Stan Van Gundy was a central NBA character during his final seasons in Orlando -- coach of a perennial contender and outspoken fall guy in the absurdist, candy-fueled Dwightmare. He's off to the side now, quietly building an interesting, versatile young Detroit team in what had been a dormant NBA market for too long.
At the draft combine in Chicago, Van Gundy -- Detroit's head coach and president of basketball operations -- sat down with ESPN.com to discuss the state of the Pistons, Andre Drummond's game, Hack-a-Shaq and more.
You're two years in, and you made the playoffs in Year No. 2 as the No. 8 seed. Are you ahead of where you thought you'd be? Behind?
Well, we made progress. You're never satisfied when you haven't won even a playoff game. We got swept. We're not satisfied. But we made progress. The thing we were able to do -- we got younger and better at the same time.
That's not an easy thing to do. Our owner wanted to try to win and get in the playoffs, but he didn't want to sacrifice the future to do it.
Do you want to give me crap right now on behalf of all the media who said you overpaid for Reggie Jackson?
I just think a lot of those contracts after this coming summer are gonna look a lot different, whether it's Reggie Jackson or DeMarre Carroll, or whoever. Those contracts are gonna look a bit better after this summer, because this is gonna be crazy.
You had Dwight Howard, Shaquille O'Neal and now Andre Drummond. A lot of people say these guys just need to "try harder" at making free throws. But I know they're working in practice. What else can you do to improve Andre's foul shooting?
There are things out there. I'm not getting into specifics.
No. But there are things out there that can help him transfer better what he does on the practice floor into games. In practice, he can go in and make 65 to 70 percent. That should translate closer to 50 percent in games. But that isn't happening. So obviously, there are things you've gotta be able to do mentally to help make that transfer.
Does his form come apart during games?
It breaks down. At times, it'll be really good, but he can't consistently do it. It's like golf. Every once in a while, you put a good swing on the ball, and it's great, but unless you're a really good golfer, you can't repeat it.
We want to get to a point where he can repeat it, and that's gonna take some different work other than just being in the gym.
Should he try shooting underhand?
Everything's on the table, whether it's some things we can do with visual imagery, some virtual reality stuff, changing dramatically how you shoot the ball -- it's all on the table. Andre would tell you the same thing. Over the next couple of weeks, we're gonna get together as a staff, talk to some outside people, and sit down with Andre to see where his head is. For it to be any good, you have to have buy-in from him.
Is it a bigger issue than you anticipated? There are a lot of games where you take him out, and he sits for a long time.
It's become a bigger issue because [Hack-a-Shaq] is more prevalent. When I had Shaq in Miami, it was really rare. They'd [purposely] foul him if he got the ball down low, and maybe once or twice in the fourth quarter. Even when I had Dwight, you'd see it some in the fourth quarter, but it certainly wasn't every night, and it was never in the first half -- other than one game where Mark Jackson sent him to the line 39 times.
But those games used to stand out. Now it's a tool. People use it early in the game, and it changes things for us a great deal.
Did you read the thing I wrote last week on Rick Sund's proposal?
I did. Look, to me, it all depends on what you are trying to do. Are you trying to get rid of it? Or are you just trying to make it look better? I don't know the answer. I haven't gotten involved. I don't think myself and Doc Rivers [who has DeAndre Jordan] -- I don't think we can have any voice. It's just self-serving.
I do think the argument that we shouldn't bail guys out on having a hole in their game is a BS argument. We've changed a lot of things to help certain groups of people. We widened the lane from 6 feet to 12 feet to 16 feet, to make it so the big guys aren't as dominant. Well, why didn't we just say, "You've got to learn to play against them in the post"?
We took the handcheck out of the game to give guys like Steph Curry more freedom. Why didn't we say, "Just get in the weight room and get stronger"? So I don't buy that argument. You have to decide from an aesthetic standpoint what kind of product you want to put out there. It's up to Adam Silver and the league office to decide what kind of product they want.
You're aware, I assume, that the photo of you with a baseball hat and a hoodie at that event where you biked across Detroit became a sensation?
Oh, yeah. I really didn't understand why. That was Andre. He's the one who sent that out into the world.
People thought you looked like a badass.
Yeah, well, then the photographer did a helluva job.
Your defense slipped after the Tobias Harris trade, when he became your power forward, even if he and Marcus Morris would swap assignments a lot on both ends. Kevin Love hurt you in the post. Is your power forward defense good enough with those two, or do you need to add a guy with a little more bulk for certain matchups?
A little bit of both. We've gotta do a better job schematically, maybe fronting the post more when they're in there together. But we do need to add somebody there who can help us in those situations. There aren't a lot of power forwards left that can really take you down there, and even if they do, we can usually get an advantage on the other end.
But we do need that area covered better, and it'll be something we try to address in the offseason. But we have to do a better job as coaches, and those guys have to do a better job individually.
