By: Will Burchfield
Just look around the NBA, says Stan Van Gundy. While tanking has come to be seen as the only route toward championship contention, the evidence suggests otherwise.
“I don’t know that we should just accept that it’s the best way to build,” Van Gundy told 97.1 The Ticket. “They really didn’t do that in Golden State and they’ve got the best team in the league. They didn’t do it in Houston and they’ve got the second best team in the West. They didn’t do it in Toronto and they’re the best team in the East.
“So this idea that that’s the best way to build I don’t think will hold up to scrutiny.”
Van Gundy has come under heavy scrutiny himself as head coach/president of the Pistons, mostly for his refusal to bottom out for high draft picks. He’s adamant that he and general manager Jeff Bower can build a championship-caliber roster without going down a path that necessitates losing.
“For some teams, maybe it is their best path. Everybody’s in different situations, everybody approaches it differently. Again, I think everybody knows it’s not great for the league, but if you’re one of those teams that sees no other path you have to do what’s best for your organization,” Van Gundy said.
Van Gundy took over the Pistons’ front office — and their sideline — in the 2014 offseason. He hired Bower shortly thereafter. In three full seasons together, Van Gundy and Bower have produced one winning team. This year’s squad is 28-29 and 1.5 games out of a playoff spot entering the stretch run.
Asked if there’s pressure from ownership to make the playoffs to avoid major changes this summer, Van Gundy, whose contract runs through next season, said, “There could be. I just don’t think coaches ever worry about that stuff. You’re worried about winning the next game. What’s painful in this business, as a coach, is losing. I don’t think it’s job security or any of that. I think fans and media love that story and angle, but I’ve been around this my whole life with my dad coaching and I’ve never known a coach that even had that concern. Your concern is you want to win.”
The Pistons’ aversion to tanking, wrong or right, places a premium on shrewd drafting. This is where Van Gundy and Bower have fallen short. The names they’ve passed on are by now familiar (and typically recited in shrill tones): Devin Booker and Donovan Mitchell. The ones they’ve chosen are anything but. These missteps have inevitably dialed up the heat on the duo calling the shots.
“If ownership decides to make changes, which they have at a couple of places this year, then they make changes. It’s all just part of the business,” Van Gundy said. “Our job right now is to try and get ready to play these last 25 games the best we can and hopefully make a run at this.”
To aid that cause, of course, Van Gundy and Bower pulled off a blockbuster for Blake Griffin earlier this month. It was a trade that made the Pistons both fit in and stand out among the best teams in the league.
On the one hand, they finally have a bonafide star and most of their money is invested in a small portion of their roster. Griffin and Andre Drummond carry a combined price tag of about $53.2 million this season, or about 54 percent of the $99 million salary cap.
“I think you can go and make that assessment of all of the best teams in the NBA, that their salary cap is concentrated in two, three and at the most four guys,” Van Gundy said.
On the other hand, the Pistons are building around their frontcourt in a backcourt-driven league.
“We’re not in a situation where we can be that choosy, and we can’t necessarily go and try to do it the same way as everybody else. We’re going to be different,” said Van Gundy.
For a small-market team that’s unwilling to tank, it’s the kind of gamble that’s necessary to acquire high-end talent. Whether it pays off will likely decide Van Gundy’s fate. Bower’s, too.