By Ashley Dunkak
AUBURN HILLS - The Detroit Pistons hired Stan Van Gundy as head coach and president of basketball operations with the expectation of an overhaul of the franchise. While the immediate results - a record of 32-50 - were less than thrilling, both Van Gundy and general manager Jeff Bower were pleased with some of the steps the team took in their first season at the reins.
"One of the most important things going into this past summer and this first season was the need to make change with the roster and to make significant change," Bower said Thursday at Detroit's end-of-season press conference. "We've been able to change the roster and give ourselves the flexibility to move forward this summer with salary space as well as draft picks.
"We are very pleased that we've been able to change the roster to the degree that we did," Bower added, "to open up our opportunities moving forward to selectively add the right pieces in the right places."
After Detroit went 5-23 to start the season, the Pistons released pricey veteran forward Josh Smith, their most highly paid player. Immediately, the team reeled off a slew of wins. Point guard Brandon Jennings suffered a season-ending injury, however, and more losses followed. D.J. Augustin rose up in place of Jennings and invigorated the group again, but then the Pistons traded him away in order to bring in point guard Reggie Jackson. In all, it was a somewhat rocky season.
Van Gundy acknowledged that, between it being his first year with the franchise and one with numerous transitions, the season was a rather hectic one.
"Look, I clearly never figured out the answers with that first group of guys," Van Gundy said. "And then we got some momentum going, Brandon went down, then D.J. was in, then we made the trade, Greg [Monroe] was out for 11 games, and quite honestly, I was scrambling all year.
"I don't know that I ever totally figured out exactly what would be best for us until late in each of those groups of people," Van Gundy added, "but I do think going forward we have an idea of how we want to play and everything else, so I think leading into next year I feel better about it than I did coming in this year."
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Conceptually, Van Gundy knows what he wants the team to look like in the 2015-2016 season. First of all, everyone needs to be better defensively. Aside from that, he offered the following vision.
"I think a team that plays with good pace and ball movement and plays inside-out basketball both on drives and on post-ups and as defenses collapse kick the ball out and shoot the ball, I think is the way that we want to play going forward," Van Gundy said.
The Pistons will exhaust all avenues for improving their team this offseason, obviously including the draft and free agency. Van Gundy wants to add players, however, who contribute on the court but also bring a positive presence to the locker room.
"We need to raise the talent level of our team without decreasing our character at all," Van Gundy said. "I think that we got our character of the guys on our team right, I think we've got the culture right, and I think that stuff is really important and pays tangible benefits. We don't want to disrupt that, but at the same time, we need to add talent.
"It's easier if all you're looking for is talent or if all you're looking for is character," Van Gundy added. "Finding them both in the same person, it's not all that easy, and that's our challenge."
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Looking ahead to next season, perhaps two of the biggest questions about the team involve whether two of its best players will be back.
Forward Greg Monroe contributed 15.9 points per game and 10.2 rebounds per game. Point guard Brandon Jennings added 15.4 points per game and 6.6 assists per game before injury benched him - though not before he had led the Pistons on a seemingly miraculous winning streak following that rough stretch at the beginning of the season.
Monroe is an unrestricted free agent now, and Jennings is recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon.
While the Pistons will eventually have to make a decision on how to proceed with Jennings, Van Gundy suggested Thursday that what Monroe does should not be a major stressor because that choice is in his hands, not those of Van Gundy.
"We have a pretty good idea, Jeff and I and probably everybody else, what it would cost us to retain him," Van Gundy said. "I really don't think this is going to go down to negotiation thing. He's been here all year. He's got to look at the landscape and what he wants and what he values, and there's a lot of things that go into that for a player. Where you want to live, who you want to play with, and all of those things.
"As far as him being a priority, we love Greg, but I don't think this is like how many love notes we drop him between now and July 1," Van Gundy continued. "I think, look, Greg and I talked today. I have great respect for him. I feel like Greg's got great respect for what we've done and what we're trying to do. I don't think the decision is going to come down to whether he was happy or unhappy. I think he was pretty happy with what went on. I just think it's his chance at free agency to get exactly what he wants, and he's going to make that decision. I don't think it's going to come down to a recruitment battle."
Bower said Monroe - whom the Pistons tried to re-sign last offseason - can make his decision now with a much fuller understanding of who Van Gundy is, what kind of culture the coach creates, what role he envisions for Monroe on the team, and what kind of plans he has for the franchise.
"He's a very bright, professional young man," Bower said. "We have to accept either outcome, but we do feel that he knows an awful lot more about the franchise that Stan is building now than he did, and we're comfortable with that because for all the reasons that you heard pointed out – the culture, character, the type of guys that he would play with, the type of style of play that highlights his abilities, the opportunities that were created for him as an individual player within the role of helping the team improve.
"The character, that's a big thing for him, and he was a big part of creating that in this group, and that's a big thing for players to walk into," Bower added. "Good players that are serious about being a professional basketball player want to surround themselves with other serious-minded players that want to chase something as difficult to catch as a championship."
Van Gundy could not say what kind of role he sees Jennings, who missed half the season with his injury, simply because the coach does not have any idea what to expect.
"That's a real x-factor," Van Gundy said. "I don't think we have any idea until he gets back out there playing. That's a difficult injury. He's young, he does not carry a lot of weight, which helps with that injury, his history with injuries has been that he's a very quick healer, so far everything has gone good, so there's a lot of positives there, but we just don't know until he comes back and then even when he's back, what level is he going to play at? I don't think there's anybody that could sit here and predict that with any degree of certainty, so we're just going to have to see when he gets back where he is, and we'll move from there."
What the Pistons do in the meantime remains to be seen. The coach did not rule out bringing in another point guard. Certainly, such a variable makes planning more difficult, but Detroit has no alternative.
"There's really no way around it with Brandon," Van Gundy said. "We're not going to know, certainly, by the time we get into free agency. I don't think there will be anything definitive. You'll have another two and a half months of progress to see where he is, but he's not going to be back playing by then, certainly, so we're not going to know.
"He's going to be an unknown as we go into the process," Van Gundy added. "We just have to accept that. It's not ideal, it's not what you want, but that's just the way it is. He's going to be an unknown when we hit July."
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To be sure, Van Gundy wanted to be preparing for the playoffs this week instead of sitting in a room adjacent to an empty arena and talking about next year. Despite the frustrations of the 2014-2015 season, however, the coach believes there was serious improvement made both in the product on the floor and in the structure of the organization.
"Under Jeff's direction and our assistant GMs, I think we are far better positioned to make decisions this summer than we were a summer ago when we were scrambling," Van Gundy said. "Now we've got people and systems in place, processes in place that I think we'll be able, certainly better suited to make decisions now."
The team endured lots of losing, but for Van Gundy one positive element was the team's perseverance. Amid several tough stretches of games, guys could have quit, but instead they bounced back.
"I really liked what we had with the team," Van Gundy said. "It was a hard-working, hard-playing, together group of guys, to a man, all 15 of them that we ended the year with. I feel like we established that, we know how we're going to practice, we know how we're going to work, we know how we want to play, and I think that gives us a big step forward going into next year."
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