AUBURN HILLS – Two not unrelated Stan Van Gundy statements and three subsequent roster deletions might make you arch your eyebrows out of concern for the state of Pistons leadership for the 2017-18 season.
The statements came in early March and in mid-April after Van Gundy’s third season as Pistons coach concluded.
After the Pistons recovered from a horrific start to beat Cleveland 106-101 on March 9, Van Gundy spoke about Marcus Morris’ first-quarter timeout tirade, lighting up teammates for their lethargic performance. He went on to explain that he had spoken to Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope before the game, urging them to find their voices in shaping team culture.
“You guys have got to hold each other accountable,” Van Gundy told them.
Why those two?
“Because they’d shown some signs of being guys who would speak up and they’re two guys – not saying they’re the only ones – but they’re two guys you can really count on to bring pretty good effort and competitiveness themselves and that’s an absolute must if you’re going to say something to somebody else.”
Now cut to mid-April with Van Gundy doing the autopsy on a 37-win season that left the Pistons short of the playoffs and looking ahead to what he hoped to change. He ticked off three areas, the first being to add players with an amplified competitive drive.
Finally look at the three players who were staples in last season’s rotation who won’t return: Morris, Caldwell-Pope and Aron Baynes, the first two the players Van Gundy identified to assume more visible leadership roles and the latter their most intimidating physical presence the past two seasons.
Those are three big losses for a team looking to increase its collective competitive level, no?
“We lost three tough, competitive guys with KCP, Marcus and Aron,” Van Gundy concedes.
There’s no predicting chemistry, but Van Gundy still comes out of the summer with an air of confidence about the level of resolve he anticipates this roster exhibiting. He knows what he’ll have in Anthony Tolliver, returning after a season in Sacramento, and is certain that backcourt additions Avery Bradley and Langston Galloway will push the ball well downfield.
He characterized Pistons internal scouting reports on the character of both players as “off the charts.” And when Bradley came to town for his introductory press conference in July, he couldn’t have struck a more favorable impression. Going from the East’s No. 1 seed and likeliest challenger to Cleveland’s reign, Boston, to a team coming off a lottery appearance might have left many players sullen, but Bradley was palpably upbeat and eager to wear a Pistons uniform.
“What Avery’s really embracing is a chance to play a bigger role as a player and as a leader,” Van Gundy said. “That’s something that excites him. I think he knows how much we believe in him and, yeah, I think he’s ready to get going and play.”
Bradley talked at that July introduction of the impact he expects to have on the Pistons, words that surely played well with longtime Pistons fans won over by the menacing Bad Boys and the gritty Goin’ to Work Pistons eras.
“Bring a different style of play – nasty,” Bradley said. “That’s what we want to bring. We want to bring a championship back to Detroit. That’s our goal and I’m happy to be here.”
Those words also weren’t lost on Van Gundy’s staff or his players, he said.
“I thought a lot of the things he said are things we need to have more of around our team in terms of, he used the word, ‘nasty.’ The toughness and the defensive approach. He’s going to play hard every day. All of those things he was focused on are things that we need to be focused on.”
Van Gundy also sees a fierce competitive streak in rookie Luke Kennard and was so impressed by the toughness and defensive disposition shown by Eric Moreland in Summer League that the Pistons committed a roster spot to him before they left Orlando.
So losing Morris, Caldwell-Pope and Baynes was big, “but with Tolliver, Langston, Avery, Eric, Luke, we brought back all toughness, too. We were able to balance that part of it out,” Van Gundy said.
Bradley, given the minutes he assumes in taking Caldwell-Pope’s place in the backcourt and the stature he brings as an All-Defense front-runner and scorer, is best positioned to shape the mindset of the 2017-18 Pistons.
“I thought he came in here and made a great first impression,” Van Gundy said. “And forget the impression he made on our fans or anybody else. I think all of our players follow news like that and I think he made a very good impression on all of them and certainly on our staff.”