Published July 19, 2016
The New York Yankees had the Core Four.
They were players around whom several championship teams were built in the late-1990s, early-2000s.
Derek Jeter. Mariano Rivera. Jorge Posada. Andy Pettitte.
That quartet helped put rings on many a Yankees player’s finger.
They’re all retired now, and today the Yankees’ core looks more like that of an eaten Big Apple.
The Pistons had a Core Four, too.
Isiah Thomas. Joe Dumars. Bill Laimbeer. Vinnie Johnson.
This was the group around whom the powerhouse Pistons teams of the late-1980s (and 1990) were built.
Two were drafted by the Pistons (Thomas, Dumars) and the others arrived in 1981 trades—early in GM Jack McCloskey’s marvelous era—one that should have put Trader Jack in the Basketball Hall of Fame by now.
The Pistons’ Core Four stayed together for an entire decade, capturing two world titles and coming close to a third–and maybe a fourth, if it wasn’t for an errant pass in the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals.
The Core stayed intact while McCloskey tinkered with the surrounding parts.
The Pistons needed a power forward in 1984 so McCloskey pried Dan Roundfield (CMU) from Atlanta.
Roundfield was a Piston for one year. He didn’t pan out so he was out and Ricky Mahorn, from Washington, was in.
The Pistons needed low post scoring in 1986 so Kelly Tripucka, allergic to the paint, was out, and Adrian Dantley (Utah) was in.
The Pistons offense was bogged down a few years later and in one of the boldest trades in NBA history, Dantley was out and Mark Aguirre (Dallas) was in.
Other pieces were added and lopped off, as needed.
James Edwards, in. Kurt Nimphius, out.
John Salley and Dennis Rodman, drafted.
Other, smaller parts came through Detroit, wore the Pistons jersey for a period of games, and moved on.
McCloskey knew when to buy. More importantly, he knew when to sell. He wasn’t afraid to admit an error and move on. He didn’t let foolish pride stand between the team and greatness.
McCloskey tinkered and played chemist, looking for the right mix.
It culminated in five straight trips to the conference finals (1987-91), two championships and a near-miss.
All this, from the dregs of a bare cupboard left for him by Dick Vitale in 1979.
Why this transformation from a team that was essentially an expansion club, to a championship contender in less than 10 years, hasn’t put McCloskey into the HOF, is beyond me. And it’s not like that’s all Jack did in basketball.
He was a damn fine coach in the college ranks in the 1960s, as well—along with being a trusted NBA assistant for the likes of Jerry West and Slick Leonard.
Jack is past 90 now and if they wait too long, it’s going to be posthumous, and that would be a crime—and shameful.
The Pistons of today have a Core Five.
Reggie Jackson. Andre Drummond. Tobias Harris. Marcus Morris. And I’m including Stanley Johnson in this quintet.
These are five young players whose contracts indicate they’ll be Pistons for several years to come.
In today’s NBA, this kind of grouping, when it comes to the contract situations, is almost unheard of.
Stan Van Gundy, the Pistons’ boss who wears the hats of coach and president, wields power that some coaches can only fantasize about. He’s been on the job for two-plus years and the roster from when he took over in 2014 is unrecognizable today—which is a good thing.
The summer free agency period is basically over with and Van Gundy kept his Core Five together. He even signed Drummond, the Pistons’ man-child and franchise player, to a much-anticipated long-term extension.
Now all the Core Five has to do is win—and all Van Gundy has to do is tinker, which is what he’s done with his July signings.
Check that—Van Gundy also has to be patient.
SVG needs to let his new concoction brew. He needs to give it time.
He can add and subtract all he wants around the Core Five, but he’d better not touch the core itself.
Van Gundy has shown a McCloskey-like desire to pull the trigger, even if that means trading someone who was a Piston for less than a year—Ersan Ilyasova—for Harris.
Van Gundy has also shown that he likes the power with which he wields, and that as a coach, it’s delicious to be able to design your own roster.
But with that power comes responsibility.
If the Pistons get off to a mediocre start—or worse—in 2016-17, it will be interesting to see whether SVG has the patience to leave his core alone, or if he will be tempted to try more trades, contracts willing.
The Core Five needs time to jell. It’s an intriguing quintet and it could become a power in the Eastern Conference.
Van Gundy just needs to let it breathe.
Just because you can make major changes, doesn’t mean that you have to, or that you should.
The first stage of the Pistons makeover is pretty much complete. Van Gundy took a team that hadn’t made the playoffs since 2009 and in less than two years, turned it into a winning organization.
The 2015-16 Pistons, it could be argued, played the world champion Cleveland Cavaliers as tough as anyone did in the playoffs, despite the four-game sweep.
The first stage of the makeover is done, and the next stage is the toughest for a man with Van Gundy’s front office girth.
The Pistons are onto something here, but it ought not be broken up too soon.
I think that Stan Van Gundy has done, overall, a marvelous job as coach and president of the Pistons. You might say that he’s been a better president than he has a coach, to be honest.
Coach Van Gundy has his core. He has an improved bench with which to work. The starters shouldn’t play as many minutes next season as they did in ’15-16.
It’s all set up for the coach to embark on Stage Two of the Pistons makeover with great success.
Let’s see if President Van Gundy can sit on his hands long enough to let the coach do his job.