OAKLAND – The guy who first coined “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” should be happy he didn’t live to see 2017, an era in which folks who topped out at C-minus in freshman year general science have no qualms taking issue with the 99 percent of climate scientists who tell us climate change is a thing.
Determining who is and isn’t a good NBA coach isn’t something that endangers the very existence of mankind, but it’s in my wheelhouse so let’s talk about that today.
Stan Van Gundy is an elite NBA coach. You want to take issue with that, you’ll have to come with some real facts.
How do I arrive at this?
Well, there are markers. And the NBA standings only tell a sliver of the story. Though, you might notice that the Pistons woke up this morning with the best record in the Eastern Conference, 5-2, after a weekend sweep of two legit NBA title contenders on the road.
Van Gundy teams don’t beat themselves. They take care of the basketball, they steer teams into taking the least desirable shots, they don’t foul.
Except on that last one – fouling – this season, they do. The Pistons were in the top three in fouls committed through their first five games. But if you can find someone willing to take your bet that this will change, do it. Van Gundy’s Pistons teams have finished third, sixth and seventh in his three seasons here. His last three Orlando teams finished fifth, 10th and eighth. That’s six straight top-10 finishes.
It’s already changing. Against Golden State, a team that presents a fair number of offensive challenges, they fouled just nine times.
There’s no coincidence in these things. It’s identified as a priority – if not everybody, most coaches identify those things as priorities – but then – and here’s the tricky part – it’s coached and taught in digestible ways and emphasized until it’s ingrained.
The Pistons come off their remarkable weekend – comeback wins less than 24 hours apart on the road against the NBA’s last unbeaten team and reigning champion – with the following on their resume:
Best in the NBA at limiting turnovers, tied with two others, at 13.8 a game. No. 4 in limiting fast-break points. No. 5 in points in the paint allowed. No. 1 at limiting shots within 5 feet of the basket. No. 2 in limiting opponents’ second-chance points. No. 3 in opponents’ points off of turnovers.
Talent is the ultimate currency of NBA rosters. It’s no accident LeBron James keeps finding himself in the Finals, no matter which jersey he wears. All a coach can do is take his personnel, figure out how to maximize the talent of each player, group players in the most complementary ways and then create an environment where team pursuits always – always – supercede individual goals or concerns.
The Pistons are not the NBA’s most talented roster, but if you took a snapshot of the league this weekend they might be the most cohesive.
Van Gundy is really, really good at influencing that. Really good at figuring out what he has and patching lineups together. When he paired Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis at forward with Orlando, people scoffed. Thus began a trend of four shooters surrounding a traditional big man, the blueprint for pretty much everybody today.
The puzzle the Pistons present him is an intricate one. He’s got only one player, Andre Drummond, who’s ever made an All-Star appearance – one time. But he’s got a lot of pieces and admits he hasn’t figured out precisely the best ways to maximize their value just yet.
That’s another thing about Van Gundy – his transparency. He admits openly – in public, but before that and more often to his team – that he’s not infallible. Losses eat at him because he always believes there was something he could have done better, some way he could have put his players in better position to win. That resonates in a locker room.
And his flexibility makes him the Simone Biles of coaches. His exhaustive off-season reviews always are heavy on self reflection. Last spring, he identified what the Pistons needed – better defenders, more 3-point shooters, secondary ballhandlers – and went out and got Avery Bradley, Langston Galloway and Anthony Tolliver while drafting Luke Kennard and retaining Reggie Bullock.
He also decided he needed to change the way the Pistons played at both ends – more in-your-face defense, more movement and spreading responsibility on offense. And then he put himself on the line by saying it was up to him to break with his past and his instincts and use everyone on his roster, one through 14.
There’s no conclusive litmus test for what separates coaches into tiers from elite to good to average. And it doesn’t get worse than average in today’s NBA. There’s never been a deeper pool of bright candidates, a byproduct of exploding staff sizes, drawing more people into the profession, and skyrocketing salaries, attracting smarter candidates who in another era might have been climbing Fortune 500 ladders.
The gap between whoever’s No. 1 – let’s say Gregg Popovich because, well – and whoever’s No. 30 has never been so narrow. Which makes it all the more preposterous when the average Joe weighs in because a little knowledge and all that.
When Bradley came to the Pistons from Boston, where he played the last four seasons for the universally adored Brad Stevens, his unbridled enthusiasm for being uprooted was mostly about the chance to play for Van Gundy. Players know. Bradley, as serious about his craft as anyone, knew from playing the Pistons the past three years that he always caught an opponent ultimately prepared, one provided every conceivable tool to win by its coach.
Let’s just leave this here: The Pistons aren’t going into any of their last 75 games, however many they wind up winning, at a disadvantage because of their coach. Stan Van Gundy’s about as good as it gets. As a certain revered ex-Piston used to say, ball don’t lie.