The Pistons were broken, now they're a Stan Van Gundy team
BOSTON -- Behold the many faces of Stan Van Gundy.
There’s angry Stan, in which he somehow manages to contort both head and body into a formless approximation of what the word seethe look likes. There’s exasperated Stan, hands clasped tightly behind his scalp, which is sometimes accentuated with an exaggerated eye roll. There’s incredulous Stan (a personal favorite), in which he can’t believe the very thing he just saw.
Stan managed to pack all three into a play in which Boston’s Kelly Olynyk drained a wide-open three at the end of the first quarter of the Pistons' game against the Celtics earlier this week. Van Gundy’s expression was caught on camera because every camera person in the universe knows that when something bad happens to a Stan Van Gundy team his facial contortions must be recorded for all time. So, uh Stan, that one annoy you a little bit?
"A little bit? They played six feet off of him and let him walk into a rhythm three," Van Gundy said. "I was not calm on that one."
What bothered him the most was that it was Anthony Tolliver who made the mental mistake, and Tolliver isn’t the kind of player who makes very many of them. Stan told us all of that and didn’t think twice about the impropriety of naming names because the best thing about Stan is that he offers no apologies for being Stan.
Earlier in the evening he mentioned that Andre Drummond’s biggest area of improvement was bringing a consistent intensity to the game. He also mentioned that Drummond made 70 percent of his free throws in practice and that his struggles at the line were mostly mental. Now, both of things are likely correct (we’ll take his word for it on the free throws), but raw honesty is not something we get in large supply around the league. That doesn’t seem to bother his players, many of whom were brought to the franchise by the team president, who also happens to be Stan Van Gundy.
"He’s very demanding," point guard Reggie Jackson told me. "But he’s fair. He’s somebody you can have different opinions with at times and you have the banter and arguments at times, but you know with myself and with him it’s two individuals that really want to get to the top of the mountain. No matter what’s going on, we’re just trying to help each other and figure out a way to get this team where this team can be."
That’s the other thing about Stan: The man can coach the hell out of a basketball team and this Pistons team is becoming the kind of team Van Gundy enjoys coaching. It was barely a year ago when they were 5-27 and Van Gundy simply cut Josh Smith. The immediate impact was obvious. Without Smith around to clog up the big man rotation and hoist ill-timed jumpers, the Pistons won seven straight and nine out of 10 games. That initial surge wasn’t sustainable, but they did go 27-27 after Smith was released, which kept them alive in the Eastern Conference playoff picture well into the second half of the season.
That was only the beginning as Van Gundy began bringing in players to fit his vision. He traded for Jackson at the deadline and gave him a massive contract extension. From there he added Ersan Ilyasova and Marcus Morris by trade, veterans Aron Baynes, Steve Blake and Tolliver via free agency and 19-year-old Stanley Johnson in the draft. There are only three players left from the initial roster Van Gundy inherited and they are all important: Drummond, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brandon Jennings. The rest of the roster is entirely Stan’s design, and it’s all crafted around the Jackson-Drummond high pick-and-roll.
"It’s pretty clear what Stan wanted to do over the last 15, 16 months with spacing the floor with skilled fours," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "When you think about how impactful Ilyasova and Tolliver are, it may not be on the stat sheet, it’s the fact that those rim runs are a little bit more open by those bigs and the guard driving. It just puts you in such a predicament. As the big guarding Drummond, you’re antsy to get back to him because you’re worried about what can happen. You’ll be on a highlight reel. But you’ve got to stop the ball first. So you’re dependent on all five guys to help, which opens up opportunities. It all works together. It all fits together and it’s a good plan of attack."
By their own admission, the Pistons are not quite a finished product. They are right in the middle of the crowded East playoff picture, which is a step in the right direction but hardly an end destination. They have been consistently inconsistent like most of the other teams clumped in that pack and they have also developed a maddening tendency to wait until the fourth quarter to rally from whatever deficit they brought upon themselves.
"That’s been part of our MO," Jackson said. "We’re a good team, we know we’re a resilient bunch, we battle hard, we work hard. The problem is we still got a find way to compete all 48 minutes within our principles and have an energy level and an intensity that is fair to the game. Compete the way you’re supposed to. The game serves up just punishment."
They avoided punishment against the Celtics by completely dominating the action in the fourth quarter and it was a total effort. Jackson was sublime down the stretch, Baynes played huge minutes in place of Drummond and Johnson cranked a corner three that put them ahead by four and sealed the win. "The thing about Stanley is the guy is scared of nothing," Van Gundy said with obvious approval.
What Van Gundy does best is utilize the talent he has available. Consider the situation he inherited in Orlando a decade ago. He had a young, developing big in Dwight Howard and planned a fairly conventional lineup with Tony Battie at the four. Then Battie hurt his shoulder and Van Gundy was forced to improvise. He had Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis at forward and well, why waste their minutes on someone who wasn’t as good? Thus was born the idea of the Orlando Magic as a four-out, small-ball prototype.
