July 19, 2024

New Pistons president Trajan Langdon spoke at length. Here’s what he said

DETROIT — Exactly 69 days passed between when The Athletic announced the Detroit Pistons would be on the hunt for a president of basketball operations following the worst season in franchise history and the time he was introduced to the media.

Time wasn’t just wasting, though. The organization did an exhaustive search to find the “right person” to oversee basketball operations in an attempt to find synergy from the top down on the heels of a 14-win campaign. They landed on Trajan Langdon, previously the general manager in New Orleans, in late May. From there, Langdon emptied (nearly all of) Detroit’s previous front office. He’s been in the process of rebuilding a new one. He’s been prepping for the 2024 NBA Draft. And, this week, Langdon and company fired Monty Williams a year after he signed the biggest coaching contract in NBA history.

On Friday, finally, Langdon and owner Tom Gores were prepared to talk about it all.

Below are what I believe were the most important questions and answers that came out of the news conference and conversations with media following the formal presser, from Langdon and Gores. Along with each one, I’ve provided my analysis and thoughts on their answers as a pivotal offseason gets rolling.

Let’s get into it.

Note: Questions have been edited for clarity and length.

Trajan Langdon

Trajan, obviously, there are only 30 of these jobs and I’m sure it is hard to pass up on any of them when they become available. However, this team has been in a tough spot the last few years. Did the organization need to sell itself to you as much as you tried to sell yourself to them?

Like you said, there are only 30 of these, and it’s been my dream to run one of these one day. I knew the time would come, at some point, when hopefully things would match up between myself and an owner who had trust and faith in me and a situation I thought I could really help. That has to be the match for someone to really succeed. I thought the timing was great in this situation. Tom and I really connected over some late-night meetings and good phone calls. The connection was there in understanding where this franchise was and what this franchise needed. Some of the things this organization needed, I think I can provide. I’m pretty humble, I’m a pretty modest guy, but I think I stand for some things and am pretty good at some things that this organization needs. I think the fit and timing, at this present time for the Pistons and myself, really aligned, and that is what really attracted me to this opportunity.

Analysis: Before Langdon answered this question, Gores talked ad nauseam about what appealed to him about Langdon for the role of president of basketball operations. Gores mentioned Langdon’s attention to detail and how with every scenario the owner tossed his way, Langdon came back with a detailed plan on how to attack it. Gores talked about wanting someone who can run the basketball side like a CEO, with the ability to not just lead in regard to roster decisions but be able to hold people accountable and cultivate an environment where everyone can thrive.

From what I heard about Langdon before Friday’s news conference, he’s very intelligent — he graduated from Duke with a math degree, for crying out loud, while playing hoops and being a big-time baseball player. He’s very patient, not rushing to make decisions until every possible outcome is covered in detail. Per team sources, part of what sold Gores and company on Langdon during the interview process was his willingness to put people around him who can help in areas he may not be as well versed in. There was nothing “lone wolf” about Langdon, per team sources.

The Pistons desperately needed someone who not only knows what he’s doing as it pertains to roster and financial decisions on the basketball side, but someone who can run a basketball program like a business, with common goals, culture and an overarching plan. Coincidentally, Langdon has been searching for the team that needs that, too.

This is a young group, and there are obviously some people who believe throwing young players into the fire best helps with the development. That hasn’t necessarily been the case here. While I know the plan is to use the cap space to acquire contracts attached with assets, is the hope for those players to be veterans who can still play and take some of the pressure off the young players who may not have been ready for as big of roles right away?

I think that is exactly what we’re going to try to do. Like I said, these young players, they need to play, but, yes, bringing in veterans who hopefully have a lot of know-how, some IQ and can shoot the ball, that’s going to be the target so that we can spread the floor and make it easier for the development of our young players. We’re going to look to do that, hopefully, through trade and free agency. That is how we’re going to attack this summer.

