CHICAGO — Stan Van Gundy had to know this wasn’t going to happen overnight.
When the former Miami Heat and Orlando Magic coach took on a joint role as the Detroit Pistons’ head coach and president of basketball operations, he was taking over a team that had been directionless for the better part of a decade, a once-dominant Eastern Conference contender destroyed by years of incompetence and mismanagement.
This Pistons team has talent. Andre Drummond is a blossoming superstar at the center position, and second-year shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope still has yet to tap into his potential. Van Gundy brought in veteran shooter Jodie Meeks, who has been sidelined to start the year. There are pieces there. But Monday’s 106-101 loss to the Bulls in Chicago showed that the team is still not where they need to be, and it’s unclear when they’ll get there.
“We didn’t guard anybody,” Van Gundy said matter-of-factly after the game. “We didn’t compete. You gotta play for 48 minutes. And then you got to get stops down the stretch and you got to make plays.”
At the top of the list of issues they need to solve is the clogged frontcourt rotation. Van Gundy has been starting Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith together, a unit that was a disaster last season and hasn’t been much better in the early going of the new one. In 53 minutes this season, they’re scoring just 98.8 points per 100 possessions when all three are on the floor, and Van Gundy is playing the three bigs together more out of necessity than out of effectiveness.
He went to the big lineup late not because it was working, but because he wanted to have all three players available.
”The problem I ran into, I actually didn’t want to break that lineup but I was afraid we’d need all of them needing a rest at the exact same time,” Van Gundy said.
Smith’s inconsistency and offensive liability is still a major problem for the Pistons. The veteran power forward is a capable defender, and he had a major impact on that end on Monday. But his shot selection is still awful. With just over three minutes to go in the fourth quarter, with the Pistons trailing by four, he jacked up a three-pointer with 10 seconds left on the shot clock that rimmed out.
Van Gundy is a notoriously hard man to please. He doesn’t dance around his displeasure with his team’s performance, and in his Orlando days, he was as widely known for his yelling in timeouts as he was for his playcalling. In large part, it seems like he took the Pistons job because of Drummond’s talent and the promise that he could do with the third-year center what he did with Dwight Howard in Orlando, turning him into a dominant force on the defensive end.
But it’s been a slow process. Drummond has remained terrific defensively, but has been slow to develop any kind of an offensive game. And the rest of the team has been testing Van Gundy’s patience, showing flashes of cohesion (like the run to erase the 19-point first-half deficit against Chicago) mixed in with plenty of frustration (the lackadaisical defensive effort that led to that hole in the first place). All of this has resulted in a 2-3 record and not a lot of encouraging signs that things are going to get better anytime soon.
“We know what we are capable of, we just have to do it for a full game,” Monroe said after the game. “We have the talent to play at that level of energy from the beginning to the end of the game. We just have to find a way to do that.”
Van Gundy signed a five-year deal, so he’s in this for the long haul. The team is still several roster moves from competing, and they have to do something about the frontcourt rotation. If there’s any coach who can turn this team around, it’s Van Gundy. But it’s going to take time.