphatically.”
The hiring of Van Gundy, however, makes Gores hopeful.
“This is the defining moment,” Gores said. “This is the most important decision we have made as an organization. Not only did we hire a coach and president of basketball, we are resetting the culture of the franchise. I am convinced. I am so confident that this is going to work. We both have the passion for it.
“I’m sleeping better,” Gores continued. “I told you guys before, I do lose sleep at night worrying about this community and making sure it delivers for you guys, and I can tell you I’m sleeping better having Stan. So I’m very, very comfortable.”
Part of changing what has become a decidedly losing culture will be Van Gundy’s willingness to get players out of their comfort zone. Van Gundy said he had already talked to almost all the players and would start meeting with them face-to-face soon. While he will wait to form any opinions, he said he will not hesitate to punish players who deviate from what the team needs.
Unprofessional conduct, selfishness, lack of character – none of that is going to fly, according to the new coach.
“Everybody gets a fresh start,” Van Gundy said. “We will create a culture that will make it very, very uncomfortable for people like that, and I’m not saying we have any of them. I’m not pre-judging anybody. But we’ll create a culture, I hope, that makes it very uncomfortable for those people where they don’t want to even be here, and I think we’ll be able to do that. I’m good at not making people feel too comfortable.
“Especially early on here, I think those character things have to be the overriding concerns,” Van Gundy said. “If you have to make deals at times that maybe even lessen your talents to get the kind of people you want, one of the things we’ve already talked about, I’ve already talked about with George David and Ken Catanella, guys who are doing are a great, great job, the stuff they’re giving me, very organized, very detailed in terms of upcoming draft preparations and in terms of the free agent. The three of us have already talked about how important it is. We will not be signing guys, especially right now, who are questionable in those areas at all. It’s important that we bring in the right kind of people. Look, if 90 percent of your team is high-character guys, the other 10 percent tend to come along in that direction. It’s when 50 percent of your team is a problem, they affect the other 50 percent. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but you’ve got to take it into all your roster decisions.”
If some players do not buy in and go by what the coach instructs, he is prepared to sit them out, something he said he did in both Miami and Orlando. On the business side, Van Gundy explained, a player gets his deal for whatever the market dictates, and after that, his salary does not factor into the discussion of how much playing time he should get.
“If we have to take some hits early in the season to build our culture, as much as we want to win now – and it’s something we’re going to talk about with our players, if we want to win now, but I’m not going to take any shortcuts to that,” Van Gundy said. “The most important thing we do in this coming year is start changing that culture and start changing the character of this time, and I guarantee you we can find five guys who play the way we want to play. And then if the other guys want to play, they’ve got to play that way.”