Stan Van Gundy's arrival in the dual role of head coach and president of basketball operations was supposed to put the Detroit Pistons back into contention in the Eastern Conference. Instead, four years later Van Gundy departs with just one playoff appearance -- and no playoff wins -- during his time in Detroit.
What went wrong for Van Gundy? And how can the Pistons get back on track without him? Let's take a look.
Overpays painted Detroit in a corner
If you want to understand why Van Gundy struggled overseeing basketball operations, I'd suggest going back to listen to his interview with Zach Lowe on a Lowe Post podcast during the summer of 2015 after his first season in Detroit. Van Gundy defended his team winning a bidding war for center Aron Baynes in free agency, pointing out that Baynes would help the Pistons win and citing the example of how Rashard Lewis had helped Van Gundy's Orlando Magic reach the 2009 NBA Finals.
The Baynes contract was part of a series of deals for which the Pistons paid heavily for role players. While the players themselves -- like Baynes, now a part-time starter for a Boston Celtics team on the verge of the Eastern Conference finals on a smaller, one-year deal -- were useful, that extra salary added up. The $10 million for Jon Leuer here and $7 million for Boban Marjanovic there, in addition to Josh Smith's stretched salary (on the books through 2019-20) and larger contracts for anchors Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, put Detroit in luxury-tax peril last offseason.
In order to avoid the tax, the Pistons renounced the rights to restricted free agent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and replaced him by dealing Marcus Morris to the Celtics for Avery Bradley, hoping to upgrade at shooting guard in the process. Instead, Bradley was a disappointment in Detroit, and Morris' departure compromised the Pistons' wing depth. When Jackson went down with a severely sprained ankle, his absence caused Detroit to slide into an eight-game losing streak that left them on the wrong side of the playoff line in the East.
Believing their options to be limited, the Pistons pulled the trigger on a massive, risky trade with the LA Clippers for Blake Griffin. Taking advantage of a friendly schedule, Detroit won its first four games with Griffin -- all of them at home against teams on the back end of a back-to-back -- before falling violently back to earth. A late, five-game winning streak wasn't enough to salvage the Pistons a playoff berth, or ultimately Van Gundy's job.
Detroit must build around Griffin
In fairness, the Pistons shouldn't have -- and might not have -- expected immediate dividends from the Griffin trade. Integrating a star player on the fly is tricky enough, and dealing both Bradley and Tobias Harris for Griffin exacerbated Detroit's depth issues on the perimeter. Whoever replaces Van Gundy will get a full offseason and training camp to build an offense around Griffin's rare playmaking ability for a 6-foot-10 power forward.
The biggest question to solve is how Griffin fits with Drummond, whom Van Gundy sought to use as a hub of the offense at the elbow prior to the trade. The example of Griffin's partnership in L.A. with DeAndre Jordan certainly suggests he can work with a traditional non-shooting center, but the Pistons found it easier to score when Griffin played instead with stretch big Anthony Tolliver. Such lineups posted an 109.0 offensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats, as compared with 104.8 with Drummond-Griffin frontcourts. As a result, Drummond occasionally found himself on the bench to finish games.
Detroit can hope that Jackson's return, which provides more scoring punch on the perimeter, will make the Drummond-Griffin frontcourt more workable. The three players played just 44 minutes together last season, mostly against lottery-bound teams, but their success in that tiny sample offers a template for what Detroit can aspire to do offensively next season.
Flexibility remains limited going forward
Adding the remaining $140-plus million on Griffin's contract only deepened the Pistons' financial commitment to their current roster. Detroit won't have cap space until at earliest the summer of 2020, when Jackson's contract is up and Drummond has a player option.
Between now and then, the Pistons will have to be creative to fortify the roster without going into the luxury tax. Counting the non-guaranteed salary of Reggie Bullock but not that of Dwight Buycks and Eric Moreland, Detroit will go into the summer just $7.4 million below the projected tax line while needing to fill five roster spots with Tolliver and occasional starter James Ennis III as free agents.
The Pistons also are out this year's first-round pick unless they improbably jump into the top three at next week's NBA draft lottery. (They enter the lottery with a 2.6 percent chance of doing so.) So, more trades will be the best opportunity for Van Gundy's replacement in the front office to continue making over the roster. Drummond is Detroit's most attractive trade piece, but few teams are in the market for a center. Meanwhile, any deal involving Jackson would likely need to return the Pistons a starting point guard, a difficult move to make.
In the short term, Detroit's new head coach will have more opportunity to make an impact. Internal player development could be crucial. Former lottery picks Stanley Johnson and Luke Kennard are the Pistons' best hope for getting more production on the wing. Detroit also is still trying to get some value from 2016 first-round pick Henry Ellenson, who has played just 475 minutes through his first two seasons, a large percentage of those after the team was eliminated from playoff contention this year.
With a full season of Griffin and a healthy Jackson, the Pistons can reasonably expect to get back to the playoffs next season. In order to go beyond that and emerge as an East contender for the first time in a decade, Van Gundy's replacement will have to nail filling out the roster and getting the most out of the players already on it. The Van Gundy era has made the path to contention a challenging one.