Published December 26, 2016

This is what I was afraid of.

Heading into the 2016-17 NBA season, I had my reservations about the Pistons.

My muted optimism was based on the adage that it’s one thing to go from being mediocre to OK, and quite another to go from OK to good.

The Pistons made the playoffs last spring by finally ending the morass of losing seasons—seven in a row—with a 44-38 mark. That was a 12-game improvement from 2014-15. Between 2008-15, the Pistons’ average win total was around 30.

So they won 44 games last year in boss Stan Van Gundy’s second season and gave the eventual champion Cleveland Cavaliers a battle, despite being swept in the first round. Good for them.

But the Pistons went into this season without that usual label of being a ragtag, cute team from which nobody expected anything of note.

The ascent from 44 wins to 50 and to a top four seed in the Eastern Conference—with the accompanying home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs—is a much greater task than going from 30 wins to 44.

You see that now.

The Pistons are 14-18 and have again been relegated to a team that sees moral victories in giving squads like Golden State a tussle before eventually capitulating.

After last season’s modicum of success, a late-December visit from the Warriors would have been circled on the schedule as a barometer of the Pistons’ continued improvement from Van Gundy’s first team in Detroit. And the Pistons would have been expected to win the game—not just come close in a gallant effort.

The Pistons beat the Warriors at the Palace last season. It was one of only nine losses by Golden State.

But last season was, well, last season.

The current version of the Pistons is again unlikeable. After one season’s respite from the bitching and underachieving, the Pistons are fracturing yet again.

Instead of building on the foundation that was laid in 2015-16, there appears to be some in-fighting and mystified players. The coach, who’s also the president, is the law but we all know that in the NBA, the phrase “I fought the law and the law won,” doesn’t always apply.

But at least the players can’t take their grievances upstairs, because there is no upstairs, per se. Van Gundy rules on the sidelines and in the front office.

These delicate times with the Pistons are why having an experienced coach who wields the power that SVG wields, should come in handy.

This isn’t John Kuester. This isn’t Larry Frank.

SVG minces no words when talking about his team to the media. I’m sure that doesn’t go over particularly well in the locker room at times, but this is why owner Tom Gores gave Van Gundy the dual roles.

You have a beef with the coach? Talk to the coach’s boss.

Ha!

But even a man who rules with an iron fist, like Van Gundy does with the Pistons, isn’t necessarily ticketed to the NBA Finals.

What’s happening now with the Pistons is troubling. The mojo and karma from last season is a distant memory. If the players expected to throw their jerseys on the court 82 times this season and grab 50 wins, they’re sorely mistaken.

To the rest of the league, the Pistons are a playoff team that has a target on their back, though not as big as the ones in Cleveland, Oakland or San Antonio. The Pistons can’t sneak up on anyone this season.

You can blame the loss to injury of point guard Reggie Jackson and subsequently his return, during which the Pistons are 3-7. You can say that the team is having trouble adjusting to Jackson’s style versus that of his fill-in, Ish Smith.

Baloney.

Jackson was the starting point guard all of last season. Smith was the starting point guard for 21 games this fall. The coach and the supporting players haven’t changed all that much from 2015-16.

There shouldn’t be any adjustment from the sub to the starter. If anything, it should be the other way around.

Excuses, excuses.

There were reports that players were grumbling about touches. Some players’ body language has been distressing. There was a much ballyhooed players-only meeting that accomplished absolutely nothing. All the meeting did was become a source of derision for the coach after the Pistons defecated the bed in Chicago the next night.

“Team meeting my ass! Talk is cheap” SVG said with disdain to the press after the debacle in Chicago.

He’s right.

The Pistons are a soft team, mentally. They tasted a little success last season and they can’t handle it.

Van Gundy probably thought his team was ready to take that next step, but he was wrong. Certainly, some of that falls on him.

The Pistons of the 1980s were a portrait of continuous improvement despite some gut-wrenching playoff losses.

Isiah Thomas was drafted in 1981 and the Pistons went from 21 wins to 39 in Zeke’s first season. They stumbled a tad to 37 wins the next season, but then the win totals went like this: 49, 46, 46, 52, 54, 63.

But the thing about Thomas’ Pistons was the ascension in terms of playoff success virtually every spring.

Image result for isiah thomas chuck daly
Thomas was Daly’s general, on and off the court.

Example: even though the 1985 team won 46 games versus 49 the year before, the ’85 team won a playoff round and gave the vaunted Boston Celtics a spirited six-game series, whereas the 1984 squad lost in the first round to Bernard King and the Knicks.

And even though the 1986 team fell back to losing in the first round, the 1987 Pistons went to the Conference Finals and probably should have gotten past the Celtics, were it not for an errant pass by Thomas to Larry Bird.

The 1988 Pistons lost a heartbreaking seven-game Finals series to the Lakers, so the 1989 Pistons went 15-2 and swept the Lakers for the championship.

The Pistons’ tic-tac-toe move through the 1980s was a marvel to see.

The common denominator throughout the decade was Isiah, arguably the most mentally—and physically—tough professional athlete in Detroit sports history. Isiah often willed his team to victory—whether it was a regular season game in December in Indiana or on the big stage of the NBA Finals in Los Angeles or Portland.

Today’s Pistons point guard, Jackson, is no Isiah Thomas.

That by itself is no crime, and the point guard doesn’t have to be the heart and soul of the team in the NBA, but what does it say about the mental state of the Pistons when the starting point guard’s return from injury is blamed on the team’s malaise?

Shouldn’t Jackson’s return have been a welcome thing? Shouldn’t that have spurred the Pistons, with all due respect to Ish Smith?

There are mental midgets all over the floor at the Palace.

Chuck Daly, a Hall of Fame coach, had as part of his genius, the knack for knowing when his team needed to police itself. When the 1989 team acquired Mark Aguirre from Dallas for Adrian Dantley, Aguirre’s new teammates took him to dinner out west, where the Pistons were playing during a long road trip in February.

It was around Valentines Day but the dinner wasn’t warm and fuzzy.

The Pistons, led by Thomas and Bill Laimbeer, told Aguirre in no uncertain terms that if his reputation in Dallas for being a team cancer was true, then it was ending, right here and now.

Aguirre fell in line. The Pistons won the NBA championship four months later.

Andre Drummond, Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are good basketball players. Hell, even the worst NBA team has good players.

But this thing going on with the Pistons now isn’t about talent. It’s about the stuff that goes on between the ears, which in the NBA can make or break you more than talent level will.

Stan Van Gundy can’t wave a magic wand and make his players mentally tough. He can’t expect Reggie Jackson to morph into Isiah Thomas.

But what SVG can do is call upon his years of experience coaching in the NBA and go into mad scientist mode, coming up with different schemes, lineups and rotations. He might try trades again, but he’s made an awful lot of those already.

It’s a chicken and egg thing here.

The Pistons should become bigger mentally the more they win and build upon last season. But to do that, they need to get bigger mentally.

See the dilemma?

Thomas was mentally tough coming out of Indiana, playing for Bobby Knight. If you can play for Knight, you can play for anyone.

You can also say that Stan Van Gundy is no Chuck Daly. That’s fair.

But you can’t tell me that Daly would have had the career he did without tough stalwarts like Thomas, Laimbeer and Ricky Mahorn.

Daly’s brilliance was in knowing when to push and pull back with his players.

Van Gundy has been doing a lot of pushing, because he doesn’t yet have the blend of players who can be trusted if SVG were to pull back.

It isn’t easy to coach in today’s NBA, even if your power extends to the executive washroom.

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