You can't fault Stan Van Gundy for lacking vision or a plan. Since being hired as president of basketball operations and head coach for the Detroit Pistons in May 2014, Van Gundy has worked to transform the roster from a broken puzzle of ill-fitting pieces into something resembling his successful teams of years past.
The group that Van Gundy inherited from longtime president Joe Dumars last year was not the one he actually wanted. Detroit was built around three big men who couldn't shoot (Andre Drummond, Josh Smith, Greg Monroe) and a backcourt lacking a real leader. That was a talented team with little chance of meshing in any meaningful way.
Van Gundy initially tried to coax better results with the same mix. That experiment failed, as Smith was waived in December with the Pistons off to a 5-23 start. But the next few weeks showed the power of Van Gundy's system. Detroit plugged shooters into Smith's spot and took off, winning 12 of its next 15 games.
Suddenly, the Pistons could space the court like this on pick-and-rolls:
The run ended once Brandon Jennings tore his Achilles, but it proved the power of Van Gundy's system. Defenders either had to leave open shooters or let Drummond roll to the rim unimpeded. Easy looks resulted.
Detroit continued to distance itself from the previous era in the ensuing months even after its early success ran out. Point guard Reggie Jackson was acquired from the Oklahoma City Thunder and given a five-year, $80 million contract extension to be the lead ball-handler. Monroe left in free agency and was replaced by floor-spacing Stretch 4s Marcus Morris and Ersan Ilyasova. The draft yielded Arizona star Stanley Johnson, who should hold a wing spot for the next decade.
Now, Van Gundy has a roster that resembles his incredible Orlando Magic teams of the late-2000s. The Pistons have an elite big man (Drummond), a talented lead guard (Jackson) and an array of shooters around them. They have a ways to go to match the success of those Dwight Howard-Jameer Nelson clubs, but it's apparent that Van Gundy is hoping to recapture some of that old magic.
Will it work?
Drummond is the engine
Drummond will ultimately determine the ceiling of this Pistons outfit. A 6'10 behemoth who is already one of the league's best rebounders and shot-blockers, Drummond, who will turn 22 before the season, needs to take his game to the next level. He must show a more polished post game and greater discipline protecting the rim.
There are many reasons to be hopeful. Drummond was never a good fit next to more traditional power forwards like Monroe, and the numbers reflected this, as NBA.com's John Schuhmann noted:
Your encouraging stat of the day, featuring the Detroit Pistons: pic.twitter.com/lgSb671LoO— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) July 27, 2015
Even while sharing the court with Monroe, Drummond averaged 13.8 points, 13.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in just 30.5 minutes per game. That's despite having so much room to grow.
Yet to be a franchise cornerstone, he must overcome some problems with his game. Drummond fouls too much, a possible symptom of his struggles next to Monroe and Smith, and his free-throw shooting is as bad (and maybe worse) than DeAndre Jordan's. His upside will always be limited when he's getting pulled because of foul trouble and/or awful free-throw shooting.
Drummond may never be as good as Howard was at his peak -- remember, Howard won three straight Defensive Player of the Year awards and nearly powered Orlando to a title -- but he can fill a similar role in Detroit. The team is finally built to his strengths.
Jackson needs to live up to his deal
A big-time center like Drummond can be a monster with a right pick-and-roll partner. Van Gundy believes he's found that in Jackson, a lightning-quick point guard who got a maximum extension from Detroit this summer after just 27 games with the team.
Clearly, Van Gundy liked what he saw from the 25-year-old, who stepped up his game in Detroit after playing behind perennial All-Star Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. Jackson took advantage of the opportunities afforded by injuries in OKC, showing flashes that he could be much more than a backup with the right opportunity. He struggled and pouted once Westbrook returned, but eventually found his stride with the Pistons, averaging 17.6 points and 9.2 assists after the February trade.
Now, Jackson is firmly entrenched as one of Detroit's core players. Many questioned the Pistons' financial commitment to him, but he has a chance to prove those doubters wrong.
To do that, he must improve his three-point shooting. Jackson hit just 30 percent from beyond the arc last season and is a career 29-percent shooter. If that number doesn't rise significantly, defenders will be more comfortable going under screens and challenging Jackson to shoot. There are signs of optimism -- Jackson shot 34 percent from three after the trade -- but if he cannot improve, it'll make Van Gundy's pick-and-roll attack significantly less potent.
Spacing the floor
This is where Van Gundy changed his roster the most. The Pistons were just 18th in three-point percentage last year and didn't have enough shooting when Monroe was in the game at power forward.
Enter Ilyasova, Morris, Johnson, Reggie Bullock and others. They range average to above-average shooters from three-point range and should get plenty of minutes. Their additions signal Van Gundy's desire to play smaller lineups going forward. The Pistons do not have a single traditional power forward to take Monroe's place on the roster.
That's because Van Gundy has little use for one in a league moving away from that archetype. He would rather have 6'9 combo forwards like Ilyasova and Morris, who may not be as comfortable with their backs to the basket, but can pressure defenses with the gravitational pull of their shooting ability and provide options as Jackson (or Jennings) runs the offense.
Other than the Pistons' three centers -- Drummond, Aron Baynes, Joel Anthony -- everyone on the roster can hit a three at a decent clip. Loading up on talented shooters has proven to be an effective strategy across the NBA.
With players like Ilyasova, Morris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Jodie Meeks, Danny Granger and Steve Blake in the mix, Detroit should rise into the top-10 in three-point proficiency. That's a major improvement from Dumars' last season in charge, when the Pistons were the second-worst three-point shooting team in the league.
It hasn't taken long for Van Gundy to fashion a team in his image so quickly after taking over. The rebuild required some hard decisions, including letting Smith and Monroe go for nothing, but it's clear the Pistons viewed those moves as addition by subtraction. Even if the Pistons are saddled with Smith's salary through 2020, the ballooning salary cap should mitigate the damage.
The plan relies on significant development from Drummond and Jackson, two cornerstones that have yet to capitalize on their potential. Nevertheless, this is a major departure from the lack of organization that defined the team's past moves. The Pistons may still be a work in progress, but now it's apparent what they're building toward.
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