Stan Van Gundy was less than 30 seconds into his first press conference as the Pistons’ coach and director of basketball operations, and his voice was already hoarse.
But that’s par for the course. Basketball coaches always sound like they’ve been screaming bloody murder for days on end.
Listening to Van Gundy speak today at the Palace, two things came to mind. One was, get that guy a Sucrets. The other, was that Detroit is going to love this guy.
Van Gundy fits perfectly in what the Detroit sports fans crave in their coaches.
They like the fiery, no-nonsense type. The athletes can be quiet leaders of few words—Steve Yzerman, Barry Sanders, Nicklas Lidstrom and Calvin Johnson come to mind—but the coaches need to be engaged and have some hothead in them.
Based on that description alone, Van Gundy will win over many a fan, initially.
Van Gundy spoke with urgency, energy and fire, and if any franchise in this town needs that in its leader, it’s the Pistons.
The fan base is dwindling. Worse, they’re flat-out bored and disinterested.
There’s nothing boring about Van Gundy. Maybe the most exciting part about him is that he has never had a losing record as a coach. His .641 winning percentage ranks in the top five of coaches with at least 500 NBA games under their belt.
In the late-1980s, when the Lions were again stumbling and bumbling through the NFL, owner Bill Ford levied a most damning indictment against his football team.
“We’re losing,” Ford said as he made his way past the media in the press box after yet another loss, “but worse than that, we’re boring.”
Not long after uttering those words, Ford gave coach Darryl Rogers an overdue ziggy.
The Pistons have been losing for five years, and they’ve been boring—unless you count player revolts, a flavor-of-the-month coaching plan and the death of the owner and subsequent sale as exciting stuff.
No one comes to the games anymore, but that’s nothing new. Detroit has always been a front-runner’s town when it comes to pro basketball. Unlike its three brethren in football, baseball and hockey, the Pistons don’t get love unless they’re winning. It’s been that way ever since the team moved here from Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1957.
When you consider that the Pistons haven’t made the playoffs since 2009, the hemorrhaging of fans in five years from an already shaky base is significant.
Van Gundy will return some lost interest in the Pistons. He will be front and center, and not just because he is wearing two hats. His is a big personality, matching his physical girth. He won’t be a wallflower, operating in clandestine fashion behind the scenes. His face won’t end up on the side of a milk carton upon the first long losing streak.
It would be that way if Van Gundy was only coaching, or if he was only in the front office. There isn’t any run away-and-hide in him.
That was proven when Van Gundy went shoulder to stomach with Dwight Howard in Orlando. The coach lost, but he didn’t go down without a fight—nor without some hard truths about the All-Star center.
Howard, by the way, now counts himself as a Van Gundy fan, after further review.
This hire isn’t about whether Van Gundy can do both jobs—and Lord knows we’ll be hearing that question being asked relentlessly over the next several months.
This is about the Pistons frantically waving their arms and saying, “Look at us! We’re the Pistons! Pay attention to us!”
But that’s being a little unfair, too.
The Pistons needed a high profile hire at either coach or GM in the wake of the non-renewal of former president Joe Dumars’ contract last month. They ended up getting a high profile guy at both jobs, so hats off to Tom Gores.
That’s right, I said it. As someone who has been less than kind and thrilled with the Pistons owner, I must admit that he hit a home run here.
I was concerned that Gores, who I viewed as a clown of an owner, wouldn’t have the acumen to hire the right people after Dumars’ departure.
I was wrong.
Stan Van Gundy has respect, a fine track record and he’s refreshed after being away from the game for two years.
He can coach, big time.
This is the Pistons’ best hire at coach since Flip Saunders in 2005, and some cynics might go back two years earlier, to Larry Brown.
The dual hat thing even has some national people who don’t follow or cover the Pistons wringing their hands.
But I would ask them, how much worse can it get?
I’ll roll the dice with a coach who has a .641 winning percentage any day. I’ll gamble that he knows enough about the players in the league that he can cobble together a workable roster.
This isn’t Matt Millen, redux.
Millen, the atrocity of a president with the Lions, not only had zero GM experience, he had never coached. So he didn’t have an aura about him—a presence that would automatically attract good football people without any coercion or major sell jobs.
Van Gundy, on the other hand, will have little trouble, I believe, in attracting quality basketball people to Detroit—and that simply wasn’t possible under the previous administration, anymore. Dumars was too tarnished by the time his contract ran out.
So this won’t be Van Gundy doing two jobs. It will be Van Gundy coaching—and he’ll attract quality assistants as well—and a presumably sharp front office staff being the new man’s eyes and ears on a day-to-day basis.
This won’t be Millen, who hoarded power and who tried to take on too much by himself. The most egregious example was hiring a rookie head coach, which made things worse.
People already seem to have this misconception that Van Gundy will conduct practice in the morning, run upstairs to change from sweats to a suit in the afternoon to be the front office guy, and then race down to the floor to coach that night’s game, skipping lunch and dinner.
It won’t work that way, folks.
There’ll be quality (assumption) people in the offices, doing the grunt work, and reporting to Van Gundy at the end of the day.
It’s very doable. Frankly, I wonder why more NBA teams don’t try this model, which has been very effective in San Antonio and Miami, as Van Gundy pointed out in Thursday’s presser.
I’ll go you one further and say that more teams will go this route before too long.
Through it all, Pistons fans will enjoy Van Gundy’s blue-collar, no-nonsense manner of coaching and they’ll enjoy seeing the top dog in the front office not shying away from the cameras and microphones.
Dave Dombrowski with the Tigers, Kenny Holland with the Red Wings and even Marty Mayhew with the Lions aren’t afraid to show their faces on a regular basis.
You can now add Stan Van Gundy to that group.
This is all well and good, but of course there is a roster that needs some overhauling. There is a losing culture that needs to be discarded. There is a certain restricted free agent big man who needs to be addressed.
But at least we won’t be looking under rocks to find the man who is making the decisions.