"There was no way one of them was going to come off the bench to play an inferior guy at the four and so we spread the floor," Van Gundy said. "I’m not smart enough to have innovated. I just played with what I had."
What they have now is a good, but hardly great team that is still finding its way. Jackson has been both a revelation and a work in progress as a starting point guard. His downhill pick-and-roll game is perfectly suited to playing with Drummond, who is the most frightening downhill pick-and-roll player in the league at the moment. The Pistons run a lot of pick-and-roll, which one would expect considering the talents of their two best players.
"He's very demanding. But he's fair." -Reggie Jackson on SVG
Per NBA.com, more than half their possessions involve Jackson in the pick-and-roll, a larger number than anyone else in the league and Jackson has acquitted himself quite well in that regard. He may not be as dynamic a playmaker as Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook, but he is an effective scorer and it’s worth remembering that this is his first full season operating with this kind of responsibility.
"It’s still been ups and downs," Jackson said. "I’m still loving the opportunity, still trying to figure it out to be the best I can be, not only for me, but for my teammates. Ultimately we want to achieve the ultimate goal. That’s something I’m chasing. That’s something my teammates are chasing."
With Jennings back following an Achilles injury there are now capable backups at point guard and big man. Jennings’ return is huge because it means Van Gundy has another playmaker when Jackson is getting a rest. In Baynes, he has a reliable banger who can play down the stretch if and when Drummond’s free throw issues become a detriment as they were against the Celtics.
Surrounding those two positions are a collection of wings who shoot a ton of threes and are largely interchangeable depending on the matchups. What they bring to the equation is size and the versatility to guard up or down depending on the situation. Notable among the group of wings is Caldwell-Pope, who is quickly creating a niche for himself as a premier wing defender. At 6’5, he guarded Steph Curry as well as anyone has, and made life particularly uncomfortable for Boston’s Isaiah Thomas, who missed 13 of his first 14 shots.
"With all the ability to spread the floor, one of the ways you can combat that is to switch more pick and rolls but to do that you’ve got to have size at position that can switch on to bigger guys and you’ve got to have mobile bigs," Van Gundy said. "There’s always this back and forth. Offenses start doing things and you’ve got to be able to defend it. My brother’s (Jeff) been saying it for the last four or five years and he’s right, what you’ve got to try to build is the most versatile roster you can."
And on that end, they are not quite there. Like everyone else, the Pistons could use more shooting and perhaps another playmaker on the wing. Perhaps that will be Johnson in time. But Van Gundy believes that he has the core players in place. Jackson has lived up to his big contract and Drummond has made such a huge leap that people have legitimately wondered if it’s he, and not Anthony Davis or DeMarcus Cousins, who is the next great big man cornerstone.
"We’re making progress," Van Gundy said. "We still have a ways to go. We’ve got a team that we really like attitude-wise, culture-wise, work ethic wise, but we’re still young and we still have to supplement it as we go forward. I do feel like we’ve got a core that we can build around now. We’re not going to make wholesale changes and things like that. The amount of roster turnover now will slow down a great deal and hopefully use the offseason to supplement what we have now."
So, now it’s up to the players to execute his vision.
"It feels like coach is really putting the puzzle pieces together," Jackson said. "We’re all coming together. Now it’s going to be about us growing together maturing to the point where we know what it takes night in and night out no matter who we play or where we play, we’re going to play our brand of basketball. We’re still figuring that out. I think we have an understanding of who we are but we’ve got to be a group of guys that’s willing to display who we are each and every night."
Just like their coach.
Anyone can put together a list of their top five players (in some order: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook) but that’s always a matter of debate. What can’t be argued is a list of five players who interest me more than any other at this moment. Hey, it’s my column and this is my list.
Carmelo Anthony: Melo is scoring less, rebounding more and becoming a better and more willing playmaker for a Knicks team that has already surpassed last season’s win total. At age 31, Anthony seems to finally be embracing the role so many have wanted from him over the years. He’s still a devastating scorer, but he’s also trusting his teammates and seems to have formed a kinship with rookie phenom Kristaps Porzingis. It was not lost on veteran Knick watchers that Melo came to the rookie’s aid after Atlanta’s Kent Bazemore got in the Zinger’s face. If this truly is the new and improved Melo then the Knicks have something real to build around: A great player willingly giving himself to the process.
DeMar DeRozan: Long a piñata for the analytically inclined, DeRozan has finally succeeded in becoming an above-average player in terms of efficiency as Shootaround friend John Schuhmann noted. But DeRozan hasn’t become a better three-point shooter and he still plays in isolation as much as anyone in the league. What DeRozan has done is limit his amount of low-percentage jump shots and increase his number of drives. That, in turn, has increased his number of free throw attempts. All of that is very important for a Raptor team that lives and dies with the shot creation of DeRozan and his backcourt mate, Kyle Lowry, who together take over 40 percent of the team’s shots. If Toronto is going to break through the first round of the playoffs it will need both of them to be at their best.
