Pistons guard Rodney Stuckey (3) scored 18 points in Saturday’s win over the Wizards, which was Detroit’s second victory in as many days. (G Fiume/Getty Images)
Washington -- It looks better, they should be better but the Pistons are missing something that's sorely preventing them from actually being better as they head into this pseudo-holiday break.
Instead of giving teams a lump of coal, the Pistons played Santa, gifting more than a few wins — games that would surely change the tenor of public perception and confidence. But to bring smiles to the faces of Pistons fans, they've got to get ugly.
How ugly? Grimy. Or, in the words of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, a phrase immortalized in last season's playoffs, "a little nasty."
Don't let two wins against the Washington Wizards, a collection of players who should be from "The Island of Misfit Toys," fool you.
Winning back-to-back games against arguably the worst organization in the league won't inspire the type of internal or external confidence that's needed.
Even the Pistons' biggest critics wouldn't concede if they had a chance to get James Harden, they would've jumped at it — but the Pistons are where they are to this point, their 9-21 record slightly ahead of last year's pace (8-22).
Basketball-Reference.com lists the Pistons as having an "expected record" of 13-17, a mark that would place them squarely in contention for the eighth and final playoff spot.
When veteran forward Tayshaun Prince was asked earlier this week if this team lacked the right amount of "grimy," he didn't hesitate.
"Yeah. You know what? Yeah it is," said Prince, a day after losing in Toronto, a game that was as winnable as the last two against the Wizards.
"I don't know if I want to say that but that's one of the trends we have," Pistons coach Lawrence Frank said. "Sometimes the other guy wants the rebound too."
Recent losses to the Clippers, Nets and Raptors illustrate that when it comes down to it, they haven't gotten ugly enough to win games — and although this roster isn't perfect, the answers can be found within.
Offensive rebounds fall off
It feels like this team has this annoying habit of giving up offensive rebounds, some that have directly led to losses this month — jarring when one considers the Pistons haven't beaten anyone not named "Wizards" or "Cavaliers" since Nov. 28.
"In Brooklyn we were in man (defense), so it comes down to knuckling down," Prince said. "It's not that we don't have grimy enough guys to get them."
Although it isn't as chronic an issue as it was a month or so ago, and the Pistons rank in the bottom third in terms of giving up offensive rebounds, these mishaps seem to happen at the worst time.
Prince said it starts at the top, with guard penetration that forces bigs to help.
If it isn't Chicago's Joakim Noah playing volleyball to himself, it's Lamar Odom or Gerald Wallace or at this point, insert any opponent's name who just so happens to be at the right place at the right time.
"It's demoralizing," Prince said. "You have to play 48 seconds or more, now you're trying to stop them for a minute. You have to limit teams to one shot, especially on the road."
No one would argue forward Jason Maxiell would carry the mantle for being grimy, but even he concurred with Prince.
"I agree," Maxiell said. "Sometimes we have to have the grimy players down the stretch. We have some grimy players, you never know what night who's gonna show up."
Time to speak up
Being a young team, Frank believes some are hesitant to speak up when miscues happen — a crucial stage of a team's development — and personnel plays a huge part in it, too.
"Once you confront someone, they come back at you," Frank said. "In our league, the special teams have the internal pressure. Where you don't want to let a brother down. There's culture changers, but many teams don't have that guy. You get so sick and tired of losing where you say 'enough's enough.'"
Frank has to trust the best players, young or old, to perform down the stretch and not operate out of fear, i.e. Andre Drummond's free-throw shooting.
Corey Maggette and Prince have been the players to speak up, but even they realize there's a limit to what can be said — and how long their voices should be heard.
"You have young guys, so they may be different," said Maxiell, looking in Drummond's direction. "You can yell at him. I don't yell. I might say it aggressively. I might put the paws on him. He understands. This is his first year."
"(Drummond) takes it in good. He's not gonna fold up by being criticized. He listens."
With a home-heavy schedule coming up soon (six of eight at The Palace), we'll soon find out if players and coaches have had "enough."