Stan Van Gundy’s rollercoaster season

Mar 27, 2017; New York, NY, USA; Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy argues a call during the first quarter against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 27, 2017; New York, NY, USA; Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy argues a call during the first quarter against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports /

After finally bringing the team back to the playoffs and predictions almost universally saying the Detroit Pistons would improve again this season, it’s been a much tougher ride for Stan Van Gundy than first expected.

Every NBA season has its ups and downs, even for top-tier teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. These ups and downs come out you even faster and harder when you’re a young and inexperienced team like the Detroit Pistons.

Stan Van Gundy has been around coaching ranks for long enough to know how to roll with the punches, but the sporadic nature of the Pistons this season as managed to test even him at times.

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With the Pistons slumping even further back in the race for the playoffs it seems that Van Gundy has been dealt one of the ultimate lows of massively under performing with a team that should be capable of so much more.

Some fans will see this and call for Van Gundy’s head.

While this is an absurd notion, it is an understandable one as firing a head coach is basically the natural knee-jerk reaction to a season like this.

Van Gundy is by far the best coach the Pistons have had in many years and it would be incredibly premature to even entertain the thought of firing him for a second, but we do need to admit that he should share some of the blame for how this season has progressed.

Despite being swept at the hands of the Cavaliers, Van Gundy and the Pistons went into the offseason on a high on the back of making the playoffs for the first time since 2009 and showing a hell of a lot of fight.

The most pressing issue of the offseason was re-signing Andre Drummond, which they got out of the way almost immediately.

Van Gundy’s focus then turned to bolstering the Pistons’ bench after having the worst backup unit in the entire league.

His efforts netted the Pistons Ish Smith, Jon Leuer and Boban Majanovic.

Smith was a massive upgrade over Steve Blake and Leuer’s skill set offered the Pistons a lot more then Anthony Tolliver, while Marjanovic had the tantalising potential to become a monster.

Van Gundy’s work in the front office over the offseason couldn’t bee seen as anything other than a positive.

The rollercoaster ride didn’t properly begin until October 5, when it was discovered that Reggie Jackson‘s tendinitis in his left knee would require surgery, meaning he would miss crucial practice time with the team as well as the first 21 games of the season.

This threw the Pistons’ plans awry, forcing Ish Smith to take over the starting role and the team to bring in Ray McCallum and Lorenzo Brown to battle it out for the backup role. (McCallum appeared to win the battle, but the Pistons brought in Beno Udrih at the last second before the season.)

Van Gundy was able to recover well from this speed bump however, and retooled the team for the start of the season.

The Pistons went 11-10 across the first 21 games, a major win with the team’s number one point guard sitting on the sidelines.

Van Gundy’s first, and arguably biggest misstep of the season came next.

After not having played any competitive basketball since April 24th, Jackson was thrown straight into the fire as he returned to face the Orlando Magic on December 4th.

It had been over seven months since Jackson had last played and he was immediately expected to contribute as a starter despite missing crucial practice time and pre-season games to gel with the new squad, as well his conditioning being far worse than last season.

In his first eight games post-injury he averaged 14.3 points, 4.8 assists, 2 turnovers and 38.7 per cent shooting from the field.

These stats weren’t horrendous, but it was clear that it wasn’t the same Reggie Jackson we saw earlier in 2016.

The Pistons also went 3-5 across this stretch and some players took exception to his play, resulting in the infamous “players-only” meeting that occurred after Jackson had played just his eighth game returning from injury.

While Van Gundy condemned this meeting and defended Jackson, his decision to throw him into the deep end with no preparation undoubtedly played a part in tensions boiling over.

Van Gundy seemed to learn from this, as a good coach does, and became much more flexible with his lineups as the season progressed.

Most notably he moved an under-performing Tobias Harris to the bench for Jon Leuer, which ignited Harris and turned him into one of the best bench players in the league.

He would then experiment with switching Harris and Leuer depending on match ups, and most recently he sent Jackson to the bench for Smith.

Last season Van Gundy stuck to his rotations vigilantly, so it has been a breath of fresh air to see him tinkering with things.

One of his biggest adjustments was how he handles Jackson and Smith.

It became evident that Jackson was getting gassed at times and it was having a huge impact on the teams’ offence, so Van Gundy switched to using him in shorter bursts, allowing the team to take advantage of Jackson’s quickness and speed.

While Van Gundy gets a tick for the way he’s adapted his rotations and lineups this season, his use of Stanley Johnson has been sketchy at best.

At the beginning of the season it seemed like Johnson’s direct instructions from the head coach were to focus solely on defending and not worry about scoring.

This resulted in Johnson looking like someone who was afraid to even touch the ball, let alone shoot it.

Johnson has also seen his minutes drop from his rookie to sophomore season, and as a result everything else has dropped too.

He’s fallen from playing 23.1 minutes a night to 17, and is averaging less points, assists and rebounds.

Johnson has been so out of favour at times this season he’s received three DNPs.

He was also suspended for violating team rules.

After Johnson’s third DNP, which came against the Brooklyn Nets, it seems like his frustration reached a boiling point and is now taking to social media to vent.

It has become routine for Johnson to like tweets criticising Van Gundy’s decisions to play him less and it appears that the pair are on rocky terms.

He also sent a cryptic string of letters in a tweet after the Pistons’ loss to the Knicks, which just so happened to feature “SVG” right in the middle of it.

Of course, we have no idea what goes on behind the scenes and this is all just speculation at the moment.

What is most intriguing is how this rollercoaster season will finish for Stan Van Gundy.

Whether the team makes the playoffs or not will almost certainly have no effect on what he plans to do in the offseason, and it will be fascinating to see how he addresses the numerous issues that have popped up in the past year.

Next: It's time to shut Reggie Jackson down for the season

The next few months are shaping up to be some of the most interesting in recent history for the Pistons and are sure to be just as much of a rollercoaster ride as the rest of this season.