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From rebuilding to playoffs: How Van Gundy transformed the Pistons

Anthony Cardamone, Sports Editor

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In professional sports, there’s one inevitable stage every franchise is tasked with at some point: rebuilding. This phase is a result of a star player departing from a team, or failed trades and free agent signings. Teams will undergo losing seasons to receive high draft picks and have more cap space to spend on free agents as a direct result of a lower payer payroll. While it can, and often is successful, rebuilding can be a long and painful process if the franchise’s top executive decision makers do not guide the process in the right direction.

And that’s what happened to the Detroit Pistons. After the trade of All-Star point guard Chauncy Billups to the Denver Nuggets, the decline of many key players, and unsuccessful signings of Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, the Pistons abruptly entered a rebuilding stage following 7 consecutive winnings seasons and 8 playoffs appearances. However, general manager Joe Dumars failed to provide a concrete vision for the team’s future success.

A change was desperately needed for the Pistons, and it needed to be a fantastic one. Billionaire owner Tom Gores did just that. On May 14th, 2014, it was announced the Pistons had hired Stan Van Gundy to not only be the team’s head coach, but also top decision maker as President of Basketball Operations. Van Gundy was the top head coach available on the market, and possesses a basketball genius that deemed him worthy to be President of Basketball Operations.

Fast forward nearly two years, and the Pistons transformed from a 32-50 record in 2014-2015 to 44-38 and the 8th playoff seed in 2015-2016. Only 2 players, Andre Drummond and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, remain on the roster from when Van Gundy took over.

So how did Van Gundy turn the franchise around from one of the NBA’s most undesirable franchises to one of the best up-and-coming teams?

First, he developed a vision for how the team can be successful, and then built upon it. Andre Drummond, 22, is developing into one of the NBA’s best, and Van Gundy built his team around the 7-foot center. Dating back to his days as the head of coach of the Miami Heat and Orlando Magic, Van Gundy has always had a skilled center in the paint surrounded by four three-point shooters on the three-point line. This system has been extremely successful throughout the NBA. If the opposing team pays too much attention to the center, the ball would be passed to wide-open players at the three-point line who can then shoot a three pointer. If the opposing team pays to much attention to the players on the three point line, they can then pass the ball to the center inside the paint for an easy basket.

The Pistons had previously been among the NBA’s worst three-point shooting teams prior to Van Gundy’s reign, shooting just 32%, so Van Gundy went all-out in acquiring as many players who can shoot the three-point shot effectively. He started by acquiring guard Jodie Meeks and forward Caron Butler, both 40% shooters from beyond the arc.

The 2014-2015 season looked promising under Van Gundy’s first year leadership, but unexpected struggles ensued. When Van Gundy took over, he failed to trade Greg Monroe, another skilled center who plays the same position as Drummond. This threw off Van Gundy’s three-point offensive system as he slotted both players in the starting lineup, neither of whom can shoot the three-point shot.

Monroe would later head to the Milwaukee Bucks in free agency following the 2014-2015 season, and Van Gundy was tasked with finding a power forward who can shoot the three-point shot at a high level, known as a stretch four. He came through, and acquired Ersan Ilyasova, a former 45% three-point shooter. Van Gundy could now fully utilize his offensive system.

However, the Pistons were still in dire need of a small forward. Van Gundy pulled off one of best trades in recent NBA years, acquiring Marcus Morris for a 2020 second round draft pick. Morris, 25, had previously averaged 10 points in just 25 minutes per game with the Phoenix Suns, but would play 35 minutes per game for the Pistons. The Pistons had also selected small forward Stanley Johnson with the 8th pick in the 2015 draft, a 42% three-point shooter who one of college basketball’s best defenders with the University of Arizona.

Coming into the 2015-2016 season, Van Gundy and his staff had fielded a solid, playoff-caliber team for the first time since 2007-2008 of the following:

PG: Reggie Jackson/Brandon Jennings/Steve Blake/Spencer Dinwiddie

SG: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope/Jodie Meeks/Reggie Bullock

SF: Marcus Morris/Stanley Johnson

PF: Ersan Illyasova/Anthony Tolliver

C: Andre Drummond/Aron Baynes/Joel Anthony

This was no championship team, but it was a start. It was the beginning of a spirited return to the NBA postseason, but not without a fight.

At the time of the NBA trade deadline, the Pistons had fallen to 27-27 following a 4-game losing streak. Van Gundy realized he needed to make a change for his Pistons to stay in the playoff hunt. He made a bold move, trading Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings to the Orlando Magic in exchange for Tobias Harris. The 23-year old forward was averaging 13 points and 7 rebounds with Orlando through 49 games, and had just signed a 4-year contract with the team. Trading two key players for one was a high risk, high reward deal that thankfully, was of high reward to the Pistons. In 27 games in the Motor City, Harris averaged 16 points, 6 rebounds, and shot 47% from the field and 37% from the three-point line.

Detroit went 17-10 following the Harris trade, and secured the 8th and final playoff spot.

During their first postseason game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Pistons set out a lineup of:

PG: Reggie Jackson//Steve Blake/Spencer Dinwiddie

SG: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope/Jodie Meeks/Reggie Bullock

SF: Marcus Morris/Stanley Johnson

PF: Tobias Harris/Anthony Tolliver

C: Andre Drummond/Aron Baynes/Joel Anthony

Postseason basketball is back in Detroit, thanks to Stan Van Gundy.

Win or lose in the first round of the playoffs, fan morale will not be affected. Going forward, the future of Detroit basketball looks very bright, and many say they’re the best young, upcoming team in the NBA. All five of their starters are 26-and-under, and are yet to play their best basketball.

The Detroit Pistons franchise has historically been among the NBA’s most successful franchises, and they’ll be returning to that status very, very soon.

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From rebuilding to playoffs: How Van Gundy transformed the Pistons