Upon being hired, Stan Van Gundy thought he could make the beguiled Detroit Pistons frontcourt work.
We know this to be true because he said so. We know that wasn't just a bluff because there have been consistent reports since the summer that Van Gundy turned down trade offers for Josh Smith that wouldn't have cost Detroit a draft pick, as was apparently the case of late. The Kings have been linked to Smith for months -- in fact, Michael Malone's distaste for such a move is considered a contributing reason he was fired last week. Sacramento reportedly offered Jason Thompson and Derrick Williams for Smith in the offseason. Van Gundy declined.
What a bad decision that turned out to be. Thompson is on the books for only $9 million guaranteed after this season. Williams' contract expires at the end of this season. Smith's contract called for $27 million over the next two seasons. By turning down the Kings' bailout offer, Van Gundy cost his team $18 million in cap savings plus the drama of watching Smith flail another 28 games plus the drama of the stunning decision to waive him outright and stretch his cap hit into 2020.
Van Gundy was a great coach in Orlando and deserves the benefit of the doubt in that regard. If he couldn't make the triple-threat frontcourt that Joe Dumars created work, no coach could have.
But the evidence of front office malpractice is laid bare, and nothing about SVG's on-court work can avoid the conclusion that he screwed up big-time. Some post-Smith justification has credited Van Gundy for refusing to take poisonous contracts and instead swallowing the pill. That's like patting a rodent on the head for skipping the bait box and walking right into the mousetrap. The result is the same.
Of course, the Kings altered their offer, substituting Carl Landry's $13 million over two seasons for Williams' expiring deal. That changes the math a bit, but not enough to make swallowing Smith's contract the better deal. Even had the Pistons taken that worse deal and waived both guys -- something that wouldn't have been remotely necessary, as neither would have bristled at coming off of the bench -- they'd come out ahead financially by about $5 million. There's no indication as to whether the Kings revoked that offer recently. If it was still on the table as of Monday, Van Gundy's decision looks even worse.
You wonder if there's a psychological element at play here. Fans in Detroit are ecstatic at being rid of Smith's 10 bad shots per game. Nothing could have sent a stronger signal to Greg Monroe that Detroit is prepared to pay him well and let he and Andre Drummond own the frontcourt for years to come, though the ship may have sailed on that future already. And it certainly sends a message to the rest of the Pistons, particularly the somewhat Smithian Brandon Jennings. It's a power move, as they say, one that lends Van Gundy the air of a badass. Since SVG is fond of unfairly comparing basketball figures to awful autarchs, let's try such an analogy: Van Gundy's dismissal of Smith imbues the coach with a touch of unpredictable crazy, much as Genghis Khan's frequent massacres terrified his neighbors.
The Smith debacle falls mostly on Joe Dumars, who capped a career of hideous free agent signings with perhaps his most painful decision in 2013. (Dumars' Ben Gordon debacle remains competitive.) But Van Gundy, the franchise's savior, made the Smith problem worse through his own hubris both in refusing to trade him in the summer and in refusing to stick it out now. Those two decisions turned Smith from an untradeable liability in the figurative sense to a literally untradeable liability.
Part of what has made Van Gundy a great coach is his manic passion, his hubris, his keen sense for when everything is about to go off the rails. Those traits are not ones you'd find in successful general managers. That which makes Van Gundy so well-prepared and demanding on the sidelines makes him rash and unreasonable behind the desk. Remember when Shaq called him the "master of panic?" Panic is the last thing you want from the guy pulling the personnel strings.
But Van Gundy is empowered to run the Pistons as he sees fit, and will remain so for a while, I reckon. The regime is not off to a very good start.