By Will Burchfield
There are those who believe the Pistons are in NBA purgatory: not good enough to compete for a championship, not bad enough to kickstart a rebuild through the draft. The only way out, the logic says, is to tear things down and start from scratch.
Pistons president and head coach Stan Van Gundy doesn’t agree.
“I think you keep building the best team you can build,” Van Gundy told the Valenti Show on 97.1 The Ticket. “Look, between ownership and us, we decided when we got here – it had been five years without the playoffs – there certainly wasn’t the stomach for doing a teardown even greater and trying to lose for another five years. That’s easy, losing is easy, but I don’t necessarily think it’s the only way to go about things and it’s certainly not the way we’re going to go about things here.”
The 76ers, led by former GM Sam Hinkie, are an example of why it pays to tank. They have made six first-round draft picks in the last three years, including four in the top 10. They will pick third overall in next month’s draft. In Philadelphia, the future is bright.
“You can like or dislike the strategy. I will say this: Sam’s a really smart guy but I think the brilliance of the strategy has been overplayed. If you decide you wanna lose at historic levels for four or five years, it’s really not hard to pull off. I can go out and lose every single night, that’s an easy thing to do in this league,” Van Gundy said.
What isn’t so easy, especially for a small-market team like the Pistons, is building a championship-caliber roster without high draft picks. Van Gundy acknowledges that himself.
“But the thing is,” he explained, “fans have to go to games every year. First, there’s no guarantee. And how many years, if you’re a Philadelphia fan, do you wanna be watching the worst team in the league? (They’re) on four years right now. You think they’re gonna contend for a championship next year?
“There’s a lot of teams that are going to contend for a playoff spot, but four years of historic losing to contend for the eighth spot in the playoffs? How quickly do you think they’re going to be able to contend (for a championship) to make those four years of historic losing worth it?
“The second thing I’d ask you is, when has that approach worked? Who’s won the championship coming from that?”
The Spurs threw away their 1996-97 season to land Tim Duncan in the ’97 draft and won an NBA championship two years later.
“One time, one year. Not multiple years, that’s the thing,” said Van Gundy.
“To me,” he added, “especially the multi-year losing, it’s hard to get out of. And nobody’s done it.”
As for the Big-Three Celtics and the LeBron-James led Cavaliers, Van Gundy doesn’t want to hear it.
“The (Celtics) weren’t tanking, they just weren’t getting it right. There’s a difference between tanking and just losing,” he said.
“Cleveland got forced into it. Again, they didn’t try to tank. They tried to put the best team on the floor and they got lucky LeBron came back. There wasn’t a tanking strategy that led them back to having a team,” said Van Gundy.
The other benefit to tanking is that it clears cap space to pursue a superstar in free agency. But for the Pistons, who are relatively low on free-agent appeal, how much would that matter?
“I think (cap) room at times gets overrated. I think you can make a case for (cap) room in certain cities and certain franchises, but there’s a lot of places in this league where it isn’t going to get you anything,” Van Gundy said. “Every organization has to have an approach that fits them and it has to fit you in a lot of ways. It has to fit you in terms of your free agent approach, in terms of your organization and in terms of your fan base’s stomach for losing and how many years that’s going to take.”
The Pistons’ approach is built on the savvy move instead of the splashy one.
“We thought since the day I came in here that the primary way for us to get better in Detroit, with what had happened in the years before we got here, was going to be through trades and smart, lower-budget free agent acquisitions,” said Van Gundy. “I think overall we’ve done a pretty good job of that and that’s the way we have to continue to go.”