Auburn Hills — Halfway through a marathon of an NBA season, the Pistons know as much about themselves as they did in late September, when they convened for training camp.
In fact, one could argue they don’t know as much as they previously believed, considering their defense was expected to be a staple but has failed them tremendously, particularly at home, where they’ve taken 14 of their 24 losses.
“We’re still new to each other. It’s not gonna happen overnight or in 40 games,” Josh Smith said after the Pistons’ 112-103 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers Monday at The Palace.
“We have to figure out what we’re doing right in the games that we’re winning and try as much as possible to mimic those successful moments.”
Smith scored 24, and in the games where he’s scored 20 points or more, the Pistons are 8-3. Brandon Jennings and Greg Monroe had off-games, and Smith believes the team should be more unselfish, seemingly a simple solution.
“We’re very unselfish when we win,” Smith said. “Guys are helping each other out on defense, not caring if their man scores, just stopping the initial play. When we lose, it’s the total opposite — the ball is sticking and too much individual plays besides playing together.”
On the other side, Clippers coach Doc Rivers has taken over changing, evolving teams in Boston and in Orlando. Although Rivers took a Celtics team that went from the basement to the penthouse in 2008, winning the NBA title, he said there’s no exact moment where the light comes on collectively for a team.
“I don’t even know the answer. I think it takes time,” Rivers said before the game. “Sometimes you figure it out quickly, but not all.
“Sometimes you don’t figure it out until the following year for some of the guys. It’s easier for (the players), they figure you out quickly. It’s harder for me and the coaches to figure them out. You have to figure out each guy individually.”
It’s clear the Pistons have been a scattered team through 41 games and with the edict laid out by owner Tom Gores about the playoffs being the expectation, coach Maurice Cheeks has a tougher task, Rivers said, because of the youth.
“It’s always tougher. The veterans are over themselves, they’re all about team, they had their day,” Rivers said. “They’re not trying to establish anything, they’re hungry and desperate for winning. Young guys all say they want to win, but they really want ‘their day.’ They want to establish that and it takes time.”
Jennings is trying to toe the balance between facilitating and scoring, while Monroe is approaching restricted free agency this summer. Andre Drummond, all of 20 years old, is having to adjust to higher expectations and being the anchor of what should be a formidable defense.
“With a young team you have to convince them, if you win, you’ll get your day,” said Rivers. “It goes up and down at times.”
Then he added, “The stars will be the stars. The role guys, you have to get them to be stars in their role. I think that’s tougher.”
The Pistons certainly haven’t determined a go-to-guy or even established an identity through 41 games. Predicting which Pistons team will show up is similar to picking the evening lottery.
“We’re still searching for ourselves into this season,” Smith said. “We have to play desperate basketball.”
They played desperate in Washington against the Wizards Saturday, but that grit disappeared Monday as the Clippers got easy layups and dunks with very little resistance from a young Pistons team that should’ve known what the Clippers aimed to do.
It certainly drew Smith’s ire.
“You don’t want to make that (youth) an excuse. As a professional you have to be a student of the game,” he said. “I don’t care if you’re young, old, you always can learn something.
“It’s cool to have fun but at a certain point you have to buckle down and watch film, watch your opponents, watch yourself.”
It’s been a confusing start, as almost all would admit. And Pistons president Joe Dumars is likely reassessing the construction of the roster, considering its needs of shot creating and outside shooting.
“We’re not soft. We just didn’t bring the hard hat tonight,” Smith said. “I don’t know what it is, I can’t put my finger on it. We have to be able to play, no matter the opponent, with a sense of urgency and toughness. We didn’t do it.”
With 41 games left, the answer had better come soon — or a season that began with expectations will finish with another disappointment.