NOTE: The views expressed in this EDITORIAL do not necessarily reflect the views of Detroit Sports Nation or a majority of its writers and should not be misconstrued as such. The views contained within are the views of the author and the author alone.
Of current professional coaches in Detroit, Stan Van Gundy is easily the most beloved by fans. Among coaches many would like to see fired, that’s not overly impressive but the Notorious SVG is much more than the lesser of evils. Basketball savants respect his floor IQ and fans love his straightforward responses in pressers. Never one to shy from airing dirty laundry, Van Gundy often delivers great media soundbites beat writers rarely get from other coaches. Between his sharp tongue and making Pistons basketball watchable again, critiques are rare and instantly dismissed by most. He’s the people’s coach.
And after all, he is the OG.
But what he is not, is perfect. And after his latest tirade of public humiliation and belittling, it’s fair to question whether his style of coaching is working with this Detroit Pistons team. The thought alone is blasphemous to many but why?
Thirty games into the season, it appears Van Gundy has lost the locker room, at least in the present. The team effort has been an abomination as of late with many clearly dogging it, publically complaining, or being accused of dogging it. They got blown out by the lowly 76ers at the Palace and had a players-only meeting not long after to address their issues. “Team meeting my ass,” Van Gundy grumbled after their latest no-show against the Bulls. After promising growth and a playoff trip last season, expectations were higher this season. Many thought the Pistons would be challenging for the third or fourth seed in the East. Instead, they sit at 14-16 in tenth place and out of the playoff picture for the time being.
The excuses and shortsighted attempts to explain Detroit’s current predicament have begun piling up. The team is young and immature. Andre Drummond and Stanley Johnson are lazy. Players are unhappy with their touches or involvement in the offense. Reggie Jackson has disrupted the flow with his return. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah.
It wasn’t a problem last year when the Pistons went on an electric run to squeak into the playoffs for the first time in what felt like a decade (it was close). Stanley Johnson wasn’t lazy when he went at LeBron James on and off the court like the overzealous rookie he was. Marcus Morris was doing his talking on the court and Reggie Jackson was part of a lethal pick and roll offense with Andre Drummond who grabbed boards like they were buckets of cash bouncing off the rim. The Pistons patched up their awful bench during the offseason and brought back their entire starting five so where is it all going wrong?
Fair or not, it IS the head coach’s job to have his players prepared to play night in and night out. There is a very real issue when players stop responding to their coach. Van Gundy has never been above putting a player on blast but clearly, his messages aren’t getting through. His coaching appears to be falling on deaf ears at best and wearing down his players at worst. A lot of that falls on those players but at the end of the day, it’s Van Gundy’s job to diagnose and repair any underlying issues holding back the team. He’s failed to do that.
In his third season with the Pistons, Van Gundy has failed to cultivate a culture his players buy into. That’s an indictment on the job he’s done so far. X’s and O’s can only take you so far. There’s more to crafting a winning team and it’s not clear if Van Gundy has the ability to reach his players on that level. It often seems that Van Gundy’s default is to whine to the media when he’s not getting what he wants out his players. That makes for good stories but hasn’t been effective as a motivation tool. Professional athletes who are grown ass men must be able to handle critique but Van Gundy needs to recognize when it becomes more detrimental than helpful.
It becomes grating. A public nudge here and there may motivate some but constantly throwing players under the bus at every turn is unhelpful at best. At worst, well, you’ve seen the Pistons play lately right? It’s time for Van Gundy to lay off the antics in pressers and focus on team issues in private. Whether or not you think the team should suck it up and play is irrelevant. They AREN’T. And it’s on Van Gundy to adapt his style and fix that.
Any other coach in Detroit would be getting shredded by the media for losing their team the way Van Gundy has this season. Yet a coach, whose pinnacle in Detroit was getting swept in the first round, is largely getting a pass. Fans point to the turnaround of Detroit basketball since his takeover and put the onus on the players for not performing. That’s fair, but this is a much different team than the one Van Gundy inherited. This Pistons team has just two remaining players from the team Van Gundy took over in 2014. He’s done a good job rebuilding the roster from the scrap heap. With a vastly more talented team, the expectations should be much higher.
He has his players but as the coach, it’s now his job to steer them in the right direction. It’s not too late but if SVG can’t figure out how to bring the team back together, it’s time to start thinking about how he fits in Detroit.
Stan Van Gundy has done a lot of sounding off lately. Most recently, the message has been “Do your job,” and “It’s what you do on the court, talking is easy.” He’s right of course, but maybe it’s time for Coach to take a little of his own advice.