Drive General Manager Jon Phelps Talks Pistons, Dwight Buycks, Running a G League Team

As the G-League season wound down I had the opportunity to sit down with Grand Rapids Drive General Manager Jon Phelps and talk about some of the ins and outs of running a G-League team.

The Drive are warming up before a game against fellow playoff hopefuls Greensboro Swarm, affiliates of the Charlotte Hornets. Grand Rapids is in the midst of an impressive playoff push to finish the season, although the tragedy of Zeke Upshaw is going to end up turning the entire end of the season on its head, this stretch is one of the most impressive and memorable in the Drive’s short history. The big men are going through their early warm-ups at the moment and I walk over to the court-side table where Phelps and other team executives typically sit during games. The entire interview he has an eye on the court watching players go through warmups before the game.

Dwight Buycks signed a two-way contract with the Detroit Pistons in the offseason, and played a key role on the Grand Rapids Drive before being called up to the main roster. Image: Matt Slocum/Associated Press

The first topic of conversation was roster moves and construction. The Drive act very much so as a dependent organization to the Pistons when it comes to building the roster. When I asked him how independent the Drive were allowed to be he said: “There wasn’t really an independence, everything is aligned… we never cut against what Detroit wants.” He followed, “Everything is approved through Detroit in what is really a team effort.”

It should be noted that this lack of independence is not a bad thing, at least not in Phelps’ eyes. He laughed a bit when mentioning that “Detroit is very active in their interest in the G-League” and talked a great deal about having synergy between the Drive and Pistons. The picture that was painted here (and other places in talking to him) was very strong. It is not that the Pistons are over-bearing in Grand Rapids, but that the Pistons remain very connected with their G-League team and make a great effort to keep up with the developmental franchise.

There is a chance that this changes in a post-Stan Van Gundy world but this approach is something that Tom Gores has talked about with some regularity. When he hired Stan Van Gundy and gave him the dual role of coach and president of basketball operations he talked about wanting to have the top floor connected to the bottom. He has also expressed frustration of pre-Van Gundy years of the apparent disconnect between areas of the team. Regardless of whether this practice will continue or not, it is consistent with one of Gores goals for the team during Van Gundy’s tenure.

Another topic, which is one of my favorites to talk to G Leaguers of all sorts about, is the total lack of stability in the league. Players rarely play more than one season with the same team, if that, and any player can get a contract from any NBA team at any time as well. Throw in the two-way contract players this past season and there can be huge day-to-day changes in the way a team looks. Phelps immediately brought up a game against Deleware earlier in the season where circumstances left the Drive with a grand total of seven healthy players.

To try and combat the often constantly changing rosters and sudden loss of players, Phelps talked about looking for specific kinds of players. “We focus a lot on positional versatility, so if you have sudden holes you have guys on the roster who can fill in right away. Our coaches also try their best to coach versatility as well.” On this topic it was interesting to hear him finish off with: “It’s kind of like life in a lot of ways, we don’t know what’s going to happen… It’s inevitable that things will happen and sometimes you just have to suck it up.” Head coach Ryan Krueger would largely share the same sentiment about the instability of the G League as well, saying straight up that “There is no stability in the G-League.”

Toward the end of our time, I asked about how he felt the Pistons contributed to the Drive. I had heard from other places that not all NBA teams are as invested in the G League as the Pistons. Though Phelps was hesitant to talk about other teams, in his own words: “I have too much on my plate with my own job to be worrying about how other teams operate.” But he was very clear about how great he feels Detroit has been in providing support to the Drive. “We feel a tremendous amount of support and know the value that they place on the G League and the Drive and it’s incredibly helpful.” Phelps emphasized that they try to do and treat everything in a first-class manner, an attitude that stems straight from the Pistons.

We finished up our conversation by talking about Dwight Buycks and what it means to have a guy like him come to Grand Rapids on a two-way deal, then get a call-up to the Pistons full time and successful enough to get a full NBA deal. Phelps said that they all take a great deal of pride in those things and seeing a guy make it in the NBA from Grand Rapids is what it’s all about.

The last thing I asked Phelps was if he could change anything about the G League, what would it be? In an interesting turn of events, he could not think of a good answer to give. He talked about that the two-way deals were a good improvement and that the league brass is very receptive to the anything they have to say but he could not think of anything at that moment.

The Drive would go on to beat the Swarm 116 -97 and would continue to win down the stretch on their way to their first-ever playoff appearance. Of course, all of the great memories and fun of this stretch will forever be overshadowed by the tragic passing of Zeke Upshaw, who collapsed in the closing moments of the final game of the season. Looking back at that moment, everything that was so terrible about it, I can’t help but think of what Phelps said. “The G-League is a lot like life in a lot of ways, you never know what’s going to happen.” That ended up being truer than you ever want it to be for the Drive this year.

With the departure of Stan Van Gundy, it is not out of the question that changes will come to the Drive in some way, shape, or form, but the new regime would do well to keep most operations within the club the same. Grand Rapids has produced several players on NBA rosters and just finished up their best season in franchise history. The thing that really stuck with me after talking to Phelps was how often he praised the professionalism and support from the Pistons. For any failings the Van Gundy led Pistons had, that is one area where they had success. Hopefully, the new regime does not give ground on that front.

Special thanks to Jon Phelps for humoring me for a bit and everyone else in the Drive organization for letting me hang around.

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