Analysis: Langdon was pretty blunt about the team being open to taking on contracts to acquire more assets. And for the Pistons fans who might not like the sound of that, as they want the team to make big splashes in free agency, this is the route the organization should have gone in years ago as it began rebuilding and had cap space to play with. Langdon has made it very clear that the young players are still the priority. Does that mean all of them? We’ll find out on that, but it’s obvious internal development will continue to be at the forefront for the immediate future. However, it also appears Langdon and company are going to go after more experienced players who, while they might be slightly overpaid or from a team that just needs to shed salary, can help the organization be better sooner rather than later, while allowing the young players on the roster to develop without every shot, dribble and pass being life or death. Furthermore, it’s very clear Langdon has identified two major weaknesses on this roster: lack of IQ and shooting. The two biggest holes next to perimeter and interior defense.

What are Michael Blackstone and J.R. Holden bringing to the front office? Why were they priorities for you?

Michael Blackstone … the thing I needed the most, especially coming into this situation, is a strategist, someone who really understands the cap. He has a big-time negotiating background and is very systematic and thoughtful in regards to what we need to from a roster and staffing standpoint. He’s someone I trust if I can’t be in the building or in a meeting to execute on the things we’ve talked about and keep us moving in the right direction.

J.R. Holden and I have a longstanding relationship from playing overseas. He understands what winning looks like and the culture and environment that we’re trying to create here. He’s cut his teeth here before with Stan (Van Gundy), in Philadelphia and the last five years in Brooklyn with Sean Marks. On the scouting, I trust his eye. He’s a diligent worker, and he’ll bring a lot from a scouting perspective.

Analysis: As I mentioned previously, one of the things that Gores and company found attractive about Langdon is his willingness to cover his own holes. He mentioned Blackstone’s expertise in an area Langdon feels he can be stronger in. In talking to people around the league, they said Blackstone, while he played in the background in New Orleans, was someone very beneficial to executive vice president David Griffin. Blackstone’s leaving for Detroit was a tough blow for the Pelicans, I was told. As for Holden, he’s been around the block as a scout nationally and internationally. He has seen basketball played in leagues far and wide and has generated many relationships through his travels and scouting background working for NBA teams.

How did you decide that you didn’t want to carry on with Monty Williams (as head coach)?

Monty is a hell of a coach and hell of a man. I think it was an organizational decision that Tom and I were aligned on. We just wanted a fresh start for the organization and players at this time. Obviously, it was difficult because I know he cares and I think he was in a place where he wanted to turn this thing around, but Tom and I decided, at this time, the right decision was a fresh start.

Analysis: If you were wondering why it took so long for Langdon to be formally introduced to local media, the drawn-out decision involving Williams’ future with the ballclub — coupled with the fact Langdon and Gores wanted to wait until Langdon got to work and had actions to speak on — was a big part. Williams was let go Wednesday, and within 24 hours, the team announced Langdon’s news conference. Per team sources, there were a lot of back-and-forth discussions over the last few weeks at the top level of Detroit’s organization about whether Williams should come back. I believe the decision Langdon and Gores made was the right one because the organization can now move forward at a delicate time with a different line of thinking and no previous feelings or emotions baked in. This is the first time since 2018 that the Pistons will usher in both a new front-office leader and coach, and if the theme of this summer is “synergy,” it felt necessary for this move to happen.

Cade Cunningham, obviously, has the highest profile on the team. What are your impressions of him and is he someone who can be the cornerstone of a championship franchise?

As for Cade, he and I have had some very good conversations thus far. He’s a high-character human being and mature beyond his years. I think he’s a big-time basketball player at a young age. … We’re hoping to put a group around him that can bolster his growth but not make it as hard for him to do the things he had to do this last year. Also, we want to make it so that he can help other players get better. We want to have other players who can help so that he can help other players get better. He’s an unselfish player who I think really has a chance to be impactful at a high level and be the best player. In terms of championship level, who knows? I really, really hope so. We’re not going to start talking about championships here. That’s a long way away. We have to talk about foundational growth.

Analysis: While the shooting and spacing comments from earlier surely caught your attention, the candidness to want to build a team around Cunningham’s strengths was one of the more telling quotes from the day about not only how Langdon views Cunningham but how that didn’t seem to be how the roster was constructed a year ago. Despite not having a roster that fully played to Cunningham’s best attributes, he still had a really good breakout season with stats nearly identical to Paolo Banchero, who was named an All-Star. I remain very confident that Cunningham will get the max rookie extension within the next few weeks.