Jimmy Butler: You can make a strong case that Butler is the league’s best two-guard. He’s a far better defender than James Harden and he carries more of an offensive burden than Klay Thompson. He’s also coming into his own as a leader for a Chicago team that is balancing the end of the Tom Thibodeau era with the beginning of the Fred Hoiberg one. Butler made waves after calling out his coach a few weeks back, but he’s backed up his words with a number of strong performances. Butler’s star is on the rise. How he and the rest of the Bulls handle his ascent will be one of the more compelling storylines of the second half of the season.
Damian Lillard: For the first time in his career, the Blazer point guard was forced to sit out games while he dealt with plantar fasciitis. For the first time since his rookie season, Lillard is also playing on a team with a losing record. He’s carrying a heavier burden than he ever has, but he also has a young and spry supporting cast that is hanging around the fringes of the Western Conference playoff race. If there’s one thing we know about Lillard it’s that he will concede nothing, be it All-Star appearances, his place in the game or a longshot chance at returning to the postseason. This year is the hard part for Lillard and Portland, but it sure looks like better days are ahead for the player and his franchise.
Rudy Gobert: When last we saw the Stifle Tower, the Jazz were a game over .500 and reinforcing their identity as one of the best young defensive teams in the league. Then he went down with a knee injury and the Jazz scuffled their way to a 7-11 record that saw them give up more than seven points more per 100 possessions. Despite also losing Derrick Favors and Alec Burks, that run of mediocrity kept them in control of the final playoff spot in the West. Now Gobert is back and Utah has the look of a classic spoiler, provided it can recapture its defensive mojo with the big man anchoring the middle.
"This (season) is really a justified farewell to perhaps the best player in franchise history. And, God-willing, he's going to want to play every game and he’s going to want to play a lot of minutes in every game, because that’s just the way he is. And as long as that continues, which it should, then that’s 30-35 minutes that you might give to a young player that you can’t. How do you get a feel for your team going forward when you know that your best player is not going to be there next year? So it's really hard to go forward until he's no longer here." -- Laker GM Mitch Kupchak about guess who.
Reaction: Well, at least Kupchak admits it. He’s right, of course, but that doesn’t make the second half of the season any less strange for the Lakers. It’s in their best interest to lose as much as possible and retain their draft pick that’s only protected through the first three spots. It’s also in their long-term interest to develop their young players. Ordinarily the two things are intertwined: Play the kids and take your lumps. It’s a tricky balancing act the Lakers are trying to pull off.
"At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how many games Kyrie played. He’s an All-Star player. That’s not a question. He’s, if not the best, one or two best point guards in our league, along with Steph. So, I mean, that’s not even a question. But I think, and I’m going to continue to harp on it, he’s much more than just an All-Star. He’s much better than that." -- LeBron James on Kyrie Irving.
Reaction: The backstory here is that Washington guard John Wall called the All-Star voting process a joke after Irving led in the early returns despite missing a good chunk of the season while rehabbing from offseason surgery. On Wednesday, Irving had his response by outplaying Wall and LeBron offered the final word.
"Since the lineup change, we play certain ways and keep shuffling things to try to figure out how to get us going. Sometimes you've got to stick to something and make it clear. But at the same time during the flow when I don't feel like anybody is making plays, I don't feel like I've got to be a playmaker and just keep passing it and keep passing it. That makes me very passive and I end up being less aggressive. If I'm not aggressive and I'm not shooting shots — if I end up taking five or six shots in a half — that's not going to take us anywhere. I've got to force the issue." -- Memphis center Marc Gasol.
Reaction: Forcing plays is not Gasol’s usual method, but with frustration comes the need to change and the Grizzlies need something to get headed back in the right direction.
"We’re never going to make up for Blake’s production with one guy. So it's kind of like by committee. But I think somebody said it best after the Utah game -- it's about starring in your role." -- Clipper guard J.J. Redick to David Aldridge in his weekly column.
Reaction: I haven’t given up on the Clippers yet and I still think they’ll be a pain in the neck to play against during the postseason because of their star power. Their recent surge without Blake Griffin in encouraging, but they will need to have the full package on display when it counts.
"We’re at the bottom of our conference. We’re at the bottom of the league, really. For us to think that we could be able to come out and coast through a game, I don’t understand that. I don’t know where that would even come from that we would think that we could do that." -- Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry after a home loss to the shorthanded Mavericks.
Reaction: The Pels aren’t quite at the bottom but they can see it from where they are in the standings. Injuries aside, their downfall has been astonishing. I’ve taken the long view on the Pelicans roster for years, but it’s become clear that this will require a full overhaul to get the kinds of players Gentry needs to make his system successful.