by Brandon James Anderson
There are only two men who comprise the list of current NBA head coaches who are also in charge of basketball operations for their team.
It’s quite the luxury, to be sure. After four titles and over a decade of success, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich has surely earned such a right. And Doc Rivers, though not as successful, has become one of the league’s best coaches and the allure of being his own boss was enough for him to leave the Boston Celtics for the Los Angeles Clippers this past summer.
So, the list goes Pop, Doc, and that’s it. At least that was the list, until yesterday when the Detroit Pistons announced former Miami Heat and Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy as the team’s new President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach.
Stan Van has been a staple of the NBA landscape for years, starting as a long-time assistant to the legendary Pat Riley in Miami. Eventually, Van Gundy succeeded his mentor when Riley moved to the front office. In an odd turn of events, Van Gundy inexplicably resigned 21 games into the 2005-2006 season, allowing Riley to, in arguable opportunistic fashion, jump back into the coaching saddle and guide the franchise to its first title.
From there, Van Gundy moved a little north to Orlando where he found success with Dwight Howard and the Magic, going so far as the 2009 NBA Finals. Even without a title, Van Gundy has the résumé and the pedigree that made him a viable candidate for every head coaching vacancy. And, for that, the Pistons pulled off the unexpected, given Van Gundy chose Detroit over a the Golden State Warriros’ superior roster. (The reported $7 million a year salary that he’ll now get for serving both roles probably didn’t hurt.)
Yes, one can argue that in both his previous coaching stents Van Gundy was blessed with having a superstar on the roster with Dwyane Wade and Howard both at their emergence of their prime. But his teams also consistently had 50+ win seasons, which is never a guarantee in the NBA, superstar on the roster or not.
In the ’09 Eastern Conference Finals, his Magic squad put the brakes on what many assumed would be LeBron James’ cakewalk to the Finals. The Cleveland Cavaliers won 66 games that year, only six shy of the all-time record, and swept their first two playoff opponents. Being the team that successfully thwarted the best player in the world in what was, to that point, his best season is a feat that doesn’t get enough credit.
The hiring of Van Gundy will provide an interesting experiment that will intrigue Pistons fans and other fans around the league. A head coach being his own boss is a rarity in the league and if it were always a successful venture, it would be far more common. For every Gregg Popovich who clearly knows what he’s doing, there’s a latter-year Larry Brown who, while serving in both positions in Charlotte, loaded the roster with high priced contracts that garnered the team’s first-ever playoff berth but nothing else.
An added benefit of Van Gundy’s tenure in Auburn Hills will be the potential for memorable press conferences and entertaining overall sideline behavior. Stan Van’s aberration for dress shirts and ties, coupled with his propensity to sweat, make him a joy to watch night in and night out. After half a decade of mundane, timid, and uninspiring head coaches, this will be a much-welcomed change.
In short, Stan Van Gundy is a proven winner, even if he hasn’t won the big one. And, frankly, championship experience doesn’t need to be a requirement to be the head coach of these Detroit Pistons. Andre Drummond’s progression is the most pressing issue the team faces in the short term. Adding the right players around Detroit’s young center that can bring the franchise out of the gutter is an issue for both the short and long term. In this dual role, Van Gundy has the opportunity to achieve both feats.