Cade Cunningham averaged 22.7 points and 7.5 assists last season. (Jesse Johnson / USA Today)

Tom Gores

You mentioned having one voice, one plan. In previous years, did you think that wasn’t the case?

I don’t think we’ve had the caliber of leadership that we do with Trajan. … I looked at Trajan as a CEO. I don’t think we’ve had a situation where someone can thread all of those things together. Without taking away anything from Trajan and his basketball knowledge and being a basketball person, he’s a CEO. We can all talk about what it takes to win in basketball, but there’s so much that threads together. I would say as much as we’ve had great people — Stan Van Gundy was here and is a great man, was the coach and president … Troy (Weaver) did good work for us, he loved basketball, the court. We’ve brought in good people. However, what I think what we have in Trajan is someone who can thread all of it together. Our historic franchise, players, tenacity to win … Trajan has an ability to connect all the dots. As much as we’ve always wanted to get the best people here, you do need a leader here day to day. Trajan brings that skill.

Analysis: To me, it is very clear that Gores, through this answer and several other comments during the presser, has realized there is more that goes into running a successful organization than just having someone who runs it who loves basketball. Langdon, clearly, loves the game, evaluating players, trades … all of the stuff that we, too, love, but it appears Gores believes his new president knows how to combine all of that with a culture and detailed plan to boot. Successful franchises aren’t just successful because they got lucky and stumbled into a top-50 player. Not the sustainable ones, at least. The sustainable ones have a culture and program in place that allows players who might not necessarily be top-50 to come in and push their ceiling further than some may have anticipated it goes. A lot of stuff goes into that, and Gores, obviously, did not feel his organization carried that previously.

Why was it important to move forward with a new coach and front-office leader in place?

As far as moving forward, after assessing everything, I really felt the best thing for the organization was a fresh start. Our mistakes in the past have nothing to do with one person. There is a lot that accumulated, and I feel like we just needed a fresh start. We have a great core of young players who are high-character and tremendous young players. We’ve got a lot to offer, but at the end of the day, I thought we needed a fresh start and we needed Trajan to lead with a fresh start. Sometimes you can get held back as an organization because of your history or past, and I believe in Trajan so much as an executive that I didn’t think we should be held back at all. It’s not to say that we didn’t have tremendous people, but at the end of the day, my full assessment, and Trajan has only been here three weeks … he was ready for a new thing and we were, too. That’s the big decision we made.

Analysis: Gores’ wording here suggests that it was he who most wanted to move on from Williams and that Langdon, after many conversations between the two, eventually agreed a fresh start was best. Langdon was given full autonomy to do whatever he deemed necessary with both the previous front office and the coaching staff, so Gores was prepared to eat all of the money still owed to Williams if that was what Langdon chose to do, per team sources. And while there may have been a point over the last few weeks where Langdon was leaning toward keeping Williams, Gores, I believe, stepped in and did the right thing. The team needs a fresh start. Furthermore, Gores was here last season. Langdon wasn’t. Gores surely has information Langdon isn’t privy to because of distance from the situation or, at the very least, Gores has a better understanding of the emotions from everyone involved. Yes, you don’t want an owner meddling in basketball decisions. And, yes, Langdon was given the ability to do what he felt was best. However, I do believe Gores, Langdon or the combination of Gores and Langdon made the right call here. The time to start anew was now. Not halfway through next season or at the end of next season.

If there is a pecking order, is it you, Arn (Tellem) and then (Trajan)? How does it work?

Trajan is the boss. He’s the president of basketball. He can come to me, he can get recommendations from Arn. One of the things we needed was that single source of decision-making and have that person really pull together everything so that we can make decisions.

Analysis: This tracks with what I’ve reported throughout the offseason. The goal of hiring a president of basketball operations was to have one distinct voice directing the ship while having complete synergy from the top down. Of course, Gores is always going to be involved in major decisions. All owners are, in some capacity. They own the team. It is their money being spent. However, Gores constantly made it clear Friday that this is Langdon’s show and he will be the one that everything funnels through.

(Photo of Trajan Langdon, left and Pistons owner Tom Gores: Carlos Osorio / Associated Press)