Did you have your eye on Tobias all season? Or did [GM] Jeff Bower call you a week before the deal and say, "We can get this guy"? How much did you know, and when? Because you're coaching the team, traveling, and all of that.
Jeff put that together, and it comes, like most deals, from hours and hours of conversations. When Jeff was talking to Orlando, it was a long time before Tobias' name even surfaced.
And for us, look: A lot of teams wanted that maximum cap space. We looked it and said, "OK, there are gonna be 28 teams with money, there are only so many great players, and you're gonna end up overpaying for people." And we're not at the top of everybody's list.
He becomes your free-agent signing.
Exactly. The question for us was: He's 23 years old with a contract that is descending over the next couple years, and can we do better than that in free agency? And for us, the answer was, "Not even close."
It's a bird in the hand. We're not desperate to get a player, and we don't have to overpay to just meet the [salary floor]. We got a good, young player locked in for the next three years. A lot of people want shorter contracts. For us, young players on longer contracts is a good way to go.
Do you get on the phone with [Orlando GM] Rob Hennigan at any point? Do you take over the negotiations, since the deal took place during the All-Star break?
No, that's all Jeff. I'll be involved only in terms of Jeff coming to me and saying, "What do you think?" I'm a yes-or-no guy at the end. And what Jeff has brought me so far in two years is a bunch of no-brainers.
Did it surprise you guys that you got Harris without giving up a pick?
Yes. Very, very surprised. Ersan Ilyasova played well for us, but he only had one more year on his contract. Again: A lot of people think that's good, but we want guys on longer contracts. And Brandon Jennings was a free agent we were gonna lose anyway. It was an easy deal to say yes to.
Do you ever want to fire yourself, just to kind of join what everyone else is doing?
I've been as upset at my coach as any of the presidents or GMs have been upset at their coach. I'm serious. You come out of some games, and, man, you second-guess yourself.
I think it's unfortunate what is going on in the league. A new trend has started now in the last couple of years. You know in this business, if you lose, you're gonna get fired. Now, if you win, you still may get fired. That's the hard part. You see guys having success and getting fired. That's really tough to watch.
How do you watch the playoffs as a coach? What has been the most interesting thing to catch your eye -- a matchup, a trend, a team using some strategy you liked?
What I do when I watch is look at specific teams and how other teams are trying to defend them. But I think the most telling thing so far in the playoffs is the role of injuries. I mean, it's been absolutely incredible. Really for the last couple of years, but this year is crazy.
You look at the Miami-Toronto series, it's gonna be last man standing. It's a matter of survival. You look at Dallas, Memphis, the Clippers. We're not talking even one or two key injuries. We're talking about teams that have been decimated. That's been really interesting to me. I just don't know what you do about it.
And then Cleveland, who we had to face -- they have been phenomenal.
You mentioned kind of the chess match. Is that the team you were talking about -- how Atlanta tried different ways to defend them?
So far, there hasn't been a chess match. They've been too good. It was one thing against us, but I watched that Atlanta series with great interest. Atlanta was the second-best defensive team in the league, and I'm thinking, "This'll be great, to watch how they defend Cleveland." And they didn't even have as good luck as we did.
You have two guys like LeBron and Kyrie Irving who can take you off the dribble, [Love is] maybe the best inside-outside big guy in the league, and then everyone is shooting at that level -- I don't know what your options even are. I didn't have an answer. I'm anxious to watch the next two rounds and see if someone else does something that works better.
But they've played at an extremely high level, and if they are going to shoot the ball like this, they have as good a chance to win the championship as anybody, East or West.
Now, I don't know they can go four series shooting like that.
I don't see how it's possible.
When they did it against Atlanta's defense, I guess I really took notice. We were a slightly above-average defensive team, but when you look at what Atlanta was able to build defensively and saw what Cleveland did to them -- wow.
We did that at times, but, sure, against a San Antonio. There aren't a lot of teams that will play two bigs. I do think, with what's happening in the league -- everybody points to all the small-ball, but I really think what's happening is there is so much versatility, you have to have all your bases covered when you put together your roster. Oklahoma City has been able to do that.
At the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference a couple of years ago, you said if you ever got hired again, you'd hire six guys whose entire job was to watch every NBA game -- one division for each guy. Did you do that?
Close. We hired four pro scouts, and divided it up among them, so they have more than one division each. But our staff probably watches 85 to 90 percent of all the NBA games.
What is the one discrete skill on defense Drummond needs to get better at ASAP?
He's gotta protect the rim better. He's pretty good on pick-and-rolls, and can get better. But he's got to protect the rim and challenge shots better -- whether it's blocking shots, or using the verticality to get up and be tougher. The numbers bear it out. The eyeball test, too. For his athletic ability, he's not there yet in terms of protecting the rim.