In any profession, a key attribute in a successful leader is adaptability. The ability to consistently get out ahead of the curve is what makes businesses successful. In Detroit, Stan Van Gundy, who has coached at different levels of the game since 1981, is showing he isn’t some basketball lifer that is caught up in the past. In fact, his trade at the deadline (the one that held up, at least) has shown us Van Gundy’s vision of a club suited to contend in the modern NBA is coming to fruition.
Since his time with the Orlando Magic, Van Gundy has become synonymous with offense built around a stretch 4 and the spread pick-and-roll. From Rashard Lewis to Ryan Anderson, Van Gundy’s Magic teams pummelled teams with 1-5 pick-and-rolls and 1-4 pick-and-pops. It was simple, yet brutally effective basketball. Every opponent knew what Van Gundy and Co. were going to do, but knowing and stopping it were two different things -- as evidenced by the fact that his Orlando teams never finished outside of the top 15 in offensive efficiency.
Yet even though his time in Orlando was a mere four years ago (2011-12), certain aspects of the game have changed drastically. Stretch 4’s, once a Van Gundy staple, are now pretty much a requirement for any team that hopes to run successful offense. And this evolution has even gone a step further than the simple proliferation of sweet-shooting big men.
Thanks to smaller, switch happy defenses, having a power forward solely capable of standing of bombing away from behind the arc went from a recipe for success to a glaring limitation. It’s no longer enough for 4’s to just be stationary shooters on the perimeter, as the team found out with now former-Piston Ersan Ilyasova. Van Gundy has quickly learned that while Ilyasova and fellow stretch big, Anthony Tolliver, were once huge assets, they are far less impactful now than five years ago. In order for a power forward to thrive in today’s style, he needs to be able to do a lot more than shoot -- like facilitate offense on the perimeter, drive to the basket when chased off the 3-point line and mercilessly attack smaller players switched onto them in the post.
Stretch 4’s like Ilyasova have more or less been marginalized at this point because they are incapable of consistently punishing defenses in those situations. Opposing teams can simply nullify Ilyasova’s impact by switching onto him when he’s screening or run him off the line when he’s spotting up -- and live happily with the results. That’s why instead of Ilyasovas or Tollivers, teams nowadays need to do whatever they can to find at least a knockoff version of Golden State’s Draymond Green.
Since Green is a rare commodity and, ya know, not leaving the Bay anytime soon, Van Gundy took a shot at the deadline on a young player with the potential to have a similar impact (on offense, that is): Tobias Harris. In Harris, Van Gundy has a player that’s like the Swiss army knife of power forwards. And even though his tenure with Detroit has just begun, the way Harris can change the dynamic of the team’s offense is already noticeable.
The first thing that stands out is how Harris operates in transition. He’s already far more of a threat to get out, run his lane and finish in transition than any other forward that’s been on Van Gundy’s rosters in Detroit.
That Harris helps the team get out and run isn’t all that unique and interesting. What is those things, however, is that it seems like Van Gundy is going to give Harris the freedom to push the ball up the court himself in transition -- a la Green in Golden State and Blake Griffin in L.A.
In general it seems as those Harris is going to help Van Gundy commit to a more up-tempo style. This represents another departure from Van Gundy’s Orlando teams, who never finished higher than 9th in pace and slowed down considerably as his time in central Florida went on, per Basketball Reference data. So far, the Pistons have been slightly faster with Harris on board -- 99.01 to 97.9 -- and the fact that Harris has the freedom to attack like this in transition suggests that number isn’t a small sample size anomaly.
These shifts are a mere footnote when compared to the impact Harris seems poised to have in pick-and-rolls, both as a ballhandler and a screener. One play in the Philadelphia game last night is illustrative of this new “Harris Effect.”
On the surface, there is nothing noteworthy about this play. Harris sets a screen, Reggie Jackson drives toward the basket to occupy the big (Harris’ defender, Jerami Grant) before throwing back to Harris for an open 3. Seems pretty standard, no?
Dig a little deeper and there’s a lot more to it. When Ilyasova or Tolliver, smart teams would almost automatically switch that and let one of the power forwards either try to post a mismatch or have Reggie Jackson breakdown a bigger defender in a perimeter iso. The former obviously wasn’t an option, as Tolliver or Ilyasova aren’t post up worthy players, no matter who is defending them. The latter (the Jackson iso), is the type of play that bogs down the pace of an entire offense, turning it into a stagnant one-on-one showdown that rarely produces an efficient shot, especially for a middling 3-point shooter like Jackson.
Those results made switching a no-brainer, default coverage for during pick-and-rolls involving Detroit’s power forwards. The presence of Harris changes all that because if you switch a smaller player onto Harris, he can do this:
That means defenses now have to choose between the lesser of two evils when facing Detroit. Opponents now must either stick with switching and hope Harris doesn’t wear out smaller players in the post or use a traditional pick-and-roll coverage (like the “Blue” used in the video above) and let the Pistons offense flow into high value shots. With one skill upgrade -- Harris’ ability to bully smaller players in post ups -- Van Gundy now has turned a problem plaguing his offense into an advantage.
And that’s not all. The versatility Harris possesses also unlocks the fun wrinkle of 4-5 pick-and-rolls, like this one the team unleashed multiple times against the Sixers last night.
These types of plays aren’t a necessity, but they are a nice luxury for a coach to have. In particular, they will be useful for Detroit because Van Gundy can let hybrid bench units flow through Harris operating in pick-and-rolls while he still mans the power forward position. It’s good option to have when 35-year-old Steve Blake is currently the team’s backup point guard.
In some cases, it can take years to fully assess the true impact of trade. Given his youth and eclectic game, Van Gundy’s trade for Harris still may take some time to evaluate. But the early signs are showing us that Harris just might be the piece that helps his head coach create a modern monster capable of challenging for a spot among the NBA’s elite.