Stan Van Gundy was, to my mind, the best coach available on the market this offseason, and for the last few offseasons frankly. That stance, of course, comes with the caveat that there are many assistant coaches and coaches at different levels of basketball with whom I am unfamiliar and therefore, I exclude from any consideration in the “best coach available” discussion. There may be some diamonds in the rough who need a shot to show how good they can be. But I don’t know enough about the coaching development chain to say much about those guys. Still, SVG has proven himself as a great coach in the NBA.
Van Gundy ought never to have lost his job in the first place, but it’s a superstar league and the Magic wanted to appease Dwight Howard, before realizing how futile a game that really was. SVG has a winning percentage of 64.1% in the regular season over 579 games and he is 9 games over .500 in the post-season (48–39). Winning percentage alone, however, is not the only mark of a great coach. If you need any proof of that, check out Avery Johnson’s career after his Dallas turn, Vinny Del Negro’s run with the Clippers last season, or Scotty Brooks’ campaigns the last few seasons. Talent can overcome imperfect or even downright incompetent coaching, at times. Van Gundy isn’t that sort of coach. He’s exceedingly competent, curious, and supremely adaptable. So the following should hardly be surprising:
Stan Van took two separate and totally different style squads through deep playoff runs, ending in the Conference Finals and NBA Finals, respectively. In Miami, he paired Dwyane Wade’s pell-mell drives to the hoop with a still dominant Shaq’s low-post scoring to reach a top 5 offense and a 7 game conference finals loss to Detroit. It was a distinctly traditional offensive setup, and Van Gundy made it work incredibly well.
Then, from 2008–2011, he helped Dwight Howard reach his peak, which he has still not surpassed or even really approached, with a 4-out spread pick and roll attack which both incorporated the biggest lessons of the modern basketball analytics movement (the importance of spacing, along with the value of the three point shots and dunks) and best catered to the talents of his team. It’s also worth noting that no coach since SVG has been able to get Dwight to buy in to the pick and roll game as thoroughly as he did in Orlando. In 2009, the Magic overachieved in the playoffs, knocking off LeBron’s Cavaliers juggernaut — +8.68 SRS, well ahead of the second best team, the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers — in the Eastern Conference Finals, only to get beat by that Lakers team in 5 games. It would be easy to be disappointed by the Magic’s performance in that Finals, but really, they shouldn’t have even been in that series at all. Orlando had already overachieved by reaching the Finals. Of course, that’s not the attitude a coach or his team should have in that series, but for fans and media analyzing Van Gundy’s resume, it’s important to note that important context.
So, in short: Detroit has nabbed a great coach. Van Gundy, after being burned by both his former Florida employers and unjustly let go, also managed to negotiate control over Basketball Operations for the Pistons. I don’t know how SVG will do on the management side of things, as there’s no history to go on. Given his understanding of how teams fit together and how to maximize the talents he’s provided, though, I suspect he’ll also do a heck of a job there, as well. He would be hard pressed to do worse than Joe Dumars the last few years.
I see most things in the NBA through the lens of how they will effect my beloved Chicago Bulls. Stan Van Gundy entering the Central Division scares the hell out of me. I’d imagine most fans of other Central Division teams feel likewise, which is as good an indication as any that Detroit has done very well for themselves here. Now it’s time to fire up the trade machine, because there’s almost no way SVG is keeping this trainwreck together next season.