AUBURN HILLS – Miami’s remarkable turnaround last season – an 11-30 start, a 30-11 finish – didn’t happen by accident, the way Stan Van Gundy sees it.
Now maybe he’s a little biased because Erik Spoelstra, alongside whom he worked during his years with the Heat, remains one of his two closest friends among NBA head coaches. Or maybe he simply has a little more insight into the inner workings of the Heat because of that relationship. The correct answer is probably that last one.
In any case, Van Gundy saw the way NBA journeymen like Wayne Ellington and James Johnson not only flourished but were at the heart of Miami’s abrupt U-turn and credited Spoelstra with identifying their strengths and devising ways to maximize them within the framework of his roster.
“They were always good,” Van Gundy said. “Now, like, they’re really, really good. Because he let James put the ball on the floor and be a playmaker and he let Wayne just run off screens and fire. And they became a huge threat. So he played to their strengths. You can get hung up on, ‘Well, he doesn’t do this; well, he doesn’t do that.’ That’s fine. Then let’s have him do the things he does really well and, both individually and as a team, let’s get to those. We’re still not there yet as a team, but we’re trying to get there.”
Andre Drummond showed the effect soaking in the other night in Toronto. He got the ball on the left block, but both feet were outside the paint. Too far from the rim to try a hook shot. So Drummond quickly put the ball on the floor, got to the elbow and executed a dribble handoff which precipitates the chance for him to run to the rim against a shifting defense – an absolute strength of Drummond’s.
It was a message Van Gundy delivered early and succinctly. On the night of Sept. 25, when the Pistons got their media day obligations out of the way and sat down for a team dinner on the eve of training camp’s first practice, Van Gundy laid out this year’s underlying theme: find your greatness.
Over the past 2½ weeks, it’s a phrase several players dropped into remarks to the media. Here’s Anthony Tolliver from earlier this week:
“Coach really did a great job in our preseason talking with everybody about getting each other to our greatness and really being a great teammate by putting people into great position to succeed. Me being a shooter, me being someone who’s going to spread the floor for guys and help guys in that way, guys doing a great job of looking for me when I’m open and trying to knock ’em down for them.”
It wasn’t Van Gundy simply identifying and lecturing to his team about what their role would be, either.
“A lot of them chimed in,” he said. “We’d say, ‘What about so and so?’ They’d have all the answers. They know. They play with these guys.”
But that’s just the first step: identifying strengths. The second step is a little more difficult and infinitely more critical: how the collective becomes responsible for maximizing the strengths of the individual.
Van Gundy: “How many times can we get to the greatness and then, as a team, can we help each individual guy get to his? So if I have Langston Galloway and he’s a shooter, well, coming up in transition I’ve got to be looking for him. If he’s open, he gets the ball. If we’re in half-court offense, I want to screen for him and get him open. If it’s Boban, we want to get him down under the basket. Part of it with Boban is we’ve got to direct him into that. He likes to be the 7-4 high-post player. Nope. Get your butt down there, wave him down and throw the ball in. But you can’t be missing him when he’s down there open.”
It’s too early to gauge the impact and way too early to assess how ingrained the mantra has become. But Van Gundy is already seeing signs.
“Some guys more than others, but I think there’s some guys on our team who have really focused in on, ‘I’m going to play to my greatness.’ And the part we’ve still got to get a lot better at is helping those other guys get to theirs.”
For the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts, some of its parts have to draw out the best in others.