Stan Van Gundy has never been a man who looks like he could use more work. You could task Stan with building a birdhouse and he would find a way to make it as stressful as managing a continental war. He’s a fine coach and the only enjoyment he seems to glean from life is through the mostly unfun process of driving his teams toward marginal improvement, but he is, at his core, a Diet Pepsi-pickled mess of failure-fear and upset with himself for lacking the strength to control five humans at once. Giving the guy more responsibility than he can handle is a great way to drive a barely sane man mad and your franchise straight into the ground.
I’ve written recently about the executive-coach hybrid and how, because Red Auerbach did it in a very different era and Gregg Popovich figured out how to pull it off in the modern NBA, a few of the league’s other great tacticians have swindled some owners into thinking they’re capable of making it work. The problems with this are manifold, but the primary issue is obvious: being in charge of player personnel is more than a full-time job already; being a head coach is more than a full-time job already. Mash the two gigs together and you have one (usually exceedingly capable) workaholic pulled in more directions than a Medieval insurrectionist. Popovich is both an excellent delegator and a half-god samurai master who exists outside time. No one should try to do what he does.
So while we can agree the exec-coach position is impossible, the reason it exists in the first place is more about power than helping an organization function the best it possibly can. It’s true that occasionally a coach and a general manager are on different pages in terms of what a team needs and that can lead to some internal dysfunction and/or a roster the coach isn’t happy with. Ostensibly, the exec-coach is supposed to remedy that issue because the guy who best understands the squad’s strengths and weaknesses is also tasked with patching holes in the rotation. But coaches aren’t professional talent evaluators, so while they tend to grasp a team’s flaws more thoroughly than anyone else, they’re ill-equipped to find the right players to fix those flaws. The reality is, while it would be optimal for a coach and general manager to always be of one mind, the risk of conflict between the two is the price an organization pays for (theoretically) having a proper amount of time and expertise devoted to maximizing a roster’s potential and building a better one. Putting a single guy in charge of everything doesn’t solve anything definitively; it just makes it so the on-court boss and the off-court boss never disagree because they’re the same person.
Of course, as a general rule of organizational hierarchy, the off-court boss has on-court boss hiring and firing responsibilities, which is the most pressing reason established coaches kick themselves upstairs. (That and the pay bump. Holding down two jobs nets you a considerably higher salary.) Failing general managers often go through two or three coaches before they get axed themselves, so it makes sense that out of self-preservation, a coach would take an executive title to make sure they have some extra time to implement their vision.
Which is how we get to what’s about to be mediocre year number four of Stan Van Gundy’s reign as president-coach of the Detroit Pistons. Andre Drummond is on the books for four more years at $105 million. Reggie Jackson is making $17 million per season for the next three. Jon Leuer is owed $30 million over three seasons. Boban Marjanovic will make $14 million between now and the summer of 2019. The Pistons are lousy, but the most terrifying thing about their futility is they’re only six million dollars beneath the luxury tax threshold. The most covetable asset on their roster is… maybe Tobias Harris? Avery Bradley? They’ve paid a lot of money to assemble a team composed mostly of players nobody in the league would want at their current salary.
At this stage of the executive Stan Van experiment, there’s not much to be done except to seriously consider every trade offer that comes in—maybe some quixotic so-and-so thinks Andre Drummond is salvageable—and wait out these bad contracts. And it would be a good idea to either strip Van Gundy of his personnel duties or fire him before he does further damage. Much like Doc Rivers in Los Angeles, Van Gundy’s ineptitude as a wheeler-dealer has overshadowed whatever he has to offer as a coach.
For the Pistons, getting rid of or demoting Van Gundy isn’t really a solution to their predicament so much as a way to put an end to a venture that has flopped pretty magnificently. The exec-coach so frequently flops because it’s an obviously flawed construction that puts too much on one person.
The big-picture remedy to this is simple: owners need to give coaches of Stan Van Gundy’s stature stronger mandates rather than more taxing jobs. If you’re hiring some unknown quantity of an assistant, it’s understandable you might realize after two years that he can’t hack it and dismiss him. But you know what you’re getting when you bring someone like Stan Van Gundy or Tom Thibodeau aboard. You presumably admire their work already. So why not give them a longer leash? If owners had the courage of their convictions fewer coaches would ask to be put in charge of the draft or free agency for the sake of having a higher status in the organization and making themselves more difficult to fire. Job security is more of a feeling than a quantifiable thing. The primary reason the exec-coach exists is because coaches see how disposably they’re treated across the league and seek to make themselves less so.
It would seem more productive for everyone involved if a coach were a little too comfortable in his job rather than killing himself and the team’s future trying to do two of them at once, but then common sense doesn’t always win out, in sports or any other business. The Pistons are coming to grips with that reality, one grim season after another. It can’t be much longer before they’ve processed it completely.
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