When the Pistons signed Stan Van Gundy in 2014 to a five-year deal estimated to be worth $35 million, team owner Tom Gores boasted about the veteran coach’s credentials. “Stan is a proven winner in our league,” Gores told reporters. “Stan can help us shape the franchise and instill what it means to be the best.”
At the time, the signing was something of a coup. The Golden State Warriors, newly rid of Mark Jackson, had sought Van Gundy’s services on their bench. But the Pistons offered something the Bay Area club couldn’t—total control. After owning the early 2000s with stalwart defense and consistent leadership under general manager Joe Dumars, the back half of Detroit’s decade was marred by impulse signings, regrettable trades, and a series of failed coaches. By hiring Stan, the franchise seemed to signal a return to stability.
On Monday, the team cut ties with Van Gundy, no more successful than it was when it brought him in. In four seasons with Detroit, the coach went 152-176 and reached the playoffs only once—a four-game sweep at the hands of the Cavaliers in 2016. In his announcement of the decision, Gores sang a different tune than he had just four years ago. “[O]ver the past two seasons our team has not progressed,” his statement read. “[W]e decided that a change is necessary to regain our momentum.”
Van Gundy hadn’t coached since leaving the Magic in 2012, but his hiring was met with praise. He had no prior front-office experience, so he teamed up with longtime NBA exec Jeff Bower, and later, former power agent Arn Tellem, to aid the business side of the operation. In his dual roles as head coach and president of basketball operations, Van Gundy crested a wave of franchises that were consolidating power. Last season, five teams—the Hawks, Clippers, Pistons, Timberwolves, and Spurs—had head coaches who also served as the lead decision-makers in basketball ops. The coaches of two more teams—the Mavericks and Bucks—may not have had the title but held outsized influence in personnel decisions. After Monday, only four of those teams have retained their coach, and the Clippers stripped Doc Rivers of his front-office role last summer. Those who remain bring a mixed bag. Tom Thibodeau could be on the hot seat after his mission to rebuild the 2011 Bulls in Minneapolis resulted in a first-round drubbing against Houston. Rick Carlisle is overseeing a full rebuild in Dallas, and though San Antonio has been hailed as the standard for excellence over the past two decades, Gregg Popovich’s team faces its most difficult offseason of his tenure.
Early on, Van Gundy’s term seemed promising. He flipped D.J. Augustin, Kyle Singler, and a pair of second-round picks for Reggie Jackson, who’d go on to be the most dynamic guard the team had employed since Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton brought the ball up the floor. He stole Tobias Harris from the Magic for Ersan Ilyasova and a post-Achilles tear Brandon Jennings. He formed a fucking wall. But soon enough, the fruits of his labor turned sour.
Jackson was awarded a contract as lucrative as John Wall’s second deal (much to the Washington guard’s chagrin), and though he occasionally performed like a franchise cornerstone, his penchant for injury and insistence on playing hero ball sank the team. Langston Galloway, Jon Leuer, Boban Marjanovic, and Jodie Meeks all received deals that far outweighed their values on the floor. He waived Josh Smith, siphoning millions in future cap. None of the team’s draft picks project as consistent NBA starters. And then there was the Blake Griffin trade, a home run swing so clearly the result of a desperate need to make the postseason that it was destined to fail. Though the idea of two All-NBA talents in the frontcourt is enticing, Detroit had a better net rating when either Griffin or Andre Drummond sat than when they shared the floor. Even off the court, the move had little positive impact. The early-2000s Pistons consistently drew some of the biggest crowds in the league. This season—their first in a new downtown arena—broadcasts were marked by scores of empty seats.
The Pistons’ dominance of the Eastern Conference now seems like a distant memory. Detroit’s last playoff win came in 2008 in the East finals. Since then, six different coaches have helmed the franchise, and only one season—Van Gundy’s second—ended with a winning record. And while the next coach to inherit the head-coaching position will receive a team talented enough to reach the playoffs, an injury-ravaged roster that costs $20 million more per season than it should will make the job a poison pill of sorts.
For years, Detroit—like San Antonio, its spiritual twin to the south—served as a model middle-market franchise. The Pistons found success behind efficient offense and lockdown, hard-nosed defense. Three titles in the past 30 years and a few more brushes with championship potential raised expectations. But a dearth of talent and poor decision-making leave the team with a more unstable future than ever.
A new coaching search begins for the fourth time since Tom Gores bought the team in 2011. Van Gundy’s 46.3 winning percentage is the best of any Pistons coach since that time, but he leaves the next steward with no first-round pick in this summer’s draft, a slew of role players on long-term deals, and a Big Three—Drummond, Griffin, and Jackson—that will earn a combined $74 million next season, and more in the years to follow.
Brent Barry is reportedly being considered as a replacement in the front office, and Bower will seemingly remain as general manager. While there haven’t been any reports regarding who’ll take over as head coach, it’s a safe bet that the Pistons won’t make the mistake of hiring one person for both jobs once again.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Brent Barry’s name.