30 Teams in 30 Days: Detroit Pistons focus on unclear future


What offseason?

That’s a question many fans ask as the flurry of trades, free-agent news and player movement seems to never stop during the summer. Since the Golden State Warriors claimed their third title in four years back on June 8, NBA teams have undergone a massive number of changes as they prepare for the season ahead.

With the opening of training camps just around the corner, NBA.com’s Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise as it sits today—from the team with the worst regular-season record in 2017-18 to the team with the best regular-season record—as we look at 30 teams in 30 days.

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Today’s team: Detroit Pistons

2017-18 Record: 39-43, did not qualify for the playoffs

Who’s new: Coach Dwane Casey, Zaza Pachulia (free agency), Jose Calderon (free agency), Glenn Robinson III (free agency), Bruce Brown (Draft)

Who’s gone: Coach Stan Van Gundy, Anthony Tolliver

The lowdown: Not even a blockbuster midseason trade for an All-Star forward could help the Pistons do a 180-degree turn or prevent a front-office housecleaning. Blake Griffin arrived from the LA Clippers and understandably suffered from culture and climate shock, yet was tagged with the responsibility of saving the Pistons’ season and Van Gundy’s job. He managed to do neither, and perhaps the request was a bit too ambitious anyway.

While Griffin managed a decent working relationship next to All-Star center Andre Drummond, the Pistons couldn’t muster any momentum to at least reach the playoffs in a watered-down Eastern Conference. That’s because point guard Reggie Jackson only played 45 games because of injury once again, and Detroit continued to receive marginal at best results from former lottery picks. As a result, owner Tom Gores finally reached the end of his patience and the billionaire owner made a long-expected decision to remove Van Gundy as coach and team president.

What the heck happened? Why didn’t Van Gundy work out? Start with rolling the clock back four years.

Van Gundy was unemployed but in demand as a coach, having done decent work for half a decade with the Orlando Magic. The Pistons removed longtime GM Joe Dumars from power and suddenly, a rare opportunity arose. Van Gundy wanted personnel control along with the coaching job so he could avoid the kind of messy problems he had with Dwight Howard in Orlando. The Pistons gave him both roles and final say in all personnel matters, something that only San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and Clippers coach Doc Rivers had at the time.

Four years later, Van Gundy missed the postseason three times and never won a playoff game.

He inherited a mess, sure, but Van Gundy had a spotty performance with both jobs. With the exception of Griffin—who’ll cost the Pistons a ton as he gets older—Van Gundy never found a foundational player (as Drummond was originally drafted under the Dumars regime).

Perhaps his biggest move was trading for Jackson in 2015, who has been healthy for only one of three seasons in Detroit. The Draft overall was a big whiff as well, with Stanley Johnson (over Myles Turner and Devin Booker in 2015), Henry Ellison (over Malcolm Brogdon in 2016) and Luke Kennard (one spot ahead of Donovan Mitchell in 2017) being Van Gundy’s first-round picks. All seem, at best, rotational filler right now.

He did get Tobias Harris (later included in the Griffin deal) on the cheap, yet gave out-sized contracts in free agency to Jon Leuer and Boban Marjanovic. Essentially, the Pistons roster was a mix of underachievers and role players, along with a gimpy guard and a center who did become an All-Star, yet never advanced much offensively.

After dismissing Van Gundy, Gores chose to keep the two jobs separate and hired Ed Stefanski, a veteran executive, to run the club. Stefanski wisely waited on the coaching search, and sure enough, a good candidate turned up on radar.

Casey became available because his biggest crime in Toronto was an inability to beat LeBron James in the playoffs. In a bizarre, almost comical scene that may never be repeated, Casey was congratulated by the Pistons and Raptors on social media for winning Coach of the Year.

Casey won 59 games with the Raptors partly because he made changes to his system (his team also had perfect health, which helped). A strong communicator who, as a Mavericks assistant coach devised a game plan to stop LeBron in the 2011 Finals, Casey brings much to the job.

What he won’t have is a lottery pick to mentor. The Pistons surrendered their No. 1 in the Griffin deal and they’ll forge ahead with virtually the same roster as last season. At least they’ll have Griffin for a full season and maybe that, along with Casey’s touch, will be the difference between getting into the postseason or missing the cut. The East is weaker if only because LeBron going West means the Cavs won’t be a title contender and should fall back to the pack.

With their second-round pick, the Pistons took Brown, who could get looks at point guard and did have encouraging moments in NBA Summer League.

They were cap-strapped, for the most part, because of deals to Griffin, Drummond and Jackson, so their free-agent options were limited. They came to the market with coupons and came away with rotation filler: Pachulia, Calderon and Robinson III, the youngest of this bunch by far at 24.

The Pistons will need maybe a few more years to completely remake their team and distance themselves from the Van Gundy regime. But getting a coach with Casey’s track record seems like a good start. Eventually they need to determine if Griffin is truly a foundational piece, or merely a massive contract that needs to be moved.

Coming Next: LA Clippers

By Shaun Powell

First appeared on NBA.com

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