Van Gundy following familiar blueprint to build Pistons into East contender

Stan Van Gundy is in his second season as coach and president of basketball operations for the Detroit Pistons.

Stan Van Gundy is in his second season as coach and president of basketball operations for the Detroit Pistons.

The reshaping of the Detroit Pistons continues.

This time via the trade deadline addition of Orlando Magic stretch power forward Tobias Harris, another move which signals that Stan Van Gundy is determined to reshape the roster to match his longterm plans.

But SVG hasn’t gotten everything he wanted or hoped for. In case you haven’t heard, Detroit voided a three-team deal that temporarily brought Houston Rockets big man Donatas Motiejunas to the Pistons. The seven-footer has dealt with back problems all season, but it was rumored that he was healthy and prepared to return to action when Detroit acquired him last week at the trade deadline. Thankfully, the Pistons medical staff poked and probed Motiejunas enough to figure out that his back issues are not…pardon the pun…behind him.

The nixed deal also cost Detroit a capable scorer for the bench in 28-year-old shooting guard Marcus Thornton But it’s the failure to secure a healthy Motiejunas that at least temporarily sidetracks SVG’s goal of surrounding All-Star center Andre Drummond with as many outside shooting threats as possible.

Harris, the man the Pistons did get, is on his third team in five years, and he brings a ton of versatility at the power forward position with his ability to stretch it from long distance. It’s something that the 23-year-old did extremely efficiently during the 2014-15 season when he shot 36.4 percent from 3-point range. He helps the Pistons get younger too, which surely makes Van Gundy happy. The Detroit coach/GM loves young, athletic teams.

In return for Harris, Detroit sent the Magic the equally capable stretch power forward Ersan Ilyasova and an expiring contract in score-first point guard Brandon Jennings. Jennings, who was averaging a career-low 6.8 points per game on a near career-worst 37.3 percent shooting in 23 games and 22 games off the bench with Detroit, no longer had a starting job due to the presence of last year’s deadline acquisition Reggie Jackson, an emerging star at his position.

Losing Ilyasova’s touch from 3-point range — a more efficient stroke at 36.5 percent compared to Harris’ 31.4 percent this season — is surely a loss in the short term.

But the Pistons didn’t make this deal with the short term in mind. Instead, it’s about building a young core that can compete with the best of the best in the Eastern Conference in 2016-17 and beyond, and acquiring Harris is another step toward accomplishing that.


These deadline moves (even the one that didn’t stick) signal the copying of the roster-building method which was used by Van Gundy with his 2009 Eastern Conference champion Magic, which lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games in the Finals.

That 59-win Magic team, expertly crafted and led by SVG, had a young, rim-protecting big man like Drummond in current Rockets center Dwight Howard as well as plenty of perimeter scorers, including forwards Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu and guards Jameer Nelson and J.J. Redick.

With pretty much the same roster minus Turkoglu, the Magic won 59 games again and made a second consecutive Eastern Conference Finals appearance in 2010 but fell to the Boston Celtics in six games.

It’s easy to see that Van Gundy brought that same blueprint with him to Motown, and if the same pinnacle of success can be reached here under his guidance, Detroit fans will be elated. They will shout with joy for a franchise that has endured seven straight losing campaigns and six straight postseason-less seasons after amassing six straight Eastern Conference Finals appearances from 2002-03 until 2007-08.

Fans are yearning for the return of DEEEEETROIT BAAAAASKETBALL to the Palace of Auburn Hills. Yet, despite the valiant effort of SVG and general manager Jeff Bower to put the Pistons back in contention with deadline moves worthy of high marks in back-to-back years, it’s far from a given that the franchise will return to its title-contending days. Not as long as four-time MVP and two-time NBA champion LeBron James is playing for that team in Ohio. As long King James is in place, the Cavs will remain the top dog in the East. It also doesn’t hurt that he has two All-Star caliber players playing alongside him in point guard Kyrie Irving and power forward Kevin Love.

But it’s not just the Cavs who appear to be legitimate contenders in the East going forward. There are also the Toronto Raptors, who are led by two All-Stars in point guard Kyle Lowry and explosive wing player DeMar DeRozan, and the Boston Celtics, who are aboard the youth train like the Pistons and are led by All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas. The Miami Heat, led by three-time NBA champion Dwayne Wade and shot-blocking artist Hassan Whiteside, and the Indiana Pacers, led by superstar Paul George, are also nothing to sneeze at. The Pistons climb to the top of the East will not be easy, even with a savvy leader like Van Gundy orchestrating the way.

At the end of the day, though, it’s still safe to say that happier days are ahead for Detroit. My only warning is this: Let’s not get carried away and start declaring the Pistons the second coming of the ’09 Magic just yet.