Stan Van Gundy: the executive vs the coach

Sep 29, 2014; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy during media day at the Pistons practice facility. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 29, 2014; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy during media day at the Pistons practice facility. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports /

There’s an idea that quite regularly floats around Pistons fans. It’s the notion that Stan Van Gundy has been a very good coach but has left a lot to be desired in his front office role. To the former point, there were even people pushing his candidacy for Coach of the Year last season. Somehow, this perspective has always seemed a bit off. So here is a closer look at his Pistons track record in each role.

As an executive:
drafted Spencer Dinwiddie 38th overall
signed Jodie Meeks to $19M/3 yrs
signed D.J. Augustin $6M/2 yrs
signed Cartier Martin to $2.5M/2 yrs with a player option for the second season
signed Caron Butler to $9M/2 yrs with a team option for the second season
traded Will Bynum for Joel Anthony
signed Greg Monroe to qualifying offer
traded Tony Mitchell for Anthony Tolliver
waived-and-stretched Josh Smith
signed John Lucas III to a minimum, remainder of the season contract
traded Kyle Singler, D.J. Augustin, a 2017 second-round pick, and a 2019 second-round pick for Reggie Jackson
traded Luigi Datome and Jonas Jerebko for Tayshaun Prince
claimed Shawne Williams off of waivers
signed Quincy Miller to a minimum, two-year contract with the second season essentially a team option

traded Caron Butler and Shawne Williams for Ersan Ilyasova
drafted Stanley Johnson 8th overall
drafted Darrun Hilliard 38th overall
fully guaranteed Anthony Tolliver’s contract at $3M/1 yr instead of waiving him for just $400K
signed Aaron Baynes to $19M/3 yrs with a player option for the third season
traded a 2020 second-round pick for Marcus Morris, Reggie Bullock, and Danny Granger
re-signed Joel Anthony to $5M/2 yrs
re-signed Reggie Jackson to $80M/5 yrs
traded Quincy Miller for Steve Blake

I don’t think I missed anything. If I did, feel free to let me know in the comments. There are obviously some more moves coming. If nothing else, Van Gundy has to determine who is cut from the maximum roster size of 15 players.

Depending on how Brandon Jennings is progressing, it would also be unsurprising to see a move to add another veteran point guard

. Update: the Pistons have in fact traded for Steve Blake.

Most of these moves are pretty insignificant. Short of some shocking development, the defining moves (or lack thereof) of Van Gundy’s tenure have been those involving Josh Smith, Reggie Jackson, Greg Monroe, and Stanley Johnson. The lack of enthusiasm about his executive track record is understandable. It hasn’t been awful, but really the only moves that have potential to be big wins were Jackson and Johnson. And those are long shots to be more than solid moves. Josh Smith was a disaster unless Baynes can somehow make himself a highly desirable asset well before the player option arrives. Stan never had a great shot of making much of the Monroe situation. But it resolved pretty much as poorly as is theoretically possible. Even if you think that Monroe fit so poorly on the Pistons that he caused them to win fewer games than they otherwise would have and landed them a better draft pick, odds are strong that Stanley Johnson still would have been on the board a couple picks lower.

But how about Van Gundy’s coaching?

This is the part where the common assessment baffles me. Van Gundy undoubtedly had some good stretches where he got a lot more out of the talent on the roster than his predecessors had. However, he did his best work whenever he lost a major piece (Josh Smith or Greg Monroe). That speaks to his ability to milk a lot of production out of some underwhelming players. But it also speaks to a serious lack of imagination or creativity in working with talent that doesn’t ideally fit his game plan. Furthermore, given that he didn’t have to give players minutes just because they were on the team, it shows a lack of chutzpah in sitting talented guys to field a roster he can do more with. That’s understandable for a coach who is afraid of management. But Van Gundy is the GM! He’s not instructing himself as coach that he absolutely must play certain guys at least so many minutes. And he doesn’t have to fear firing himself.

In other words, Van Gundy is good at coaching certain types of players and lineups. But he is disgracefully bad at dealing with situations that don’t match up with his ideal notions. That’s a problem. Because in the NBA, you often have to take opportunities and assets where you can find them. You can’t be rigid and hope that everything just lines up perfectly for you. That greatly diminishes the already slim probability any given team has at forming a contender.

It appears that Van Gundy has talent but extreme limitations in his coaching ability. As a GM, he recognizes that and has made moves to accommodate himself. His GM record may be poor in a vacuum, but given his coaching difficulties, they’re actually pretty good. This is best illustrated with Josh Smith. Van Gundy had to remove Smith from the team because he lacks the self-control not to hand out big minutes to talented players even when he lacks the innovative prowess to make the situation work.

I have been (I think quite reasonably) hard on Van Gundy the GM. He has made a lot of head-scratching moves. But maybe he is actually a pretty good GM and an overrated coach. It is his inflexibility in the latter role which created a context necessitating some otherwise dubious front office moves. Van Gundy has mostly remade the roster by this point, though. Hopefully that means that he can now stick to making moves that would be good in a vacuum and aren’t just accommodating Stan Van Gundy the coach.

Who knows if this is all true. Maybe the conventional notion is right and the 5-23 opening to last season was mostly a fluke. But it’s an alternate perspective worthy of consideration.

Next: CBS Sports gives Pistons' offseason A, B- grades

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