Detroit Pistons’ Tom Gores: Rebuild has taken longer than planned; it’s time to win now

Detroit Free Press

LAS VEGAS — Tom Gores took his basketball team to dinner Tuesday night on the Strip. A steakhouse-sushi mash-up where sashimi comes topped with caviar AND black truffle. But then, no one ever claimed Gores was cheap.

The opposite, in fact, if we’re judging by what he has paid his coaches and spent on practice gyms and, I’d bet, the luxury tax he’d be willing to pay if he ever had a roster that justified it. So, no, Gores’ Detroit Pistons haven’t mostly lost during his tenure because he’s afraid to spend.

Nor because he has shied away from proven, big-name coaches. Stan Van Gundy had taken two teams to the conference finals — and one to the NBA Finals — when he was given the keys to the franchise. Dwane Casey had led a team to the conference finals, too, and won Coach of the Year.

Gores’ newest coach, Monty Williams, came with similar credentials and the Pistons owner committed almost $80 million. This wasn’t a number his front office brought to him, either. Gores pushed hard to land Williams.

Because he wants to win. Desperately.

But owners can only do so much. They aren’t the experts. They hire those who they think are experts, and then hope they get lucky.

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Owners can, and do, control the culture of their franchise — the tone, as it were. They can make demands, delivering edicts to their front offices: Do whatever you can, the future be damned, to make the playoffs!

And they obviously control the spending. They can also hang onto a bad hire too long or give up on a good hire too soon. Even those choices, though, involve a bit of guesswork.

Yet how a team practices? Or runs its offense? Or even who it drafts?

Not their expertise. Sure, Gores may have input on a potential draft pick, but he doesn’t know what he’s looking at in a player in the same way Williams or Troy Weaver do. At best, he’s got a gut feeling.

At the moment, his gut is telling him he’s finally got it right. The roster, the coach, the staff, the general manager.

And when we talked in the tunnel of the Thomas & Mack Center after his team knocked off Toronto in Summer League play on Wednesday night, he used the word “optimistic,” but with a qualifier.

“Feeling pretty good,” he said in an exclusive interview with the Free Press, “feeling cautiously optimistic.”

He was talking about the youngsters, specifically Ausar Thompson, his rookie wing whom he’d just watched disrupt, pardon the phrase, (expletive) all over the court from his courtside seat.

“He doesn’t play like somebody that just got into the league,” Gores said. “I think he’s a really smart player. Also just defensively, he’s gonna help us a lot. He had three or four blocks, and steals, he just does everything out there”

Gores wasn’t finished.

“He’s a team player. You can tell he’s an unselfish player, very thoughtful player,” he said. “He’s very aware of who is on the court with him.”

Thompson is the latest piece to what Gores considers the young core, and he’s adamant that he finally has one.

“We’ve never had a core group like this, you know?”

Not in age or potential, certainly. Not in the promise to grow together.

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When he bought the team in 2011, he had an odd roster with a couple of aging stars from the 2004 title team and a bunch of pieces that didn’t fit and a couple of players who’d been paid big money but weren’t producing.

After a few years of going nowhere, he brought in Van Gundy to clean up the roster and get to the playoffs. He did both, just not at the level Gores had hoped. All it led to was more purgatory — the worst place to be in the NBA — not a lottery dweller, not anywhere near good enough to make a run in the playoffs.

What makes Gores hopeful now is the franchise’s reduction of everything down to the studs. The rebuild now depends on whether they found studs in Thompson and Jalen Duren, and particularly in Jaden Ivey and Cade Cunningham.

Cunningham, of course, is the key, and he spoke at the team dinner Tuesday night at Catch, the hip, poshy mash-up inside the Aria casino. The third-year point guard thanked Gores and the front office for “setting the table” and told everyone he was excited to work with Williams and his teammates and then implored his team to make the most of the opportunity.

Cunningham followed Gores, Weaver and Williams, all of whom spoke. Gores went first. He said it was his job to provide the team with everything it needed to be great.

“To remove any obstacle,” he told them.

Their job, in turn, was to maximize the opportunity, to not put limits on themselves or let anyone else put limits on them.

“I was saying (Tuesday) night to my team that we’ve done everything with the Pistons in the community and that kind of stuff,” he said. “But we’ve got to finish it now and win. We want to win because that’s what the fans want.”

He wants to win, too. And as much as he likes the roster — its additions, the draft picks — he likes the flexibility as well, and the salary cap room they’ll have potentially a season from now.

“We are doing it smartly,” he said.

This hasn’t always been true. But then, previous regimes under him had different goals, in part based on his own desire to put a winning team on the court.

Obviously, it hasn’t happened, and he acknowledges that as hopeful as he is that the franchise is ready to “take a leap,” as he put it, the whole enterprise still demands a bit of faith … and fortune.

“You know how this game is,” Gores said. “You don’t know.”

If the hope doesn’t turn into wins, he’ll be looking for new voices to make the choices, and the cycle will keep spinning. This is how it goes, too. And everyone involved understands this.

“It’s taken a little longer than I’d like,” he said of the rebuild, “but sometimes it takes a little longer to build great things.”

And so, he insists he will keep plugging, and that the state of the team is in a different place than it’s been since he bought it.

“Not going to give up,” he said. “I can tell you that.”

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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