When Stan Van Gundy arrived in Detroit back in 2014 – as Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations – there were high hopes that the Pistons would become a perennial playoff team. Andre Drummond had shown flashes of All-Star form and there were plenty of avenues for revamping the roster.
But nearly four years later, the Pistons have one playoff appearance (and no playoff wins) to show for the Van Gundy era. The recent Blake Griffin trade sparked brief optimism but Detroit have slumped over their last dozen games. The eighth and final playoff spot is surely beyond them now, and the Griffin deal is already looking like a desperate roll of the dice.
So where did it go wrong? Some bad luck played a part, as did questionable decision-making at times (though it should be noted that Detroit made some smart trades along the way). Here are some of the big factors that put the Pistons in this position:
Reggie Jackson’s injuries
Though not an elite point guard, Jackson’s speed and scoring are big parts of the Pistons’ offense. But a string of injuries have deprived Detroit of their top playmaker. He missed a large chunk of the 2016/17 season and has played in only 33 games this time around.
Drafting Luke Kennard over Donovan Mitchell
The Pistons were not the only team to overlook Mitchell’s talent, but there was a strong case for taking the Utah Jazz rookie over Kennard, a good shooter but hardly a franchise-changer. Kennard was possibly the safer choice but it is easy to picture Mitchell running riot for Detroit alongside Drummond and Griffin.
Giving Van Gundy the dual Head Coach-President role
Van Gundy continues to be a good coach – his track record speaks for itself. But juggling executive commitments too has taken its toll (as it has for Doc Rivers in Los Angeles and Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota). If Van Gundy were free to just coach, it is easy to imagine Detroit having four or five extra wins by now.
The Drummond conundrum
Drummond’s height and athleticism should have made him an ideal building block for the Pistons. But he tends to put up “empty “stat lines too often, with fluctuating effort defensively. To his credit, his free throw shooting has improved this season and a strong start made him a fringe All-Star candidate, but his play has dropped off over the second half of the season.
The Griffin trade
This is starting to feel like a hefty long-term burden for the Pistons, especially given how well Tobias Harris had been playing. There are four expensive years on that deal after this season. Surrendering a first round pick is looking more and more costly as their playoff hopes slip away. Griffin’s injury history makes for scary reading.
The big question now is what comes next. Van Gundy’s all-round performance will be scrutinized this offseason (despite some recent assurances) and ownership may yet choose to go in a different direction. Maybe it will be a reshuffle of the assistant coaches; maybe Drummond and Jackson (both frequently rumoured to be on the trading block) will be playing their basketball elsewhere. There are a lot of unknowns.
This is not the season that the franchise had in mind as it moved into a new arena in downtown Detroit. A pivotal summer lies ahead.