ADMIT IT, YOU missed him. You missed the mock turtlenecks and the perpetual scowl, the hoarse voice and the unfiltered honesty. The NBA did. In the two years since Stan Van Gundy was ousted in Orlando, the league has been without one of its sharpest—and most entertaining—coaches.
The Pistons rectified that last week, handing Van Gundy, 54, a five-year, $35 million contract to be both coach and president of basketball operations. Putting Van Gundy back on the bench is a great move. He's a top-notch strategist who in seven-plus seasons with the Heat and the Magic racked up a 371--208 record (.641). He also squeezed 42 wins out of a mediocre Miami team in 2003--04, pushed a perimeter-happy Orlando squad to the '09 Finals and was the driving force behind Dwight Howard's development from raw high school phenom to NBA superstar.
In Detroit, Van Gundy has two more big men ready to be molded. Second-year center Andre Drummond, 20, is a mini-Howard, a ferocious 6'10" rebounder and shot blocker with a limited offensive game. Fourth-year forward Greg Monroe—a 23-year-old restricted free agent—is 6'11" and more polished but will benefit from Van Gundy's ability to identify bad habits and then break them. "In a league where it is getting increasingly hard to find quality big guys, [we've] got two," Van Gundy said at his introductory press conference.
Van Gundy never sought total control before, though it's easy to see why he would want it. He abruptly resigned after 2½ seasons with the Heat, ostensibly for personal reasons, though it's widely believed that team president Pat Riley, eager to get his hands on a championship-ready team, pushed him out. With the Magic, Van Gundy lost a power struggle with Howard, who chafed at his coach's blunt style and leveraged his pending free agency to force Van Gundy out, though he denies being involved. Despite his proven role in his teams' successes, Van Gundy has too often been turned into a scapegoat.
Hiring a neophyte executive to run the front office of an organization in total disarray might seem risky. But Van Gundy has long been regarded as one of the league's keenest minds, and he blew away Pistons owner Tom Gores with a 45-page presentation outlining his vision for the team's future. While Van Gundy publicly pokes fun at analytics, privately he embraces them. And by installing Van Gundy in the dual role, Detroit stabilizes a club that has shuffled through six coaches in seven seasons.
Moreover, Van Gundy knows his limitations. He doesn't intend to micromanage the front office; the new GM he hires will do that. Van Gundy envisions a relationship with his GM similar to the one Gregg Popovich shares with R.C. Buford in San Antonio, where Popovich is the ultimate decision maker but Buford—the newly minted Executive of the Year—does most of the work. Van Gundy says he hopes to sit down soon with those two men, who in their 12 seasons together in those roles, have built the winningest franchise in the NBA (71.1%). "Hopefully because I'm in the Eastern Conference," said Van Gundy, "they will share some of what they know with me."
Van Gundy is back, and that sound you hear is the collective whoop of anyone with a notebook. Given time, Van Gundy will make fans in Detroit pretty happy too.
Despite his proven role in his teams' successes, Van Gundy has too often been turned into a scapegoat.