Auburn Hills — They deserve a look. And at first glance, the Pistons will deserve more than a fleeting one this season.
Owner Tom Gores guaranteed a win about a half-hour before his team’s home opener Wednesday night. And he got it, as the Pistons began a season of “high expectations” with a 113-102 win over the Washington Wizards at The Palace.
What the fans should get this season is something they’ve been waiting for far too long.
What they’ll get is a team with an edge in talent many nights, and talent that figures to play with an edge more often than not, led by an imposing young frontline.
What they’ll also get, it appears, is a team that — unlike the past few incarnations — will keep their attention for more than a week or two.
After an offseason that saw a major overhaul of the Pistons roster, from the high-profile signing of free agent Josh Smith to the surprising trade for Brandon Jennings to the return of Chauncey Billups, there’s some genuine buzz about this team again.
“The energy in this building was something familiar,” Billups said. “It felt really good.”
Especially for Gores, who, as promised, was front and center court Wednesday night, on his feet for player introductions and again in the fourth quarter, high-fiving every fan within reach when Billups — Mr. Big Shot is back for an encore — buried consecutive 3-pointers to put the game out of reach.
“I’ve seen him do that many times before,” coach Maurice Cheeks said, smiling, after his winning debut.
So have these fans, of course. The announced attendance was 19,258, and as Billups went to the free throw line in the final minutes, most of them were serenading him with chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!”
Hey, it’s been a while, OK?
Frontline spurs optimism
Even for Gores, who purchased the Pistons in June 2011 but hasn’t had much to cheer yet, with a 44-94 record in his first two seasons. He called those first two years a “transition time” in a pregame media session Wednesday that touched on a variety of topics, including, yes, the possibility of relocating downtown. And he talked about staying largely out of sight, working “behind the scenes” with team president Joe Dumars and the rest of the front office to rebuild and rebrand this franchise.
“But I feel like now that things have developed, it’s time for me to be here,” Gores said. “Joe and I have made the decision that we want to win now, without sacrificing the future. That was our philosophy in the offseason. … I think we’ve played this out about as good as we can, and now we just have to perform.”
Everyone’s wondering how the Pistons’ starting frontcourt — Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond — will perform together this season. And there surely will be nights where seven 3-point attempts from Smith — he made a few Wednesday — will spell trouble. As will the foul trouble that forced Drummond, who nearly had a double-double by halftime, to sit for much of the second half.
But that trio combined for 55 points and 29 rebounds Wednesday, led by Monroe’s 24 and 16. The Pistons held a 2-to-1 advantage in points in the paint (56-28), and that’s a positive sign moving forward.
“That’s where we feel our advantage is, with those three big guys,” Billups said. “We should have an advantage 90 percent of the nights in this league.”
That advantage helped offset the backcourt concerns against the Wizards, with starting point guard Brandon Jennings (broken jaw) and Rodney Stuckey (broken thumb) both in street clothes to start the season.
And if not for the 18 turnovers — plus a hot-shooting night from the Wizards’ Trevor Ariza, who hit six 3-pointers — it might’ve been over much earlier.
Gores: Fans will come
Then again, the fun — and the intrigue — is only just beginning. Gores said Wednesday he’s “very excited” to see just what this team will do.
“And a little bit nervous,” he added.
As everyone at The Palace should be, really. The Pistons haven’t made the playoffs since 2009, and they haven’t finished with a winning record since ’08, or four head coaches ago. That’s a drought that has to end this season. And that’s a point Gores reiterated before the game.
“I have very high expectations,” the owner said. “Of course you guys want to hear this, right? We expect the playoffs. I expected it last year. And as I’ve said, I’d be very disappointed if we didn’t make it. It would be a huge disappointment if we didn’t make it. We have to be successful this year.”
Cheeks, for his part, isn’t focusing on any mandate. He’s preoccupied with piecing together some cohesive five-man units, which isn’t easy when the preseason gets derailed by injuries the way this one did. The new head coach used only eight players Wednesday, with rookie first-round pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope getting 27 minutes.
Still, Cheeks said, “Expectations are what they are. You either live up to them or not. But you still gotta go play, either way.”
If they play the way their talent suggests they’re capable, though, those expectations certainly are within reach. And if they do, Gores insisted Wednesday, “This fan base will show up.”
“You just gotta deserve them,” he added. “And I think that’s where we’re at right now.”