Published Dec. 30, 2018
Well that didn’t take long.
We’re not even to the new year—just 34 games into the season—and Pistons coach Dwane Casey is already apologizing to the fans.
If you arched a brow at the team’s 13-7 start, including a nifty win over the defending world champion Golden State Warriors, you could also be excused if you were waiting for the other sneaker to drop.
It has. With a thud.
The Pistons are proving now who they really are: an average NBA team that will beat the teams worse than they are most of the time, and lose to the teams that are better than they are most of the time.
The 13-7 start was propped up by a soft schedule and the good fortune of the other team’s big stars being in street clothes that particular night due to injury.
But it was Friday night’s loss—a 125-88 beat down at the hands of the Indiana Pacers—that caused first-year coach Casey to issue his mea culpa.
“I first want to apologize to the fans of the Detroit Pistons; that’s one of the worst exhibitions we’ve put out on the floor,” a beside-himself-Casey said after the carnage at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“To stand for what the Detroit Pistons organization stands for, which is hard work, togetherness, grit, grime, we had no examples of that tonight,” he added.
I might argue with Casey’s definition of what the franchise stands for, especially for the past decade, but that’s nitpicking. It’s nice that the coach feels that way, I suppose.
What is it about this franchise?
An enigma wrapped in a riddle
Why can’t the pieces ever fit? Why do the players continue to zig when their teammates are zagging? Why can’t any coach get them to play consistently for any sustained length of time?
Why is effort a bugaboo more than occasionally, which has beset every Pistons coach since the late Flip Saunders left in 2008?
Casey must be mystified.
He’s coming off a successful tenure in Toronto, and is the reigning Coach of the Year.
Stan Van Gundy, Casey’s predecessor, wasn’t chopped liver as a coach, either, if you simply looked at SVG’s won/lost record before signing on with the Pistons in May 2014.
You can talk all you want about the roster not being perfect, and SVG’s malfeasance as a president when it came to managing owner Tom Gores’ money, hindering short-term efforts to improve personnel.
But effort has been lacking on too many occasions with this team.
It was suggested by NBA pundits that SVG’s hard-driving style, which sometimes included throwing players under the proverbial bus, grated on players toward the end of his time in Detroit. Fine.
But what about now, with Casey, who’s been widely lauded for player relations?
Why can’t Dwane Casey get the Pistons to stop loafing?
The apology from the coach is appreciated, and the players-only meeting that resulted from the Pacers debacle is perhaps well-intended, but why are we going down this path again?
Don’t look at Blake Griffin.
Griffin: the Pistons’ only true leader
If there’s any silver lining to this basketball cloud that’s been hovering over the Motor City for 10 years, it’s that at least the Pistons’ best player appears to be a good leader, and maybe the team’s hardest worker. That’s a good combination.
Griffin has, without question, taken over the team—both on and off the court. His words are the ones that matter most and are hung on after the games when he speaks to the media. In that regard, Griffin has been what the Pistons have been lacking for years.
But this has been canceled out by the regression of point guard Reggie Jackson and the continued enigma that is big man Andre Drummond.
There’s been some emergence of sharpshooter Reggie Bullock and some welcome defensive energy from young Bruce Brown. And Griffin is on pace to have his biggest season in five years, certainly All-Star caliber.
Yet here the Pistons are, again treading water in the inferior of the two NBA conferences.
They will probably make the playoffs, but they won’t have home court advantage and do you see them beating the likes of the Milwaukee Bucks or Philadelphia 76ers or Boston Celtics four times in seven games or less?
The Pistons’ lackadaisical ways manifest into sloppy basketball. They provide more turnovers every night than a bakery. And aside from Bullock, the Pistons are mostly the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.
I understand that the NBA’s grueling, 82-game grind is going to offer peaks and valleys. I can see how a team can look like world beaters one night and then fatigued and out of sorts 24 hours later.
But the Pistons are more than that. Or rather, worse than that.
They’re a maddeningly inconsistent bunch that only appears to punch the clock for 48 minutes when the mood strikes them. And it hasn’t struck them very often in December—a month in which they’ve gone 4-11.
Jekyll and Hyde
On Sunday in Orlando, the Pistons, fresh off their team meeting—which is more often a kiss of death than it is an elixir—weren’t all that inspiring until the final few minutes against the Magic. A 104-95 deficit was dissolved in about three minutes, but the Magic won at the buzzer, 109-107.
“Our guys laid it on the line,” Casey said after the loss, which put the Pistons at 16-18 and sinking fast in the Eastern Conference standings. “We were 14 down, the guys came in and gave it their heart and soul.”
The Jekyll and Hyde act when it comes to the pro basketball team in Detroit is one that has long ago grown stale. Van Gundy was another coach who found himself alternately praising and deriding his team throughout the NBA schedule.
Casey is a good coach. His resume speaks for itself. But even he must stay up nights, wondering why his team is so schizophrenic.
It’s the culture, coach. And it ain’t going to be easy to change.
When a franchise hasn’t tasted any success whatsoever in 10 years—the Pistons haven’t won a playoff game since 2008—that defeatist reputation can seep into the bloodstream of everyone who slips on that team’s uniform.
It hasn’t helped that the Pistons have been without true leadership since the Goin’ to Work Pistons of the mid-2000s.
It hasn’t helped that the Pistons have had a revolving door reserved for head coaches.
It hasn’t helped that when it comes to the draft and free agency forks in the road, the Pistons mostly take the wrong tine.
It hasn’t helped that the team’s impending change of ownership from Bill Davidson’s widow, Karen to eventually Tom Gores, essentially put the handcuffs on GM Joe Dumars for nearly two years.
And it hasn’t helped that the Pistons have lacked a true superstar for far too long. How they’ve managed to miss the playoffs in nine of the past 10 years yet not drafted in the top three in that time, is astounding. That’s almost impossible to do, yet the Pistons have done it. They haven’t reaped the rewards of mediocrity.
I wouldn’t put Griffin into the elite category, where he once resided, but he’s the closest thing the Pistons have had to such a player in quite some time.
Casey: team’s best hope?
Trouble is, the Pistons’ roster flexibility in building around Griffin and, to a degree, Drummond, is being smothered by the remnants of Van Gundy’s bull in a china shop manner while team president.
The Pistons appear destined for another year of anywhere between 37-44 wins. Playoffs? Perhaps. Progress? None.
A glimmer of hope might be Casey. While the Pistons get themselves out from under Van Gundy’s bad contracts, at least they have a proven coach who might—might—be the one who can wring the most out of the talent he has.
But even if Casey can make chicken salad out of chicken feathers, it will still be chicken salad in a league built around prime rib.